After a year away from Formula 1 in 2019, Esteban Ocon returned with Renault - now Alpine - in 2020 and struggled in the early part of the season in comparison to his teammate Daniel Ricciardo. However, the Frenchman believes he and team were close to something special as the year drew to a close.
Ocon was forced out of the sport when Lawrence Stroll took over at Racing Point and promoted his son Lance Stroll into the team alongside Sergio Perez. However, backed by Mercedes boss Toto Wollf, the Frenchman landed a seat at Renault but admits it took him a while to settle.
"Early on, I was trying to sort my driving out, and sort everything I was doing on track," Ocon told Motorsport.com. "And unfortunately in Formula 1, you gain more time by working closer with your engineers and working more on the car because, in the end, that’s going to give you the confidence. The driving is then going to come with it."
After coming to this realisation, results started to pick up and the 24-year-old soon claimed his first podium finish at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix.
"We were experimenting more and more on my side than we were earlier in the year," he continued. "I feel that we did a lot better later in the year, and I was happier with the car. I was happier with the car in Bahrain than I was the whole season.
"That’s where the car felt very strong. I think we were touching the finger on something, and it was definitely the right way and the right progression."
It was a year of discovery then for Ocon, who raced with Force India for two seasons before taking on the role of reserve driver for Mercedes in 2019. However, he should be better equipped to hit the ground running in 2021 now that he has adjusted to the different characteristics of the Renault car.
"Overall, the car doesn’t work the same as the Mercedes does, like I drove in testing, or the Force India," Ocon added. "You don’t take the corner the same way, it’s a little bit different. The way of approaching and the way of turning the car, it’s not the same.
"So I’ve had to relearn stuff that I thought was already there. I thought I was going to come back and do the same as I was doing in Force India and get the car sorted for me but it’s not the case. All the cars are different and that is something I’ve learned.
"You need to find the best way to set it up to go faster on the lap and clearly that is something we understood more and more through the year."
The Frenchman can take inspiration from Ricciardo in that sense. After making the switch from Red Bull to Renault, instances of the Australian’s trademark send up the inside were few and far between as he learnt the limits of his new machinery.
But he was able to build on that experience and come back in 2020 a better driver for it. With the impending arrival of Fernando Alonso to the team, Ocon will be hoping he can do something similar in what could be a crucial second season.