By Alan Baldwin
SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (Reuters) – Esteban Ocon celebrated the best qualifying of his Formula One career at the Belgian Grand Prix on Saturday but indicated he had no future at Force India under the team’s new owners.
The 21-year-old Frenchman, a Mercedes protege, qualified a stunning third only days after struggling Force India were rescued from administration by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll.
Stroll’s 19-year-old son Lance drives for Williams and is expected to join his father’s team, with some speculating that could happen as soon as next week’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
Ocon was heard on television after qualifying, in an aside reported by the motorsport.com website, telling Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel that Stroll was set to replace him at Force India.
“The seat is taken,” the Frenchman told Vettel when asked whether he would be with the team next year.
“Have a guess. The one who bought it,” added Ocon when Vettel wanted to know by whom.
“Yes, but the other one (seat),” said Vettel, referring to Ocon’s Mexican team mate Sergio Perez, who qualified fourth on Saturday.
“The other one brings money,” replied Ocon.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said he was confident the Frenchman’s future would be resolved.
“I have no doubt that Esteban Ocon will win races and compete for championships in the future,” he told reporters. “We have seen the talent today again.
“We thought his future was clear around Budapest (in July) and it all changed within 48 hours but it is how it is. It makes no sense to complain… how things panned out was unfortunate for Esteban.
“We will continue to help him in finding a short-term solution for him to drive.
“There’s a lot of interest (in him) out there and it’s just a matter of scanning the market in the next few days to choose the right option for him and the team. But I’m very optimistic for his future.”
Ocon had been set to switch to Renault until Australian Daniel Ricciardo scuppered that move by deciding to leave Red Bull and take up the French manufacturer’s offer for 2019.
Ocon, who is in his second full season with Force India and has yet to finish on the podium, told reporters he did not know where he would be next year.
Mercedes’ world champion Lewis Hamilton said Formula One was in “a weird place” if a driver like Ocon risked being left without a drive.
“The best drivers need to be in the best car. You can’t let somebody who’s got more money leapfrog a better driver. It shouldn’t happen,” added the Briton.
“I don’t know what his options are. In some ways, I wish I was managing (him) and maybe I would be able to help,” said the championship leader, sitting next to the Frenchman post-qualifying.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)