Ordinarily when Sahara Force India finishes fifth and sixth in a Grand Prix, it’s a massive achievement that is the best possible result for what has clearly become Formula 1’s top midfield team.
Yet in Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix, a clear potential podium was there for the team’s taking, and a massive opportunity was blown.
On the opening stint of the race, Force India ran Esteban Ocon longer into the stint, and got the Frenchman as high as second behind Lewis Hamilton, who dominated from the lead. Ocon was clear of Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas and the question when he pitted was where he would emerge further into the pack.
Once he stopped though, and switched from Pirelli’s ultrasoft tires onto the supersoft tires, Ocon re-emerged behind teammate Perez, which is where it got interesting.
A five-way scrap would develop for the final podium position behind the two Mercedes drivers. Daniel Ricciardo led the way for Red Bull in a slower car and on Pirelli’s hardest compound tires this race, the softs, with Perez on older supersofts and Ocon on newer supersofts.
The two Ferraris, which had fallen back via front wing (Sebastian Vettel) and braking (Kimi Raikkonen) issues instead used their deficit to their advantage, opting to go onto a two-stop strategy and switch them back from supersofts to ultrasofts.
Ocon appeared quicker than Perez but at no point was able to get by him for position in an effort to hunt down Ricciardo for third. Perez, himself thinking he had the best shot of the two to get Ricciardo, wouldn’t back down either, and the team didn’t make an outright call to say the two needed to switch positions.
A radio call was put out that strongly hinted, but didn’t outright say, that if Force India switched the two and Ocon was unable to pass Ricciardo, they’d give Perez the position back, which never occurred.
The misstep bit them badly towards the end of the race, and nearly resulted in both cars crashing out.
On the run to Turn 1, Vettel, on the new ultrasofts, had closed right on the back of Ocon, but Perez’s braking line into Turn 1 balked Ocon’s momentum as Vettel darted to the inside. Ocon ran onto the grass and tarmac, saving himself from an incident but losing fifth place to Vettel in the process.
As Vettel got Perez for fourth shortly thereafter, not only had a podium gone begging for Force India, but so too had its fourth and fifth place result.
Both drivers spoke to NBCSN’s Will Buxton after the race. Ocon handled the situation in a diplomatic manner beyond his 20 years, but was clearly miffed at his lost potential podium.
“Yeah, I think so … but that’s racing,” Ocon told Buxton, when asked whether he thought Perez had compromised his race. “But that’s not going to take away my smile. Today what we are achieving as a fantastic team, to be challenging Red Bull, Ferrari and hold up Mercedes, that’s quite impressive!
“So yes, If I had a chance to go to try overtake Daniel I think I could have done it with the pace I had, but it hasn’t been the case, but I but there will be a discussion and we’ll analyze everything before the next race.”
Ocon said his target remains a podium finish this year. He seemed angrier about Perez’s move that nearly collected them into Turn 1.
“I was frustrated more with the move he did which wasn’t fair,” he said. “He did a very late move at high speed which could have taken us both out. It would have been horrible for me and the team and him as well. I’m more frustrated with that, than the actual result.”
As could be expected, Perez saw the situation differently and believed he did no wrong in the race.
“I am proud. It was a very tough race for me. Every single lap I was on DRS to Ricciardo. I had to save brakes. But I was always attacking him, waiting for a mistake,” he told Buxton.
“The main thing to that is, if I give the position to Esteban, we were going to lap some cars ahead. I thought Daniel might hit some traffic. All I needed was two or three tenths to get the opportunity. I saw Daniel was struggling. But my tires were quite old, too. It’s not like I was a second or second and a half behind. I was close. More than 40 or 50 laps I was close to him.”
Of the Turn 1 moment, Perez responded, “I think I just defended the position as I would do. I thought I’d better move and protect the inside line. All I did was try to protect the position.”
Perhaps the most damning question in a good line of them was when Buxton asked Perez whether he was only racing for himself, or for the Force India team.
“Of course I’m racing for my team. And the best I can do is get plenty of points for the team,” Perez replied. “I think once we look back, we will not regret this race. Esteban had 40 or 50 laps chance to overtake me. He wasn’t close at all. I couldn’t have got Ricciardo. He was very strong.”
As it was, Ricciardo got third and Vettel fourth before Perez and Ocon came home fifth and sixth, on a day when more was possible.