Suggestions that Esteban Ocon collided with Max Verstappen on purpose at the Brazilian Grand Prix have been labelled as “conspiracy theories” by Force India team principal Otmar Szafnauer.
The controversial on-track collision occurred as Ocon attempted to unlap himself from race leader Verstappen on lap 44 of the race. Ocon was on fresher tyres and was entitled to try to pass Verstappen safely, but the clumsy manoeuvre saw both drivers spin out and was met with a stop-go penalty from the stewards.
It was also met with unbridled anger from Verstappen, who tracked Ocon down after the race and shoved him repeatedly as he queued to be weighed in the FIA garage.
Red Bull’s motorsport advisor Helmut Marko pointed to Ocon’s affiliation with Mercedes as a motive for the collision as it also allowed Lewis Hamilton to take the lead of the race and secure victory. Marko believes Ocon has been promised a 2020 drive with the world champions to replace Valtteri Bottas and was acting in the interests of his future team — a suggestion Ocon’s current team boss Szafnauer denies.
“That’s a conspiracy theory and I doubt a racing driver is thinking about his drive for 2020 with what he does today — absolutely not,” Szafnauer said in response. “Esteban came on the radio and said can I unlap myself because I am quicker and we said yes go ahead. That’s it.”
Asked if it was necessary for Ocon to unlap himself, Szafnauer said his driver was trying to make the most of his fresh tyres.
“At that point he had a tyre advantage and we probably would have had a tyre advantage for five, six, seven, eight laps,” he said. “Whatever Max was doing to gently bring his tyres in, we didn’t need to do that.
“At six laps with a half-second tyre advantage, that’s three seconds. We were racing other people and can’t get stuck even though it is behind the race leader. So yes we had to do it. In our race we had to do it.”
Ocon apologised to Verstappen in an Instagram post on Sunday evening and tried to offer an explanation for his move.
“I’m very sorry for Max, crashing with a lapped car should never happen, it was his race to win,” he wrote. “But on my side I got told to unlap myself as I was quicker on a fresh set, and it was not an option to lift in the straight line. It is an unfortunate incident and of course we don’t want to see those things happen.”
He also tweeted images of him passing Fernando Alonso on the same piece of track without colliding.
I respect the FIA’s decision but just to be clear, if you are faster you are allowed to unlap yourself. I overtook 7 times into turn 2 this race it was always tight, but always fair… #EO31 #brazilgp #swipe⬅️ pic.twitter.com/UrmujIj09Q
— Esteban Ocon (@OconEsteban) November 11, 2018