Lewis Hamilton says 'exceptional' Esteban Ocon has to be on grid in 2019

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium -- Esteban Ocon's career-best qualifying performance came at a crucial moment in his 2018 season, with his future beyond this point uncertain.

The Force India driver -- who will start the Belgian Grand Prix from third on the grid -- looks likely to be the biggest loser from his team's recent purchase by Lawrence Stroll, with the Canadian billionaire's son set to replace him next year, while Sergio Perez appears set to be retained into 2019. Daniel Ricciardo's shock move to Renault blocked what had looked like being Ocon's most likely destination ahead of the summer break -- Mercedes boss Toto Wolff had been working hard on a deal for his junior driver during the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend.

That process is still ongoing, with Wolff trying to find his next step.

When asked if Ocon could be in a different car as early as next weekend, amid rumours of a switch to McLaren ahead of the Italian Grand Prix, Wolff said: "There's a lot of discussion going on at the moment. But it is not down to one party deciding a movement, but you need to put in place several chess figures. That isn't clear yet."

Wolff believes Ocon has the potential to become one of Formula One's biggest stars.

"I have no doubt that Esteban Ocon will win races and compete for championships in the future. We have seen the talent today again. Generally I must say that the performance of Force India and also Checo [Perez] is impressive.

"We thought his future was clear around Budapest but it all changed in 48 hours. But it is what it is, it makes no sense to complain. I think Renault having secured Ricciardo has made a coup for the team. It's a no-brainer when you have such a calibre of driver that you have to go for it.

"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 is a lot of interest out there and it's just a case of scanning the market in the next few days to find the right option for him and for the team. But I'm very optimistic for his future."

Praise from rivals

The Frenchman helped Force India capture a remarkable result in Belgium on Saturday, locking out the second row of the grid with Perez as a rain shower hit Q3. His performance earned plaudits from the two men who finished ahead of him, championship contenders Lewis Hamilton -- a man Ocon hopes to partner one day at Mercedes -- and Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton said the uncertainty over Ocon's future shows a flaw with modern F1.

"I've always been a supporter of Esteban. I think, how he conducts himself and how he performs on track is exceptional and unfortunately we're in a weird place in Formula One where you've got some teams that, rather than take a new up-and-coming kid, they'll take whoever's got the moment, which means the structure of the sport is probably wrong, and how the funds are distributed, or whatever it is.

"I also know, once I'd signed, once Sebastian had signed, things start to fall into place, and you've got to be and you've got to be super-super quick, and make sure you've got good management, so they're sharp and make sure they do their diligence and they're ready to quick-fire in the right direction. I've not read of who's signed where and what seats are available but he needs to be in a great car because he's one of the top drivers here so I hope that opportunity is there for him."

Vettel and Ocon were seen discussing the Frenchman's future on TV after qualifying, with the Force India driver telling the four-time world champion of his situation. Vettel wants to see Ocon stay on the grid next year.

"Well, I think from the outside it's always difficult to judge but I think he's doing everything right," Vettel said. "I think it's very good for him to get this qualifying session under the belt and get the car in P3 where it doesn't belong. I think that shows enough. Also, in a session like that where it can be quite chaotic and you can easily do a mistake, to keep your head together was crucial. That's what he did.

"Then, I think, unfortunately it's our times, a new guy comes in and he's the superhero, then another guys comes in and he's the superhero, then another guy comes in and then he's the superhero, and then another guy comes in and he's the new superhero."

"And by that time, the first guy is easily forgotten, even though he's doing a very, very good job but not really considered any more, as in talked about and written about, so that's why I think it's good for him to have this result today, and he should get mentioned. Yeah, I think it's his day and obviously for us, you sort-of expect to be there. We've got the cars and the consistency but, as I said, whatever the car is called he's driving now, it doesn't belong in P3 and he managed to do so, so well done, that should also be considered for someone signing him next year.