Force India driver Esteban Ocon has defended his "best mate" Lance Stroll after the Canadian received negative attention on social media for taking Ocon's place on the grid next year.
Although it has not been confirmed by Force India, Stroll is expected to replace Ocon next year now that the team is owned by his father Lawrence Stroll. Combined with a turbulent driver market, the move is expected to leave Ocon without a drive in 2019 despite a series of strong performances this season.
Accusations of nepotism have been angled at the Strolls by some fans on social media, but Ocon says the comments are unfair and do not fairly reflect the situation.
After posting a photo to Instagram of the two drivers in a private jet on the way to this weekend's Russian Grand Prix, Ocon said he wanted to try to put an end to the negative comments aimed at Stroll.
"I did that because Lance is my best mate in the paddock, and we have a great relationship for a long time," he said. "What's happening, people took it like as if it was his fault, but it was not his fault or anything. He's working hard, as much as I do, to be in F1.
"In F1 everyone is working hard to be here. It's not an easy world. Of course we come from a different background, but inside, we have the same motivation, and we have the same passion for the sport. So I wanted to share that with everyone and to just see all the hate I saw on social media, it's not normal. I think it's better to show your support more than hate."
Ocon admitted his only remaining option for a drive in 2019 is now with Williams -- the team Stroll will leave to join Force India. But Mercedes, which has Ocon under contract, is expected to push for its other junior driver George Russell go to the British team rather than Ocon. The perceived wisdom is that Russell will benefit more from a year at Williams while it would be seen as a step backwards for Ocon.
"There are talks with Williams obviously," Ocon said. "Yeah, the talks are there, but no, I can't say it would be a downgrade. Williams is a great team.
"They have been world champions in the past, they have been fighting with us hard last year, and they're having tough times, but all teams have tough times. So no, I disagree [it would be a step backwards]." The only other option appears to be a season as a Mercedes reserve driver and Ocon says he would not be interested in a sabbatical year in another series.
"At the moment, the only thing I see is Formula One and it is not true I will be on the bench yet. Of course there is nothing signed yet, I don't have a contract. We will see how things evolve. For the moment, for 2019, what I want is to come back. If that's not the case, if I'm not racing in '19, I want to come back in '20."