By Alan Baldwin
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - French driver Esteban Ocon will race for Force India next season after agreeing a multi-year deal, the Silverstone-based Formula One team said in a statement at the Brazilian Grand Prix on Thursday.
Ocon replaces experienced German Nico Hulkenberg, who is moving to Renault, alongside Mexican Sergio Perez at a team co-owned by Indian tycoon Vijay Mallya and currently fourth in the championship.
The 20-year-old is contracted long-term to Mercedes, Force India's engine provider, and made his debut this year with the lowly Manor team as a mid-season replacement for Indonesian Rio Haryanto.
"I’m still relatively new to Formula One, but spending half a season at Manor Racing has given me some valuable experience and I feel ready for this new opportunity with Sahara Force India," he said.
The Force India announcement leaves only Mercedes-powered Manor with a clear vacancy, although Swiss-based Sauber have yet to confirm Brazilian Felipe Nasr and Sweden's Marcus Ericsson are staying.
Renault confirmed Britain's Jolyon Palmer on Wednesday with Haas set to sign Denmark's Kevin Magnussen.
Ocon's promotion is likely to be seen as a setback for German youngster Pascal Wehrlein, the Frenchman's more experienced Manor team mate and also the Mercedes reserve who scored a point in Austria in July.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff made clear that he saw Ocon as a big talent for the future.
"Esteban has the most impressive track record in junior formulae and he is an exceptional personality outside of the car," he said.
"It is a positive development for Formula One that talent wins over money and we will be seeing some of the most impressive youngsters fighting to make it to the top... over the coming years."
Ocon is one of several youngsters, including Red Bull's Dutch teenager Max Verstappen and Wehrlein, to enter Formula One on talent rather than their financial contribution.
The jury remains out on 18-year-old Canadian Lance Stroll, signed by former champions Williams for 2017, who is a promising talent but whose career has been bankrolled by his billionaire father.
Ocon tested for Force India last year and expected a busy few months ahead.
"It’s something I’ve been working towards my whole life and I intend to grab this opportunity with both hands," he said.
Mallya, whose business difficulties in India mean he is currently unable to leave Britain, said the team had been following Ocon for some time.
"We ran him in the car last year during testing and his performance convinced us that he is more than capable of racing alongside Sergio," he said.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)