* Ocon replaces Hulkenberg alongside Ricciardo
* Deal covers two years
By Abhishek Takle
SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium, Aug 29 (Reuters) - Frenchman Esteban Ocon will return to the Formula One grid next season after signing a deal to drive for Renault, the French manufacturer announced on Thursday.
The 22-year-old Mercedes protege, filling the reserve driver role for the world champions this year, will replace Nico Hulkenberg alongside Australian Daniel Ricciardo as part of a two-year deal keeping him at the team until 2021.
“I am very attached to this team and everyone who works there,” said Ocon, who was their reserve driver in 2016 and part of the team’s junior driver programme when they ran as Lotus under previous ownership.
“They are the ones who opened the doors of top level motorsport for me.”
Ocon, who raced for Force India and then Racing Point after the team was renamed under new ownership in 2017, was set to join Renault last season.
But the highly-rated youngster found himself on the sidelines after Ricciardo decided to leave Red Bull for the Enstone-based team.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, whose team have supported Frenchman’s career, said the German outfit were evaluating all options to facilitate Ocon’s return to a full-time race seat next season.
He was in the frame for a seat alongside five-times world champion Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes.
But the Brackley-based team chose to stick with Valtteri Bottas in a deal announced earlier on Thursday.
Ocon will fulfil his duties as Mercedes’ reserve until the end of this season, a spokesman for the team said.
“He has shown his ability to score points, has great professionalism...” said Renault team principal Cyril Abiteboul.
“Plus his recent experience as reserve driver to the current world champions will be a valuable asset to the development of our entire team.”
Ocon’s signing leaves Hulkenberg out of a drive after three season’s with the team.
His ousting comes during a difficult season for Renault. Fourth in the overall standings last year, they are currently sixth out of 10 teams, two spots behind customer team McLaren.
The German, who has started more races than anyone without finishing on the podium, has been tipped to replace Romain Grosjean at Haas.
But the 24 Hours of Le Mans winner said he was still weighing his options, with continuing in Formula One the priority over a move to another series.
Hulkenberg said he began to suspect he might be dropped with the team dynamic changing after the last race in Hungary.
“I see the team’s point and I accept that decision,” said the 32-year-old. “If I agree with it, that’s a different matter. But that’s just racing, that’s life.” (Reporting by Abhishek Takle; editing by Christian Radnedge and Ken Ferris)