Force India started 2015 in trouble. According to Auto Motor und Sport correspondent Michael Schmidt, the team in fact missed the first winter test in Jerez because they had, “no chassis, no fuel tank, no engine, no gearbox and no wind tunnel time” all due to a financial crisis.
Unconfirmed stories later emerged that the new 2015 chassis, which had been subcontracted out for fabrication due to problems with Force India’s machinery, had been retained by the supplier who was awaiting payment. The bankruptcy of the Marussia F1 team had caused nervousness amongst other smaller team suppliers.
Force India were forced to go cap in hand to Bernie Ecclestone for an advance on their 2014 ‘prize’ money. Ecclestone withholds the performance payments from the previous season and pays them to the teams between April and November.
The resulting first 7 races of last season were pretty much a disaster for Force India who, following Canada, languished down in 7th place with a paltry 21 points. The team was in effect competing with a 2014 car with the minimal regulatory required modifications for 2015.
Then everything changed. The “actual” 2015 car was released and over the coming weeks the optimisation of this chassis together with aero upgrades saw the Silverstone team score in all but one of races 8–19. In 7 of those 12 GP’s, the haul of points was in solid double digits and Force India ended the season in a best ever P5 with 136pts, just 51 behind Red Bull Racing.
We are now 6 races in the 2016 season and Force India are P5 in the constructors table with 36 points. That said, two thirds of those points were claimed last time out in Monaco with Sergio Pérez claiming the third step of the podium and Nico Hülkenberg coming home in P6. Given the comparative starts from 2015 and 2016, it could be argued that the Silverstone based team are in better shape now than this time last year — but news earlier this week was in fact disheartening for Force India fans.
With the 2017 regulations pretty much finalised, the team’s deputy principal Bob Fernley believes it will soon be time for the Force India engineers to switch their attention to next year’s car. “I think our technical team is experienced enough to determine when the switch-over is,” Fernley told Jonathan Noble adding, “It will be sooner rather than later.”
Despite claiming that retaining P5 this year was the primary goal for his team, Fernley’s comments mean the fundamentals of the VJM09 are now complete and further developments will be found from peripheral tuning of the chassis and aerodynamics.
Finance has been a perpetual issue for Force India over the past 3 years, since they were forced to survive on sponsorship, appearance and prize monies rather than the largesse from team owners Vijay Mallya and Subrata Roy. Pending lawsuits back in India meant both the billionaires’ cash flows had dried up rather quickly and Mallya has suffered the ignominy of having a number of his family’s assets seized by the Indian authorities.
Further, Vijay Mallya was accused last year by Diageo of ‘improperly advancing funds’ prior to selling them his liquor business, United Spirits. A settlement was agreed between both parties in February this year and part of the deal at least means Force India will receive £11m a year until 2020 from the Diageo brand Smirnoff. The arrangement also saw Mallya agree to Diageo’s demand that he step down from the USL board and for his ‘co-operation’ Vijay was reportedly awarded around £50m. All this means for now the ‘Bernie begging bowl’ has not been placed outside the factory gates at Silverstone.
The FIA have increased their vigilance in monitoring the tyre pressures used by teams this year and at the Monaco GP rolled out a new data logging system which allows the FIA to continually monitor tyre pressure in an attempt to spot any ‘dirty tricks’. It has been suggested that Force India have been hurt more than some by the new tyre pressure regulations that ensure higher pressures are now being run. In addition, Pérez’ comments on moving to a ‘top team’ following his podium in Monaco will hardly inspire Force India fans with confidence.
At present Force India are probably punching above their weight in the constructors’ championship, but with Toro Rosso, big spending McLaren and Haas F1 close on their heels, Force India will do well in the long term to retain their current place in the pecking order. This weekend in Canada will be crucial to understand whether the Silverstone team has any hope of holding off the competition or whether their season is about to take a sharp nose dive.
Though for now, the Silverstone based team’s owner Vijay Mallya remains positive: “The Monaco performance means we come to Canada full of confidence. The 23 points we claimed in Monaco lifted us to fifth place in the championship. I’ve been saying all season that our luck needs to change and I hope that Monaco represents a turning point. We now have some momentum and I believe we can push on and keep racking up the points in the races to come. Montreal should play to our strengths and I’m feeling optimistic that we can get both cars well inside the top ten in qualifying and the race.”