With Mercedes engines, a lengthy focus on 2014 and a strong driver line-up, is this Force India’s best chance?
Force India has been a mainstay of the midfield across the past few seasons. After their shock result at Spa in 2009, the team has spent four years gathering points and flitting between sixth and seventh in the championship. The podium has so far remained an elusive goal during that period but 2014 could be Force India’s opportunity to pull off some giant-killing performances.
Force India has been focusing on 2014 for a long time; development of their 2013 model ceased completely after the Belgian Grand Prix. That decision, allied with the change in Pirelli tyres, cost Force India a genuine shot at fifth place in the championship, which they ceded to McLaren. By the end of the year they slipped behind Sauber and just about fended off the Swiss team. It’s a decision which may reap rewards this year.
“We've had a fruitful winter, helped by the fact that we deployed all of our resources early towards developing the 2014 car,” says chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer.
“That may have impacted on our performance in 2013, but I think it was the right decision.”
In order to improve on 2013 Force India must beat one of Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari, Lotus or McLaren - the teams which have had a stranglehold on the top five since 2010. Force India has nowhere near the budget nor resources of most of those outfits, with Lotus the most likely to fall out of the top echelon.
“We are competing against manufacturer teams with big budgets so you would expect their well-funded research will help them find the optimal solutions," says Szafnauer.
"But you never know: we’ve been focussed on 2014 for a long time and we’re pleased with the car we’ve produced so there’s always an opportunity.”
Force India’s striking new VJM07 – complete with its nose appendage – didn’t run without problems at Jerez. Sergio Pérez's running came to a smoky halt, while Nico Hülkenberg’s sole day in the car came to a premature end. But the final day of running, undertaken by reserve driver Daniel Juncadella, was extremely positive for the team.
Force India is one of four teams supplied by Mercedes power units. They hold the initial advantage after a promising test at Jerez and the team should benefit from their long relationship with Mercedes, especially when you factor in McLaren's impending switch to rivals Honda. Force India has aligned themselves further with Mercedes for this season, with the biggest technical transition for the team being the switch from McLaren to Mercedes gearboxes.
“Initially it's an added complication, but eventually having the engine, gearbox and the entire powertrain come from the same source will benefit us and Mercedes,” says Szafnauer.
“Brackley [where Mercedes's base is situated] is only seven miles away from our factory at Silverstone and that helps if changes need to be made or if there are upgrades. But the benefits are more than just logistical and the fact that the power unit and gearbox come from the same source will help. It's a better solution.”
For the first time in their history Force India has completely shaken up their driver roster. Paul di Resta has departed the sport while stalwart Adrian Sutil has switched to Sauber, paving the way for the return of Hülkenberg and the arrival of Pérez. Both drivers are entering their fourth season in the sport, although their situations are markedly different.
Hülkenberg’s stock continues to rise after a combative end to the 2013 season netted him a top 10 finish in the championship. Strong drives in Italy and Korea were the high points as he enjoyed a series of eye-catching events, linking him with Ferrari and Lotus, before he eventually settled for a return to Force India. It’s somewhat of a step sideways from Sauber for Hülkenberg, who rejoins the team with which he raced in 2012, but that team principal Vijay Mallya had no hesitation in re-hiring the German shows how he is rated by the team. "We know how quick he is," says Mallya.
Hulkenberg's year away at Sauber has allowed him to witness the improvements made by Force India.
"I think the team has grown. You can see when I came back to the factory first, the infrastructure has changed,” he says.
"There are more people as well and the team is growing, so it is a good signal.”
Expectations will be high for the German, who will be keen to show that the leading teams made a mistake by passing him over. He’s a popular driver due to his prestigious speed, personality and determination to drive a team forwards; choosing the #27 will only aid his cause! The only fear is that his height disadvantage could be exacerbated by the difficulties teams have had in reaching the weight limit.
Pérez, by contrast, is trying to rebuild his reputation at the tender age of 23. In mid-2012 he was Formula 1’s golden boy as giant-killing performances for Sauber left the Ferrari academy driver signed by McLaren. Few expected Pérez to be challenging at the front in 2013, but no-one could have foreseen just how badly his year would pan out. A best of fifth place in India and 11th in the championship meant Pérez was replaced by Kevin Magnussen. McLaren wasn't overly impressed by Pérez’s qualifying speed – he was fairly equal with Jenson Button – while his technical ability was not praised. The decision was made that it would be better to train Magnussen than continue with Pérez. But while dispensing with Pérez was better for both parties, the Mexican did show promise on occasion in 2013 driving a recalcitrant car.
Pérez’s tyre saving ability was in evidence in Bahrain and India, while matters improved later in the year. Ultimately, he wasn’t viewed by the team as a credible future title challenger, especially when McLaren had Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne waiting in the wings. Pérez’s problematic time with McLaren means that he enters 2014 with a diminished reputation, from which he can only rise. If he can beat Hülkenberg, then people will start to take notice again and the perception of his time with McLaren may change.
Mallya is adamant that with Perez and Hulkenberg on board, Force India can move up the grid.
"We’ve got to aim higher than last year," he says. "It’s an ambitious goal, but I believe it’s a realistic one because we have to look forward and take the fight to the teams ahead of us. We have the key elements in place to continue moving forward, such as our expanded agreement with Mercedes. Combined with our strong driver line-up there is definitely the potential for 2014 to be our strongest season yet."
With Mercedes having established a good baseline at Jerez, their customer teams will be able to focus more on performance at the next test in Bahrain, which begins on Wednesday. Perhaps then Force India will have a better idea of where they will sit on the grid in Australia. But the ingredients are there for the Silverstone based team to be leading the midfield and climb onto the podium. Perhaps, if the stars align, it could even be the top step.