Welcome back to Race Chaser Online’s preview of the 2014 FIA Formula One World Championship! We continue our 11-day journey through the field today with a look at the Force India stable as we continue to lead up to next weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix! Make sure to check Race Chaser Online all season long for all of your stateside-based news from the Formula One world!
March 8, 2014 — Story by RaceChaser open wheel correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Photo courtesy F1 Fanatic — Midfield fixture Sahara Force India have yet to burst through to the upper echelon and contest for race victories, but they’ve been an admirable model of consistency as they enter their seventh year of competition under the current ownership from Indian businessman Vijay Mallya.
Since rebranding and revamping from the team formerly known as Spyker F1 in 2008, Force India has progressively moved up the sport’s competitive order. Although they’ve yet to duplicate Giancarlo Fisichella’s lone podium for the team at the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix, the Silverstone-based operation has alternated seventh and sixth place finishes in the Constructors’ Championship since 2010.
The tier system in Formula One has remained relatively unchanged for a handful of seasons, with Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, and McLaren leading the charge for the largest percentage of Grand Prix podiums since 2009. While it may not have the gall the compete for the top spots on the scoring tower every race weekend, Force India hopes that with the coveted manufacturing power of Mercedes, 2014 could be the year they break out of their middle-tier mold and sporadically challenge for podiums or a race victory based not solely on reliability but also on a strong driver lineup.
The Drivers: Force India scored 77 points with the aid of drivers Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil in 2013, the second highest total in team history. Both drivers departed in the offseason, with di Resta leaving F1 completely and Sutil signing with Sauber, but the driver tandem is 2014 is the best Force India has ever fielded.
The duo is led by Mexican Sergio Perez for the 2014 season. Perez’s career started with Sauber, where he matched his highly touted expectations and then some, landing the team on the podium three times in 2012 at Malaysia (a race he almost won if not for a lockup in the closing laps while being chased by Fernando Alonso), Canada, and Italy. His big break seemed to have arrived upon signing with McLaren for 2013, but “Checo” was outperformed by veteran teammate Jenson Button and wound up 11th in the Driver’s Championship, a finish deemed too lowly by his esteemed team despite their myriad struggles to field a competitive machine throughout the year.
At 24, it’s hardly a make or break year for Perez, but it’s no doubt an opportunity he’s capable of seizing. Newcomers to their teams like rookie Kevin Magnussen at McLaren, largely unproven Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado at Lotus, and Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull may have shorter leashes to roam into unsuccessful waters with, so a strong showing at Force India could boost Perez back to the forefront for the top available roster spot—wherever that may open up—in the next season or two.
Right next door on race weekends is German Nico Hulkenberg, who returns to Force India after one season at Sauber. Hulkenberg entered good company alongside Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as one of three drivers since 2005 to win the GP2 Series title in his debut season in 2009, but since then, he has bounced around from Williams to Force India, then to Sauber before winding up back at Force India once more.
Now at 26, the German’s role as a capable point scorer is clear, hauling the 2013 Sauber into the top 5 twice. With better equipment than the Swiss team, he has another chance to shine and bring the car up through the pack just as he has throughout his career. A tally of only three retirements in his last two seasons also bodes well for maximizing possible points come Grand Prix weekend.
The Car: The VJM07 was the first F1 car revealed to the public when the team unveiled images on Twitter in January. Despite resembling an obese narwhal at the front of the car, Force India’s latest design comes closer than any other team to matching last year’s nose, save for the extension that meets the new mandate.
The monocoque is also at the maximum legal height, with a vanity panel bonded on that hides the front of the chassis that is 75mm lower than the previous model. Both the front and rear suspensions are strikingly similar to the VJM06.
Under the bodywork lies the PU106A Hybrid, Mercedes’ stab at the V6 turbocharged engine. Throughout testing, Mercedes emerged as the bonafide top dog in the engine manufacturer fight, proving to be the fastest and most reliable engine available to teams.
As an operation, Mercedes more than doubled the track time of Renault and logged over 7000km more than second place Ferrari.
Force India circled 3975km in testing, with drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez sitting 9th and 11th respectively in overall seat time.
The Challenges: The biggest challenge to Force India comes not from within, but from their competitors’ improvements. By now, the team is firmly set as a perennial midfield contender, far and away from back-makers Caterham and Marussia and clearly a step above Toro Rosso.
Yet, Williams looks to be the most improved team in F1 and competing for points with Sauber and Lotus could be quite an even struggle. Lotus have been absent from the top of the timesheets and have a variety of issues stacked against them, but it’s hard to believe they’ll be kept down all season long. While none of this affects Force India’s machinery, it does mean that a miniscule point margin could make the difference between teams in the final constructors’ standings in this section of the grid.
The Strengths: Excluding teams that field cars for world champions, Force India have the best driver duo of the remaining teams. Perez was too aggressive for his own good at times, running his teammate Jenson Button off the road in Bahrain and controversially clashing with Kimi Raikkonen at Monaco. His status as a heat seeking missile is overblown by his detractors though, and with more experience usually comes more patience and fewer mistakes (see Romain Grojean). In the adjacent garage, the F1 world already knows what Nico Hulkenberg is capable of, and the VJM07 Mercedes looks fast enough to help him replicate those results.
Projected Result: Aside from the tail end of the field, there is plenty of unpredictability in Formula One this season, a welcome adjustment from the recent domination of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing. Williams appears to have made the jump to join the midfielders once again, while Lotus is ailing and McLaren is coming off a down season without a podium. Once the pecking order solidifies by the midway point of the season though, the status quo will return and wildcards such as Force India will likely find themselves where they normally do.
However, this team enters Melbourne with speed and at a distinct advantage over its non-Mercedes rivals. As legendary F1 broadcaster Murray Walker famously said, “anything happens in Grand Prix racing and it usually does,” so don’t be surprised if the same Force India team we project to finish seventh finds its way onto the podium a time or two early in the season. Final Position: 7th.