2016 was a breakout year for Force India. The 4th place they achieved in the Constructors Championship defied expectation and asserted that results can still be claimed against the flow of cash in Formula One. Holding onto 4th, or even bettering the result with 3rd in the Constructors is a massive ask.
For a team of Force India’s size and resources, to finish in 4th place in the final standings last year was a great sub-plot to the 2016 Championship. The VJM09 was a special car. It had the atypical high top speed that the Force India team like to produce, but was also competitive through the slower sectors of the calendar. Where the Force India team have struggled in previous years at places like Monaco, they were able to retain a strong pace. They beat the bigger and better funded Williams team and out developed their Martini sponsored counterparts across the whole season. The VJM09 responded well to upgrades, especially at Barcelona, whereas the FW38 at Williams did not develop well at all. Strong drives from Nico Hulkenburg and Sergio Perez netted the team the biggest points haul in their history, and two stunning podiums from Perez in Monaco and Baku were undoubtedly the highlights. Indeed in Baku, Perez qualified on the front row in 2nd. It was only thanks to a gearbox penalty that he didn’t start there in the race. Perez narrowly missed out on a podium in Brazil to the brilliant Max Verstappen and Hulkenburg was unlucky to not stand on the podium himself in Monaco, Brazil and Spa.
“Many commentators have said we punch well above our weight and to add to that we are world champions for the amount of money spent. It is a huge compliment, it speaks volumes for the passions, creativity and talent of my team and everyone at the factory.”
Vijay Mallya, Force India Team Principal & Owner
For 2017, Hulkenburg has left for Renault. In comes the Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon. Perez stays on and together they form a capable driver pairing. This is only Ocon’s first full season in F1 but his half season with the now defunct Manor team from Spa onwards last year showed he has what it takes, fairing very well against the other Mercedes star Pascal Wehrlein. It will be interesting to see how the French driver squares up against the Mexican. On paper, you wouldn’t expect Ocon to be beating Perez in the inter-team battle, but it’s a good benchmark for a young driver to be measured against. Having good drivers counts for nothing if the car’s a dog, but the VJM10 has clearly impressed Force India personnel early on, as they’ve set their target as 3rd in the Constructors.
“Compared to previous seasons, this is as close to brand new – it is 95% brand new. The philosophy is similar but we are effectively starting from scratch. It was a jigsaw to put together but we have the basis of a car now.”
Andy Green, Force India Technical Director
Mercedes and Red Bull will surely be leading the way and Ferrari’s (so far) strong winter testing would suggest they should be there too and perhaps even Mercedes closest challenger. Staying 4th would be easier for Force India, but not by much. Renault are probably their biggest challengers. The R.S.17, the first real car of the ‘new’ Renault works team looks to be very tidy indeed with great aero and another good PU. Hulkenburg has the speed and Jolyon Palmer’s pace in testing so far has silenced his critics for the moment. the funding gap that Renault will benefit from should allow them to bring a greater amount of parts compared to Force India who remember, have a smaller budget than Williams. Whilst they showed well against Williams in 2016 , staying ahead of a works team is going to be a lot harder.
Then there is McLaren, Haas, Toro Rosso. McLaren may have engine issues but the MCL32 looks to be a very good car aerodynamically, if Pedro De La Rosa isn’t to be believed. The Toro Rosso STR12 is a car that the big teams are worried about due to it looking like it has the potential to cause a major upset. The Haas VF17 has had a very good first week of testing – A lot of laps and at a good pace, leading them to be touted as a bit of a dark horse for this season. Kevin Magnuseen has also joined Romain Grosjean this year, two drivers with a lot of speed who should really be in one of F1’s top teams. In short, Force India may have set their targets a bit too high. If they do finish 3rd then they will be the Leicester City story of F1, embarrassing the top three with their infinite budgets. This is potentially the biggest season in Force India’s history, they are on the perceived ceiling of what a midfield team should be able to do, so to go one better would shatter expectations and make a lot of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull accountants sweat.