With the launch of his Force India team's second generation car, VJM02, Vijay Mallya has set his goals high. Not only is he planning to stay around for the long term -- the previous incarnations of the team, Midland F1 and Spyker F1, only lasted a season each -- but he is aiming for the top.
"I would not be happy if we didn't show some much improved, and much needed, performance," said Mallya at the launch. "What we really set out to do over the winter was to put in place structures, procedures and partnerships that would give improvement, but crucially, no excuses. I would like to see a strong start, rising to points mid-season and a definite improvement in qualifying. Regular points finishes should be the aim."
The team has its hoped pinned on a new drivetrain package (engine, gearbox, hydraulics and the KERS system) from McLaren, something that will surely be a strong point for the team, but is also a potential risk, as the team has had little time to complete the integration of the McLaren systems into the new chassis, let alone perform testing.
The deal between Force India and McLaren was not finalized until 10 November 2008, leaving the team less than four months to adapt their design to the new powertrain. And as a small independent team, Force India doesn't have anywhere near the engineering resources of McLaren -- or BMW, Ferrari or Renault.
"Adapting to a new engine and gearbox is not actually fundamentally difficult," explained Mark Smith, the team's recently-appointed design director. "The biggest factor has been the timeframe we have worked with. We had got a fair way down the line with our 2009 plans at that point and then had to adapt them to the new suppliers. Normally you would have started in August, so we have had to compress everything into five months. Everyone has really worked hard to make it work and we've got a potentially better package, so the change has been a positive rather than a negative."
The change from the Ferrari engine to the McLaren was not just a matter of changing engine mounts, as many fundamental design parameters had to be adjusted in a short time.
"We had to adapt our plans fairly significantly," Smith recalled. "It's not just a case of getting the new parts and installing them; when we changed the gearbox, it had slightly different suspension mountings and when we changed the rear suspension there was a necessary change on the front. Other areas subject to change were the fuel cell, and the cooling system. All have been challenges in their own right, but not day and night differences as you've seen on the aero side."
And, indeed, the new-for-2009 F1 regulations doubled the team's challenge. The new aerodynamics dictated major changes, but the late decision on the powertrain has prevented the team from taking part in the early off-season test sessions, leaving major aerodynamic changes to be evaluated in a short period of time.
"The aerodynamic regulations are completely different this year, to the point where we are almost starting from a blank sheet of paper," James Key, the team's technical director, reflected on the new aerodynamic design. "The bodywork is now much more like a 'jelly mould', that is there are no elements hanging off the bodywork, so no bargeboards, chimneys, louvre panels or any 'add-on' devices that manipulate the flow of air over the car. All the bodywork must comply to a set of 75mm radii so the VJM02 has a much more curved, clean profile compared to 2008. Of course the lack of these outlet devices and the changes on the rear has had a fundamental impact on the cooling of the car. Now there are only two cooling exits, and the air has to exit via the rear of the bodywork just ahead of the rear wheel centreline."
"The diffuser is lower, wider and further back on the car," he continued. "The second more obvious difference from 2008 is that the rear wing is a lot higher and narrower. The maximum width of the wing is 25% smaller with only two wing elements. It's now a lot more aligned with the rear diffuser so it's more difficult to get them to interact compared to 2008."
The team performed a private shake-down test on Wednesday, and is now in Jerez for the first test with other teams. The hope is to get good aerodynamic and handling feedback from the public test, enabling the team to assess the feedback and then make adjustments in time for the next test in Barcelona, on 9-12 March. In total the team expects eight days of testing, plus two private shakedown days, the second one at Silverstone just before Melbourne.
Critical for taking advantage of the limited test time remaining will be mechanical reliability. The proven McLaren package will help in this regard, but the integration will be the risk area. The change to slick tires will add another element of the unknown into the mix, but should not impact reliability.
However, KERS is a far different thing, and even with the team having the use of the McLaren unit, the fact is that not even McLaren will have it fully sorted out yet. As a result, it's likely that the team will focus on the base package for now, with the introduction of KERS likely coinciding with the first European round of the championship, the Spanish Grand Prix on the second weekend of May.
"I think this year is maybe the biggest change for many years, with KERS, slick tyres, downforce and new aero rules, so it's very exciting," Giancarlo Fisichella summed things up. "It would be good to see all the teams mixed up and to be able to fight for points. If the car is good, why not even for the podium?"
Still, Fisichella's long experience -- he's one of the few drivers in the field who predate the grooved-tire era -- is unlikely to give Force India a huge advantage as the grooves disappear for good.
"I drove with (slicks) back in 1997 and they were completely different compounds used with completely different cars and engines," Fisichella downplayed his experience. "In the 12 years since then the cars and the tyres have evolved so much you cant really compare the two periods. I don't think there will be much of an advantage having driven on them before."
Meanwhile, his teammate Adrian Sutil is entering his third year with the team, and second as a race driver. He's looking to combine his growing maturity with the team's development efforts to move forward in the field.
"I think I have matured a lot in the last three years and having Giancarlo as a team mate last season really did help me," said Sutil. "Before I did have good race drivers with me, but they were not race winners. Giancarlo is a strong driver, he won races and finished on the podium a lot of times, so it was a real challenge for me to be against him. I had a few problems at the beginning of last year with the car and also adapting to the 2008 regulations and Giancarlo was doing much better. I could pick up a lot from him then -- from his style, his way of working with the tyres, looking at data and so on. Now I think if I have to race against other experienced drivers, I will feel stronger mentally."
"The teams seem to be a bit more mixed," he continued. "Some of the stronger teams last year have had problems in testing, some are really quick, so I think there is a change in the field. For everyone it's a really big challenge and it's good for the sport -- it will make it very interesting."
Two hungry drivers, a strong drivetrain package, a committed owner -- and the Formula One pack shuffled with the major rule changes for the year. Force India could indeed surprise this year, but there is no doubt that it all has to come together quickly for the team.
However, one thing is for certain: a stronger, stable Force India team will be good for everyone in the sport.