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ANALYSIS – F1 2014 THE STORY SO FAR: Force India

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ANALYSIS – F1 2014 THE STORY SO FAR: Force India
Apr 27, 2014, 10:42 AM

With the first four ‘flyaway’ Grands Prix out of the way, it's a good time to assess the start each team has made to the season and look at how...

With the first four ‘flyaway’ Grands Prix out of the way, it's a good time to assess the start each team has made to the season and look at how each team has fared so far with the new hybrid turbo technology.

Over the next week or so, we will look in detail and what's gone well and what hasn't and assess the outlook for the season.

And the subject of the fourth in our series of post ‘flyaway’ analysis pieces is a team that has enjoyed its best start to a season since the days, many moons ago, when it was called Jordan.

Force India

Best result: P3 (Perez, Bahrain)

Best grid slot: 4th (Perez, Bahrain)

Average grid slot: 10th.

Retirements: 0 
(1 DNS, Perez Malaysia)

Constructors Championship: 3rd

Drivers' Championship: P10 Perez, 18pts; P4 Hulkenberg 36pts

Fastest race lap, gap to pace setter

Australia: +0.732s

Malaysia: +2.916s

Bahrain: +1.765s

China: +1.862

What's gone right?

Judging by the lofty position the team currently occupies in the Constructors’ Championship - 3rd - clearly quite a lot. Back in February Deputy Team Principal Bob Fernley said “It will be engine-dominated this year and the biggest differential for teams would be who got the right engine and at the right time” and as the opening races of the season have unfolded it has become clear that Force India’s decision last year to switch its focus to 2014 early and work on maximizing the potential of the Mercedes power unit has paid off.

It wasn’t a totally smooth run, however, and even in testing the team struggled with integration of the new power unit, but as the mileage stacked up so did the team’s performance with Nico Hulkenberg topping the timesheets on day one of the first Bahrain test and Sergio Perez going quickest on the first two days of the final Bahrain test.

They have improved on their end-of-testing status as the second best Mercedes customer team (after Williams) across the first four grands prix. Hulkenberg grabbed a solid sixth in Melbourne and in Malaysia the team converted a two-stop strategy into fifth place for the German. On both occasions he was involved in a tough battles with Fernando Alonso and in tussling with the two-time champion once again showed that he is one of the grid’s unsung heroes – even though his failing tyres prevented him sustaining the battle against Alonso in Speang. Another very solid fifth followed in Bahrain. Eeven in China, where the team had itself predicted a lackluster weekend, Hulkenberg put in an excellent performance, qualifying eighth in the rain and

Perez’s opening races were troubled (a collision and puncture in Melbourne and a failure to start the race in Malaysia) but he delivered an excellent drive in Bahrain, with perfectly executed strategy creating the chance, to hold off Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo for just long enough to claim the team’s first podium finish since Belgium 2009.

What's gone wrong?

Not a lot. The Chinese Grand Prix revealed the shortcomings of the VJM07 with the front-limited nature of the circuit affecting both drivers badly. It’s a problem Fernley expects to crop up again, too.

“[Shanghai is] a very front-limited circuit and it just doesn't quite fit in to the way we operate the car,” he said after the race in China. “This circuit is very specific in being a challenge to us, whereas Bahrain is exactly the opposite. So you're talking two ends of the spectrum: one suits the car really well and other doesn't fit for us. At our best circuits we are podium potential and at our worst circuits we're looking at being top six, and that is the consistency we need to put on a strong challenge from a constructors' point of view.”

That means that the team could also struggle at tracks such as the Circuit de Catalunya.

Strong points of the team and car

They have an excellent driver pairing in Hulkenberg and Perez. The Mexican’s reputation took a battering during his year at McLaren but he is highly motivated to prove doubters wrong and Fernley is convinced that the experience has made Perez a better racer. “I thought that the last six months that he was with McLaren he matured well. He still had that aggressive touch but it was contained. [In] the second six months he was very measured in the way he approached things and had great success in terms of what he was doing driving-wise. I believe that, again, we have benefited from the McLaren process.”

Hulkenberg’s tally for the season tells its own story – fourth in the Drivers’ Championship and with 36 points in the bag. The German’s quality and consistency is a major asset.

Elsewhere, perhaps the major strength of Force India is its compactness. There are few distractions beyond making a good racing car, the personnel are experience enough to know how to get that done and as long as the resources are there to back them up they will get it done.

After ending its technical partnership with McLaren, the team also has a long-term agreement with Mercedes for power units, gearboxes and hydraulics that according to Toto Wolff would see Force India through the entire lifecycle of the V6.

Weak points of the team and the car

At the moment it looks like there are few genuine weak points. If anything the VJM07 began the season as a relatively conservative package but the team’s Technical Director Andy Green recently revealed that that situation won’t last with the China package of upgrades to be followed by more in Barcelona and more in Canada, where a new cooling layout is scheduled along with revised and tighter bodywork. In short, they’ve built a decent car and have plenty of scope to develop it.

Where do they go from here?

The team has brought a steady flow of upgrades so far, including the introduction of FRIC suspension, a revised rear diffuser, split bargeboards, modifications to the rear wing  and new more tightly sculpted sidepods but it remains to be seen whether it can sustain development of the car across the whole season. They team says it can and if they can maintain the impetus then there is a good chance they will reach their stated goal of being best of the rest.

Certainly the sunny early season the team has been enjoying is the period in which to make hay. While the fortunes of their usual midfield rivals such as Sauber and Toro Rosso ebb and flow, and while generally better performing rivals flounder the Silverstone squad can prosper, shoring up enough points to see them through any lean patches that may develop as the season progresses.

There’s no reason for that to be the target though. The Mercedes power unit, the team’s assiduous preparations and the presence of one driver of undervalued skill and another with a huge point to prove means they have the ability to battle for at least fourth in the Constructors’ battle – as long as they have the wherewithal to do so. In recent seasons they have performed well in end of season races, showing that they can develop a car.

Overall Marks out of 10

Force India – 8/10

Nico Hulkenberg - 8/10

Sergio Perez – 7/10

How many marks out of ten do you give Force India so far? Leave us your comments on this post in the comments section below.

 
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