Battling against the ever-rising costs of competing in Formula One, beleaguered Force India enters a crucial phase in coming weeks.
Since 2010, Force India has been a solid fixture of Formula One’s midfield. It has flip-flopped between sixth and seventh in the constructors’ standings, and came within less than 30 points of embarrassing the far-better-funded McLaren using the same Mercedes engine last year – indeed, it was a point ahead with four races remaining but suffered a poor run-in.
Impressive stuff from a team that inherited Lotus’s mantle as the year’s overachiever, and with McLaren ditching its Mercedes engines for new Hondas, surely a top-five finish is on the cards for 2015?
But how times can quickly change in the fickle world of F1…
So what’s the problem?
Not since its pointless 2008 has the former Jordan team looked in such troubles as it is right now. Without being an expert in Indian law or politics, I’ll let you Google its billionaire team owner Vijay Mallya’s current issues, as the ‘King of Good Times’ has had a few tricky ones with his airline recently.
But those pale in comparison with chairman and co-owner Subrata Roy, the Sahara supremo, who is currently in jail.
Against that backdrop, you can understand why there might have been a few cash flow issues when you’re trying to run a Formula One team. If you’re in any doubt about how much that costs, we are talking about an operation that easily consumes northwards of a million dollars a week, especially during the build process of new chassis.
Having already missed the first test completely, admitting to cash flow issues and citing a time-consuming move to using Toyota’s wind tunnel, Force India will attend this week’s Barcelona test with last year’s car. Hardly ideal with the season fast approaching.
As Motorsport.com revealed last week, the new VJM08 won’t make its track debut until the final test, so that’s just four days to shake-out any bugs, which is certainly a handicap and will lean heavily on the structures and processes that have been put in place.
Fortunately, there is continuity in the driver line-up in Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg, and it has undoubted strength in depth, with some great backroom staff. But, let's be clear, this is a team that needs all the help it can get.
A PR own goal or self preservation?
Much was made recently about Force India vetoing Marussia (or Manor, as it will become if it remains on the grid) from using its 2014 car this year, which sparked much anger amongst fans who saw this as one team predating (in the animalistic sense) another. As usual, there are two sides to this story.
In Force India's defense, it saw the injustice of being forced to spend millions on a new car as a rival team – a fellow ‘struggler’ – saved that money by reusing its old cars. It had the first vote on the matter, and surely wouldn’t have been the only team to vote this way.
Formula One is ‘The Piranha Club’ after all, and Marussia’s prize money – should it get divvied out to the struggling teams – would help keep them in business.
In the wider sense, however, a cynic might argue that Force India’s actions could consign it to the back of the grid, and remove one of the few teams it was actually guaranteed of beating…
Banking on Mercedes power
The ace up its sleeve is the Mercedes engine. Without that, Force India would be in far deeper trouble from a performance point of view. But with Lotus also getting that power unit and hybrid system, Force India will need to move forwards to avoid becoming mired in the lower reaches of the dwindling grid, especially if Sauber makes a performance jump with a stronger Ferrari unit, and Renault gets its act together with the Red Bull teams.
Don’t forget, the back of the grid is where Force India was for much of its first season in this guise in 2008, quickly replacing tail-ender Super Aguri after it was forced out of business on financial grounds…
An F1 team can only be as strong as the financial base it is built upon, and don’t think for a moment that Force India is the only team in this leaky boat.
But it’s surrounded by piranhas. And if it starts to sink, it won’t be pretty.