Renault Formula 1 drivers Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg admit they were surprised to see Force India dominate the midfield battle in qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
The Silverstone-based picked up just one point in the first three races of 2018 - but its VJM11 was a standout in Baku qualifying, with both Esteban Ocon in seventh place and Sergio Perez in eighth more than half a second on the team's nearest midfield rival Hulkenberg in Q3.
Baku has been one of Force India's best venues since the street track's arrival on the calendar, with Perez claiming a podium in 2016 and fighting out front with Ocon last year before they collided.
But the Renault duo conceded their rivals' performance on Saturday was still stronger than anticipated.
“I have been surprised - but there is something about that car and that team, and every year here they perform very well,” said Hulkenberg, himself a former Force India driver.
“I don't know if it's just a one-off or if this is the genuine Force India pace.”
Asked whether Force India's pace caught him by surprise, Sainz answered: “Yes and no. No because we know they are very strong in Baku.
“But at the same time the gap is maybe four or five tenths, unfortunately it’s a bit too big. We need to be positive. This is a Force India track, this is not a Renault track.”
Force India's form has been boosted by upgrades, with team COO Otmar Szafnauer confirming the latest VJM11 included new bargeboards and was “the car we should have had in winter testing”.
Both of its drivers were keen to stress that Force India's Saturday showing was not just track-specific, but also a result of the team's progress from the start of the season.
“Although it's a very unique track, you don't really know where you really are, but I think certainly, we put around half a second to the Renaults and the rest of the field - so, massive, massive boost,” said Perez. “It feels like we're making good progress.”
His sentiments were echoed by Ocon, who said: “We knew that this track was going to suit our car that well, but I think it's not only that, we've progressed quite a lot.
“And I hope this weekend is going to be the first one of a great [run of] upcoming races in the future, and that we are going to have that pace, because where we are now is where we want to be.”
Force India's upturn in performance coincided with power unit supplier Mercedes allowing its teams extra mileage with higher-power engine modes, and Hulkenberg reckoned Baku qualifying form showed Mercedes was still top of the engine battle.
“I think that also plays into why they [Force India] are strong,” he said. “I think Williams also, stronger than in previous events, that shows the power unit does have an effect here.”
Perez, for his part, downplayed the impact of the Mercedes software update.
“If there's a track where you're going to feel a benefit on the engine, it's here,” he said. “I think the engine improved a bit, but all the engines are really close, closely matched now.”
Additional reporting by Scott Mitchell