Joe examines the triumph and the tragedy of the Force India Formula 1 team...
I’m big fan of Force India. I think it’s a team that’s run effectively and intelligently, and achieves results that are far more impressive than a number of teams that have much bigger budgets. Force India, quite simply, provides a better bang for buck! Or to put that into more analytical terms, it produces more World Championship points per dollar than its rivals. How? The primary thing is that it has the right engine and has a deal to use the same drivetrain as the factory Mercedes team. The rest is down to good design and good engineering. We’re nearly halfway through the World Championship and Force India is fifth in the Constructors’ Championship, and in recent weeks has been doing a lot better than Williams – its primary competitor – in fourth place. There’s no chance of going above fourth this year because of the might of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, but Force India is ahead of Toro Rosso, McLaren, Haas and Renault – all teams which should be doing better than they are.
What is perhaps the most impressive thing is that this is being achieved at a time when the team ought not to be doing well. Its ownership situation is dire, and the money supply always a bit of a worry. But, at the moment, it works.
At the British Grand Prix, the Formula 1 circus was treated to the first (and probably last) visit of the year by Vijay Mallya, India’s highest profile person in motor racing – the Force India team principal and part-owner, and the man who sits on the FIA World Motor Sport Council representing India. As I am sure most readers are aware, Mallya is living in the UK and cannot travel because the Indian government has cancelled his passport as he refuses to settle the many problems that he faces with regard to money owed to state banks, and a string of on-going investigations into his business practises. Given that the sums involved are upwards of $1.5 billion, it’s not hard to see why people in India are upset. Mallya says that he will not return to India because he doesn’t think that he’ll be treated fairly, which is a strange thing to say when you’ve treated employees as he did when Kingfisher Airlines collapsed. Claiming that the media is out to get you is never a very strong argument, because there really is no reason why the press would dislike him – except perhaps what some deem as arrogance and smugness.
Of course, in the world of Formula 1 no one much cares about whether things are good or bad for the sport. At Silverstone, he was asked whether he thought his business antics were doing the sport any harm. He said that no one had ever accused him of doing the sport any damage before, and then went on irrelevantly about how he had been a businessman for a long time – until the eyes of everyone present glazed over, and he was able to escape to another question. Waffle is not really of much use to anyone, and, sadly, I fear that there are talks behind the scenes because F1 doesn’t wish to have Mallya in the forefront of its activities.
The sad thing, of course, is that he has done great things with Force India. He may not be doing it all himself, but he has chosen good people – and they’re punching way above the weight that the team should have. The budget is just about there, with FOM prize money and a sizeable contribution from Sergio Perez’s sponsors from Mexico. It’s hard to know whether or not the money from Smirnoff has been coming in, but as it’s on the car one must assume it has. And one must also suppose similar things about the Sahara group, despite the fact that Mallya’s partner in the team, Subrata Roy, had been in jail for more than two years until recently – and has needed all his money to pay a startlingly-huge bail. The less said about him the better...
On the track, however, Force India has been going great guns – thanks to the team of people under Chief Operating Officer Otmar Szafnauer, technical director Andrew Green, and sporting director Andy Stevenson. Like many F1 teams these days, the flag under which they operate doesn’t really give an indication of the staff involved. Force India is not very Indian, but that doesn’t really matter. It could be sold and next week would become Austrian, Panamanian, or whatever. Nonetheless, for now it has the Indian tag and I hope that it gives Indians a sense of pride. It would be great if the sport could have a bigger following in India, and a sustainable Grand Prix – but, for the moment, this is not the case. It will come.
According to the National Council of Applied Economic Research in Delhi, the number of Indians who will be deemed ‘middle class’ will double between now and 2025-26, and will include 547-million people. F1 tickets may still be expensive, but they will become a possibility for those who are enthused by automobile racing. I have no idea whether Force India will still be around by then, but I hope it is. Mallya is perhaps not the man to lead it, given the mess he has created, but one cannot take away the fact that he made it happen. The only fear is that the tangle of trouble that surrounds the team owners will combine to destroy it before India is really ready for F1. The F1 teams of today consume money at a shocking rate, and if the money stops coming it doesn’t take long before things collapse.
Given his record with Kingfisher Airlines, Mallya is perhaps not best-qualified to lead the team out of such a situation. A team is worth what someone will pay for it, and while there are people out there who are willing to buy F1 teams, they do need things to be simple and clear before they commit large sums of money. So there’s always the possibility that teams will unravel (as Caterham did, for instance) rather than being passed on to someone else.
Joe Saward has been covering Formula 1 full-time for 28 years. He has not missed a race since 1988.