Force India’s miracle
A financial struggle, lack of new parts and a change of ownership don’t sound like the ingredients for a success story. But the Force India team performed miracles to not only survive but bounce back on the track. Here’s how
“Andrew Green is a man of few words – he doesn’t talk when he doesn’t need to, but when he talks you listen”
The record books disagree, but Force India finished fifth in the 2018 constructors’ championship with 111 points. Its midseason rebirth as Racing Point Force India thanks to its sale to a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll (it was technically a new entry using the assets of the old one rather than a continuation) robbed it of more than half the points it scored and relegated the team to seventh. But despite spending the first part of the season struggling increasingly desperately for cash, it hung together and again proved why it is probably the best pound-for-pound team in Formula 1.
Exceeding expectations has been Force India’s stock-in-trade for years, clawing its way from the back of the field in 2008 to finish fourth in both ’16 and ’17. But this season it reached a new level in defiance of adversity. With a car that was behind even before the season started, early aerodynamic problems requiring troubleshooting, cashflow problems, upgrades designed that couldn’t be built and, as the first half of the season went on, diminishing stocks of spares, things couldn’t have been less promising.
“It was an incredibly hard year,” says technical director Andy Green. “Things were tighter than they’ve ever been and it was a real challenge to produce a car for the beginning of the season. We had to make a lot of compromises early on and that affected our on-track performance early in the season.
“We were properly on the back foot in winter testing. We didn’t have the car we wanted and it took a while for us to get any sort of development parts that made a significant difference. Once we got some momentum after the first few races, it started to come together. We still weren’t putting updates on the car in anything like the quantity we wanted to, but made good with what we had and got whatever points were available. We were treading water for a while.”
Based heavily on the 2017 Force India VJM10, with the need to integrate the halo requiring a new chassis that consumed significant financial resource, the start-of-season VJM11 was, says Green,
“the minimum amount to get onto the grid”. The performance in Australia was dreadful, Force India’s least competitive weekend of the season, and in the early races the team struggled.
“We had some surface-flow issues around the sidepod and top of the diffuser that didn’t match what we were expecting, and we spent some time getting them on track,” says Green. “There was no point continuing to develop the car in the tunnel and CFD if they were not matching reality. We cleared that relatively early
– we were just waiting for updates.”
The fixes came, but performance updates, of course, were glacially slow in coming. It was not because the design and development work had ceased, but because the team couldn’t afford to manufacture the parts that had been designed. When the car was finally updated for the Singapore Grand Prix in September, it represented three design cycles and a performance step reckoned to be worth in excess of 0.6 seconds. Despite those problems, the first half of the season was surprisingly fruitful. And in the fourth race of the season in Azerbaijan at the end of April, the team’s knack for grabbing unlikely podium finishes yielded third place for Sergio Perez. And there would have been more points had team-mate Esteban Ocon not crashed out after contact with Kimi Raikkonen on the opening lap of the race. A good race set-up, and the fact that the car was at its best on lower-downforce tracks, played a big part in this success.
This period of the season was particularly impressive for Force India, as for some teams the situation could easily have spiralled out of control. But it remained a relatively regular points threat, even though heavily aero-dependent circuits such as Barcelona did starkly expose the weaknesses of the car.
Green himself, who had to hold the technical team together while other squads circled like vultures to recruit key personnel – including, it seems, Green – deserves huge credit for this. Solutions were found to the problems and the best was extracted from an undercooked car.
“Andrew is a man of few words – he doesn’t talk when he doesn’t need to talk, but when he talks you need to listen,” says chief race engineer Tom Mccullough, another key technical player. “The group he’s assembled, the people he’s surrounded himself with, all want to help each other and, ultimately, him as technical director.
“When things are difficult, like at the start of the year when it was last year’s front wing and loads of stuff that wasn’t right, that always hurts your understanding because the car wasn’t developed around that. You expect when you get the right bits, it should sort the problems out but you never know.
“That’s a real strength of the team. Over the past couple of years we’ve had times when the car hasn’t worked as it should do. It’s
very understanding-led and we’re always honest when things don’t go as well as they should have. It’s a matter of cards on the table, and time and again we’ve done this. That culture, and this mentality, helps you to bounce back from those situations.”
Culture is something that is regularly cited as key to Force
India’s success. The lack of politics, all too easily cultivated in big, multi-department teams, is crucial. When it became clear that a new owner was required to give the team a future, holding it together was the key challenge.
Force India went into administration during the Hungarian
Grand Prix weekend in late July and, although there were multiple interested buyers, it required a steady nerve to hang on and wait.
“I tried to insulate them as much as I could and make sure they were focused on making the car go faster,” says Green of the technical team. “Obviously, I had to manage the situation when parts didn’t get to the car, but keep reassuring them we’re going to get out of this, stick with us and we’ll be good. And 99% of the people have because they can see a bright future.
“They could see no-one was going to let a team like us go under – we’ve got too much potential. They were incredible in their dedication, which was unrelenting. It became a bit of a running joke in the design team when things couldn’t get made. We just called it a ‘non-technical issue’ and moved on.”
That paid off, with the team’s future secured over the August break. The rebirth under the ‘Racing Point’ name coincided with Force India’s two most competitive race weekends – Spa and Monza. This was before any of the long-awaited new parts were manufactured; these arrived for the following race in Singapore.
The two cars qualified third and fourth at Spa, and Ocon momentarily threatened to take the lead on the approach to Les Combes as he squeezed alongside Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian
Vettel and Perez. And this was a day after Perez was frustrated that he had missed out on pole position in the wet conditions.
The biggest disappointment of the season was that the team lost ‘virtual’ fourth place to Renault. A few too many points went begging in the second half of the year. Mexico was a disaster, with Perez losing a likely seventh place to a brake failure and Ocon shedding his front wing at the start. To get within 11 points of what Renault scored is a remarkable achievement, and given a normal season Force India would certainly have taken the position.
“The midfield has got more and more competitive this year,” says Mccullough. “The last two years we were fourth quite comprehensively and this year it’s been a much closer fight. We often went to a track with three or four teams, therefore six or eight cars, that you were fighting with to get into Q3. I actually enjoy tighter seasons like this one rather than last year. When you have the fourth-fastest car, it’s relatively easy to finish fourth. But this year, we haven’t had the fourth fastest car for a lot of the year.”
All things considered, it was a remarkable campaign. Force India came out of it with great credit, having stared oblivion in the face, held firm and been rewarded with a bright future. The next challenge is whether the planned expansion to transform it into a top team can happen without throwing away the strength of what is already there.
And even amid the turmoil, Green’s technical team had an eye on the future. One of the parts it did manage to make before the August break was an experimental 2019 front wing, as it was recognised that any knowledge that could be gained to steal a march on rivals the following year might prove vital in the long term. That kind of foresight, doing something many teams would shun in favour of facing the seemingly more immediate problem, is what makes Force India a very different kind of Formula 1 team.
“It became a running joke when things couldn’t get made. We called it a ‘non-technical issue’”
Scoring almost enough points to finish fourth looks like a miracle – was it?
The strength of this team isn’t the factory, the buildings, the infrastructure, because that’s sub-standard compared to our competitors. The strength of the team is the people, and if those people didn’t stay together through the bad times then there was nothing to sell. It was the administrator’s job to sell the team and do the best for the creditors. The only role I had was to keep the team together.
What was the key to being able to do that given the very obvious financial difficulties of the team?
The way you earn trust within the team is be honest. When you are trying to predict the future, you can predict it that way but it goes this way and, for a while, you lied! But you didn’t lie, you thought it was going here but actually it went there. If you explain it to people and say, ‘I think it’s going here and I’m 80% sure but there’s a 20% chance of here’, they trust you and see things the same way. Reasonable people with the same information come to the same conclusion, but in situations like that not everyone has the same information I do so you share that information, the logic, and if they are reasonable they will come to the same conclusion. And you hold them together. How difficult was the first half of the season? Really difficult, because we had developments in the pipeline that we couldn’t deliver to the car. Our launch car ended up being our first-race car and we had huge developments in between we couldn’t produce. That’s frustrating, when you know the car should be better and you’re struggling to score points.
People say that a certain type of person works for Force India, and that this helped keep it together… Yeah I think that’s the case. We can’t all be the same, but we have to have a similar racer’s edge to do whatever it takes, whatever we can do to help in order to make sure we perform to the best of our ability. Not everybody is like that. When we find people who don’t have that attitude, we either educate them or, because not everyone’s like that, sometimes we have to say, ‘Sorry but you’re not one of us’ and we replace them. Your IQ is your IQ and you’re born with it, but your attitude you have 100% control of, and it’s that attitude we look for – going that extra mile.
“The strength of the team is the people. If they didn’t stay together through bad times there was nothing to sell”
Perez’s Baku podium was a season highlight
Ocon performed well but has lost his seat for 2019
Ocon wisely backs out of Spa move
Szafnauer (left) believes Force India’s strength is its personnel