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

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - Edd Straw

“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

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