Things are really starting to hot up now as the new season approaches and the final two tests before the first race are upon us. This week Jerez, next week Barcelona. We will know who’s looking good and who’s not in the next fortnight.
The new Force India package has been launched and this team are demanding that we take them seriously. There is every reason to. They have made a very smart technical and strategic alliance with McLaren. This means that in addition to a McLaren man moving in as the CEO of Force India, they will run the same Mercedes engine as the front-runners as well as the gearbox, hydraulics and KERS system. That is starting to look like a very smart move.
Using KERS is worth two to three tenths of a second per lap over a non-KERS car, basically it comes as a boost of speed on the straight worth an extra 5mph. Doens’t sound like much but when it’s as tight in the midfield, as it look like being this season, then three tenths is a lot.
With many teams unlikely to start the season with KERS and all the signs being that the McLaren Mercedes system is working well, Force India could well have an early advantage there. Of course they have to close up the gap to the midfield teams with better aerodynamics and chassis design and we will see over the next two tests whether they have done that. In 2007 they were 2.5 seconds off the pace at Barcelona (which is a good benchmark track) and last year they cut that to 1.7 seconds. Ideally they will want to have shaved at least another 7/10ths off that with the new car. With the technical adrenalin shot McLaren has given them, that’s entirely possible.
It was relatively late that they signed the McLaren partnership, November last year, so they have not had as much time as they would have liked to fit the drivetrain into their existing design. Normally you would start the process three months earlier. But as the hydraulics come as part of the package as well, many of the bits which can lead to reliability problems are included, so the installation gremlins will be less serious than with the Honda team running the Mercedes engine, for example.
Force India has only eight days of testing plus two 50 kilometre shakedown tests before Melbourne.
Adrian Sutil goes into his third year as a driver with the team with a lot still to prove. It was very unfortunate that he missed out on that fourth place in Monaco when he was taken out by Kimi Raikkonen last year. But he has looked good at times, only to crash out or fade out when it counts. He needs a big year.
Vijay Mallya has plenty on his plate already steering his massive Kingfisher conglomerate through the economic downturn, but it looks as though F1- wise he is in the right place at the right time. If the FIA and FOTA bring in the kind of cost-saving changes they are talking about then it could be the best time for 30 years to be the owner of an F1 team with the chance of being competitive on an independent’s budget. And his deal with McLaren to buy their technology will become the blueprint for how independents go racing in the future.
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The news that Force India has established a five year technical collaboration with McLaren and Mercedes comes as no surprise, indeed both sides have been talking about it for some months now. But it is quite a significant move for several reasons.
It marks the first time that Mercedes has supplied a second team with engines. They’ve considered it many times, but never actually gone through with it. Meanwhile Ferrari has had a very nice little business going for years supplying Toro Rosso, before that Red Bull, Spyker, Prost, Sauber. And that was in the good old days when they could charge $20 million per team per season.
McLaren looks like it has realised its dream of a B team, as Prodrive was going to be. The deal is attractive to McLaren for multiple reasons; as Mallya has a lot of other businesses to attend to so he will rely on advice from McLaren, which also appears to have put one of it’s own men into F.I. as CEO. It gives McLaren a commercial foot in the door in the vast new Indian market. It gives them a key political ally in the paddock and it is a revenue generator. It also gives them extra feedback from testing, especially of the new KERS system and the new slick tyres. This is significant because teams agreed to drastically limit testing next year, so McLaren will be able to learn vital extra information from Force India’s test programme, which will make them faster too. It also gives them somewhere to place drivers, in this case Paul di Resta and it shows good faith on their part in terms of being seen to help out an independent team – they are ‘doing their bit’ to ensure the health and future well-being of a small team, which is what Max Mosley has been demanding from the manufacturers. So plenty of upsides for McLaren.
The Red Bull Technologies set up has tested the boundaries of what is acceptable in terms of customer cars and as things stand, teams using customer cars will have to gravitate quickly to making their own, hence all the rumours about Toro Rosso being for sale. Force India will continue to make their own car, but they will get the drivertrain – engine and gearbox – from McLaren and Mercedes, as well as the KERS system. As McLaren has a budget of €70 million to develop KERS, compared to Williams budget of around €2.5 million, this is a great deal for Force India. The customer car situation is up for discussion at the moment in the ongoing negotiations between FOTA and the FIA. If customer cars were to become allowable then McLaren is in position to supply them with immediate effect.
The move will play well with Mallya’s audience in India, after all McLaren has just won the world championship with Lewis Hamilton – so by any standards this looks like a smart play by Mallya.
Will it move Force India up the grid? Well it’s got to help. They had to do something fast, because Toro Rosso has been getting away from them lately and Honda will take a big step forward next year, so Force India were at risk of being left behind. The departure of team principal Colin Kolles and technical boss Mike Gascoyne has been rumoured for some time. Gascoyne is a spiky character, but his track record of getting plenty of bang for a small team’s buck was well proven.
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