F1 2017 team review: Force India

(Photo credit: Morio)

2017 expectations vs reality

Coming off the high of unseating Williams for fourth in the 2016 constructors' championship, it remained to be seen whether the team was really the best of the midfield, or simply had a season of good fortune. They answered emphatically this year that it was the former.  

The departure of Nico Hulkenberg to Renault during the off-season would leave the team with just one proven driver to carry over into the aerodynamically revamped 2017 season. Also returning would be one of the most underrated engineering teams on the grid and the almighty Mercedes power unit. And while a relatively new and young driver would seemingly not make their task any easier, this proved to be far from the case. 

Force India started the season strongly with double-points finishes in their first five races, and with both cars finishing in the points in 11 of the remaining 15 rounds, they were never realistically under any threat of losing fourth in the constructors' standings. 

Couple their success with the tattered remains of Williams, the rebuilding efforts of Renault, the ghost of McLaren, and the perpetual backmarker status of the remaining bottom teams, and the stage was set for Force India to drive off into the distance. It is to their credit that they met, or even exceeded, these expectations. 

Development record and constructors performance

When their 2017 concept was unveiled it was clear that Force India had taken a different approach to the front of the car. As in past seasons, their innovative nose differed significantly from the rest of the entrants, and a new title sponsor, BWT, brought a unique pink livery. There would certainly be no mistaking a Force India on the track in 2017!  

While the team enjoyed a solid start to the season, it was in Spain where the development took off, with Perez himself describing the team prior to that as lacking pace. A new floor was introduced there and the best result of the season immediately followed. 'Lacking pace' could no longer be seen as an accurate description. 

Further aero and engine improvements followed in Monaco, Singapore, Malaysia and Mexico with the team noting the carryover from this year into 2018 as the main reason to continue development of the current car.

Williams and Force India are both engine customers of Mercedes, which serves as a useful comparison of the effectiveness of their construction. In this manner, the Silverstone-based Force India blows the Williams out of the water, scoring 104 more points over the course of the season. 

However, it also highlights exactly how far they are from consistently winning. Mercedes domination over others with the same almighty engine is more than likely due to the different budgets, but knowing that does nothing to shrink the gap between fourth and first (668 points to 187). That being said, if F1 ever heads to some sort of budget cap, watch out for this team.

The only real blemish on the season was a 25,000 Euro penalty for failing to properly display the driver numbers on the car.

Driver head to head

Qualifying advantage: 13 - 7 Perez 

Race finishing position advantage: 15 - 5 Perez

A quick look at the numbers above and it would be easy to conclude Sergio Perez had the superior year versus his unproven partner. A closer look tells a different story. 

The qualifying advantage disappears after the summer break, with Ocon actually turning up the wick and beating his teammate to a better starting position five times to four. This brings the average gap Ocon faced to his much-more-experienced teammate to less than one-tenth of a second, the closest of any teammates, save the Sauber pairing. 

A similar situation presents itself when digging deeper into the finishing positions; all five of the instances the Frenchman finished ahead occurred in the final 11 races of the year. Along with rapidly upping his form, he also set a new Formula 1 record for most consecutive race finishes to start a career. 

Ocon very clearly found the VJM10 to his liking and rapidly improved to the point where the team had two very capable, even drivers; a remarkable achievement for one with hardly a season of F1 experience under his belt. This may also suggest why the two drivers clashed so frequently, far more than any other team, on the track. 

In Canada, the tension became apparent, with Sergio Perez rebuffing the team's efforts to get him to allow a potentially faster Ocon past. This put both the cars under threat from Sebastian Vettel, recovering to demolish most of the field after a first-lap incident, who would eventually pick off both Force India drivers. This was merely an hors-d'oeuvre for the main course, to be served two weeks later in Azerbaijan.

In an incident that set the table for the wildest race of the year, Ocon clipped Perez around the apex of the tricky turn two during a safety car restart. This littered the track with debris from both cars and brought out the red flag. Worse still, the team was heading for a double-top-five finish and a sure podium(s). A short war of words ensued, with the team emphatic the cars could not come together on the track again.

But come together on the track again they did. In Hungary, a little touch at the start was deemed a racing incident and let slide. In Belgium, however, Sergio Perez pulled a brace of amateur moves at the same dangerous place on the track which left both cars damaged again. It would retire Perez and drop Ocon to ninth. 

This time, the furious team laid down strict racing orders for the rest of the season in an effort to avoid throwing away more championship points. Competitiveness between the two had become blatantly obvious, and one of the more entertaining reasons to watch the midfield, if not the entire grid.

Best and worst weekends

The loss of the potential finishing positions of the Azerbaijan race weekend has to be considered the worst result of the season for the team. At the time of their incident, Ocon and Perez were lapping in fourth and fifth, respectively. All three drivers ahead of them would eventually suffer bad luck (Hamilton), a penalty (Vettel) or a retirement (Massa); the sixth and eighth position drivers would also suffer setbacks. 

The eventual race winner was in ninth, and the runner-up all the way down in 16th. Considering the final podium place went to Lance Stroll, driving a Williams that had no place in the top three, it is difficult to ignore the possibility of both cars on the podium - with a potential race winner between the two. I can only imagine this still keeps Chief Operating Officer Otmar Szafnauer up at night.

In contrast, the Spanish Grand Prix saw their new chassis components brought to the race bear immediate fruit. Perez finished a fine fourth, with Ocon closely following in fifth. They were aided by a trio of retirements from the frontrunners, but showed what the team were capable of should any trouble hit the top three teams. 

Moreover, the result really emphasised the quality present in the makeup of the team. With a budget a fraction the size of the top three, dragging 22 points from the finish, more than Ferrari or Red Bull, has to be considered a major highlight.

Looking to 2018

Force India in 2017 were exactly that: a force. Finishing 16 of 20 rounds with both cars in the top ten was a mark only bettered by the eventual champions, Mercedes. It will be a difficult benchmark to maintain, but should the team continue the general upward trend they have enjoyed since joining the grid back in 2008, it is likely not out of reach. The team has retained both drivers for the upcoming year which should only add to the stability. 

The final eight rounds of the year saw no incidents and the strong results continued. Additionally, if Esteban Ocon can improve on the form he showed this year, a big question, he will have to be considered a future top driver, perhaps only behind Max Verstappen in the hierarchy of young potential champions.

With the right pieces in place, any backwards movement would have to be considered a major regression. It is not likely fourth place in the constructors will be met with any stiff competition but neither is it the case that Force India can climb into the top three unless a budget cap is introduced. Should that ever take place, and it seems likely, this team could probably shake things up at the top.

The only major question that remains for 2018 is the status of the team's co-owner. The enigmatic Vijay Mallya, the face of the team, is currently stuck with a nasty fraud case originating in his home country of India. The seriousness of this cannot be mistaken. Should he be extradited as a result of the case that is being heard in the UK courts at the moment, it will likely throw the team into disarray. This, however, is a long-shot as there are reportedly large holes in the case against him.

One change for the upcoming season is guaranteed: Force India will no longer be named as such. The team is searching but no confirmed replacement has been reported yet.

Whatever their name winds up being, Force India built upon the groundwork they laid in 2016 and showed remarkably consistent and impressive form this year. Considering the state of the teams below them, and the high talent level of their drivers and engineers, it seems highly unlikely that 2018 will be a racing disappointment. If they continue to put on the kinds of shows they did this year, it will be hard to take your eyes off the pink cars. 

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