(Photo credit: Artes Max)
Last season marked 10 years in the paddock for Force India, rising steadily each year to become challengers to middle pack-leaders Williams and McLaren, before snatching fourth in the 2016 Constructors Championship. If the aim of 2017 was to consolidate that place, then expectations were well and truly exceeded. With a 100-point gap back to fifth-ranked Williams, they almost raced in a field of their own all year, happy behind the front three, ready to pick up points if those ahead slipped up. Remarkable consistency made it almost too easy for Force India to boss the rest of the field, so much so that the ‘Best of the Rest’ title arguably should’ve been shifted down to finishing fifth.
Impressions from testing
It was a quiet fortnight for Force India in Barcelona. Whilst there was no real drama in week one, they did the least laps of anyone as they played things overly safe. Using Day one to run test driver Nikita Mazepin, they sat out the drama of the weather later in the week. With a Mercedes engine sitting in a virtually indestructible chassis, maybe the feeling within Force India was that they didn’t need to risk too much in such variable weather.
However, a look at the timesheets for Week 2 might just wake the team up. It’s fair to say they looked off the pace. On Friday, Ocon cracked 1:19 for the first time on the hypersoft tyres, behind the best efforts of both Toro Rosso, the Renault pair and Stoffel Vandoorne. Most worryingly of all, they were behind both the Haas cars, which at the time of writing hadn’t even experimented with the softest compound, yet were still six-tenths quicker. Unless Mercedes are keeping their engine power cards close to their chest, that midfield battle is hotting up.
We return to discussing the chassis which really was the trump card for Force India last term. Having only one mechanical retirement all season (Ocon's only DNF being a lap one collision in Brazil) was the key to racking up an impressive haul of points, consistently scoring low-point finishes whilst being in a position to capitalise from any retirements further up the pack. If testing times reflect upcoming performance, then this reliability will be even more vital this time round – it may even make the difference between scoring points or nothing at all. That fourth place in the Championship has put a big target on their backs this year, and they will really have a fight to keep their place at the front of the chasing pack.
The driver line up at Force India is the team's greatest strength, yet could also be their undoing if not managed correctly. In Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, they have the strongest driver line-up outside the top three. Perez will enter his eighth season on the grid, progressing from the super-fast youngster at Sauber through to being the man tipped to take the next available Ferrari seat. Alongside him, Ocon had possibly the best debut season since Lewis Hamilton, only failing to pick up points in two races. The problem is both drivers are supremely confident in their abilities, and will yield to no one, not even a teammate. This caused several issues last season as both fought to exert their position as the team's main driver. Their relationship is strained - only ever being described as close when approaching an apex. There were occasions last year where they nearly ended each another's race, and the team cannot afford any slip-ups with the rest of the pack waiting to pounce. It will take a huge amount of internal politics to keep everyone pointing in the same direction this season.
Can Force India top their best-ever points tally in 2018? Or are they at risk from the chasing pack? Join in the discussion in the comments below.