With Mercedes-power the apparent power-unit of choice for 2014, the Sahara Force India team could be in a position to fight at the front in grand prix this season, at least in the early races. Add to that the driver line-up – Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez – 2014 could well end up being the team’s most successful season yet.
Whereas Ferrari and Renault-powered teams have struggled, the Mercedes-powered teams – Mercedes, McLaren, Williams and Force India – have all been at the top of the timing charts throughout winter testing in both Jerez and Bahrain. Force India were linked to changing their engine supply during the 2013 season but stuck with Mercedes, and it looks like this has played dividends.
“It would be engine dominated this year and the biggest differential for teams would be who got the right engine and at the right time,” said Force India Deputy Team Principal Bob Fernley.
“It looks at the moment that Mercedes have a slight lead – but that will change – it’s only a matter of time.”
The team completed 213 laps in the first Bahrain test, 137 for Hulkenberg and 76 more for Perez. Whereas this was the least mileage run by a Mercedes-powered team, they still did considerably more mileage than current world constructors champions Red Bull Racing, who managed a paltry 116 laps in total. The lap-count could have been higher, had it not been for some technical gremlins that affected running.
A drivetrain issue on the final day in Bahrain limited Perez to 19 laps, but the team were happy at what they had achieved during the test.
“It’s a shame to lose the track time this afternoon, but I think we can feel quite positive about what we have learned this week,” said Perez.
“Every lap in the car gives us more information and we are always trying something new.”
Team-mate Hulkenberg was happy about what he managed to achieve during his two days in the car in Bahrain, one of which saw him setting the fastest time of the day. He kept his feet on the ground however, as the team were not focusing on performance.
“My two days in the car have been very positive,” said Hulkenberg.
“We’ve made some improvements to the car, collected lots of data, and continued to learn with each lap. At the moment it’s still early days, but I’m pleased with the progress we have made in terms of understanding the car.
“Even yesterday with my P1, I’m not cheering, we are not focusing on performance at the moment. It’s the first couple of tests and these are early tests so it’s about taking these things onwards.
“The lap times are not worth a lot in these days, it’s all about checking systems, understanding data. It’s not a lot to be at the top of the time sheets at the moment.”
When describing the characteristics of the new car – the VJM07 – Hulkenberg said the car was full of torque, and was a different beast to drive, but was confident he would get on top of it as the season went on.
“I had one experience of double wheel spin and pulling black marks for 100 metres out of a slow speed corner, which was quite fun, but not ideal for performance!” said Hulkenberg. “These engines are quite tourquey but I think they will get easier as the season goes on.”
In the end, Hulkenberg’s time saw him sit fifth overall in quickest times of the four-day test, but was over three seconds down on what pacesetter Nico Rosberg set in his Mercedes. But Force India were the third fastest team after Mercedes and McLaren, both of which are former race winners, whereas Force India have never had a victory in Formula 1.
If they can iron out the mechanical issues, there is a good possibility that Force India can be challenging for podiums early in the season. They have only ever had one podium in their history – a second place for Giancarlo Fisichella at the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps.
“I think we’ve established ourselves as the best of the rest teams and we’ve got five teams in front of us and we’ve got to get in amongst those five teams,” said Fearnley. “We’ve got to be challenging for podiums.”
In Hulkenberg and Perez, Force India perhaps have one of the strongest young-driver pairings on the grid. Hulkenberg in particular is thought of very highly throughout the F1 paddock, and was linked to drives for Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus during the 2013 season before deciding on a return to Force India, for whom he drove for in 2011 (as a test driver) and 2012 before a year at Sauber. But the German is happy to be back at the Silverstone based team.
“I think the team has grown,” said Hulkenberg on his return to the team. “You can see when I came back to the factory first, the infrastructure has changed.
“There are more people as well and the team is growing, so it is a good signal.”
Bob Fernley was delighted to be able to team Hulkenberg up with McLaren refugee Sergio Perez. The Mexican spent one-year as Jenson Button’s team-mate before being dropped in favour of Danish driver and 2013 Formula Renault 3.5 series champion Kevin Magnussen, and Fernley was happy Perez ended up at Force India.
“I actually got really excited about what Sergio did in the last six months with McLaren,” said Fernley. “I think the McLaren experience for Sergio has transformed him.
“He’s grown up, he’s a very mature driver today and working with a top team like McLaren brings the best out in the drivers. Force India benefits from the efforts of McLaren.”
Whereas Hulkenberg has yet to step foot on a podium in Formula 1, Perez has three to his name in 2012, when he finished second in both Malaysia and Italy, and third in Canada. The Mexican driver has hopes for a return to the podium, and believes the team could indeed challenge for such results.
“Things are looking good for Mercedes cars but I expect the other manufacturers to catch up so it will be a really close battle in the midfield,” said Perez.
“I think we should aim high as a team and hopefully we can score some podiums.”
Like team-mate Hulkenberg however, Perez has his feet firmly on the ground. When asked about the Force India looking strong, he was cautious to agree.
“I wouldn’t draw that conclusion yet,” said Perez.
“We are definitely doing good work before Melbourne, which is the target. We will see what we can do before the first race.
“The other teams are having issues, but everyone is at the moment. Even us, this morning we had a big delay of two hours so we didn’t manage to complete the full programme.
“Other teams are struggling in the same way, so it’s difficult.”
The pre-season tests come to an end this week with the second Bahrain test, and the team will hope to solve the reliability issues they’ve suffered and get long runs for both Hulkenberg and Perez on the board.
“With the amount of work involved in resolving the [drivetrain] problem and the lack of time available, we decided it was better to regroup and put our efforts into achieving our objectives next week,” said Otmar Szafnauer, Force India’s Chief Operating Officer after the final day of the first Bahrain test.
So what can we make of Hulkenberg, Perez and Force India with the 2014 Formula 1 season less than a month away?
Well it appears Force India have made a tidy car. With the new regulations in force, and with Mercedes-power, they have been around the front runners throughout all eight days of the test. Even reserve driver Daniel Juncadella showed well when given some track time in Jerez.
With Hulkenberg and Perez, they do have two very talented drivers on board – perhaps the best line-up in the teams seven year history. They have a very good chance of adding to that solitary podium of 2009. Bernie Ecclestone even reckons a win is not out of the equation.
“Why a podium? I would love to see them win a race. And I am confident they can achieve that,” said Ecclestone.
“They might not be as strong as the Mercedes but as their customers, Force India should progress farther up the grid.”
Whereas a win might well be out of reach, I for one can see Force India having their best season to date. If Nico Hulkenberg has not finished on the podium by the end of the 2014 season, something would have gone drastically wrong. Both Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez are fantastic talents, and can bring Force India amongst the big boys, not just in 2014 but for years to come.
With Mercedes-power, a tidy aerodynamic package, and two strong drivers, Force India are a team – my team – to look out for in 2014.