Will Gray

Team preview: Force India

Will Gray

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Force India almost won a race in 2009 then lost their way when two key technical men departed — so what's to suggest they could achieve their ambitious target of fifth place in the championship this year?

Vijay Mallya's team has slowly been working its way up the grid in recent years, progressing with a strong technical team, a valuable engineering collaboration with McLaren and a talented and highly rated lead driver in Adiran Sutil.

The stability of this slow rise in form was knocked off the rails when technical leaders Mark Smith and James Key left for Lotus and Sauber respectively — not only losing important talent but seeing it handed over to rival teams.

Despite this, and the resultant slump in form last year, the team has openly stated a challenging target of fifth place in the championship this year.

Now just think what that means. Based on last year's constructors' title table, Red Bull and McLaren were clear ahead with Ferrari third, Mercedes fourth and Renault fifth. In terms of points, fifth-paced Renault scored 163 points while sixth-placed Williams managed just 69 and Force India just one point back on 68.

In terms of points scoring alone, then, it is fair to assume that whoever is in the top five positions will collect a similar cut respectively, so that means Force India must more than double their tally of points this year to stand a chance of reaching their target.

So how are they going to do that? A hard question to answer, but as usual with position changes it takes two things — one team to improve and the other to not improve or to get worse. Right now, times suggest Mercedes and McLaren are struggling — but despite that, it is a big ask for a team like Force India make such a dramatic jump and it usually needs innovation or luck to make that happen.

One key aspect for Force India is creating a car that works everywhere. Traditionally, they have been fast on fast tracks, producing good low-drag/low-downforce cars, but on slower circuits they struggle to get efficient downforce and the performance suffers dramatically.

The technical team says the problem causing this has been identified, but because it is in the genes the team has admitted it might need "a strategic aero change" to fix it — and that suggests they have not yet made that change.

They have, however, had major investigation into why their performance upgrades failed to prove successful on track last year, and they have made some operational changes to sort this out having determined the exhaust blown diffuser was the problem area.

Like Sauber and Ferrari, the relationship between Force India and McLaren sees the mid-grid team using the McLaren gearbox and hydraulics alongside the Mercedes engine and KERS system, so their rear suspension layout follows the same approach as McLaren's, with a pullrod system. The car also has very short and quick dropping sidepods with a very large front undercut that leads back, past a dramatic 'batwing' turning vane on the outer edge of the floor, to the rear end.

The team is one of only two (Lotus being the other) to go for a central fin structure behind the driver with a lower rearward airbox intake, similar to the Mercedes approach from last year. Rule changes made on a safety basis have altered what can be done in this area this year and although the design remains possible, the fact the intake must be mounted lower has led most teams to deem it inefficient. Force India believe they can make it work, and if that is the case they will benefit from reduced blockage in front of the rear wing.

In addition to this, their decision to hire former Bridgestone chief engineer Jun Matsuzaki to try to get a better understanding of the Pirelli tyres could be crucial as teams get used to the new rubber — although the complexities of tyres are very different company to company and how well he will understand the Pirellis without insider knowledge remains to be seen.

In Sutil, at least, the team has a strong and increasingly experienced leader, and they also have the insight of Nico Hulkenberg, who will be running on Fridays and has experience from Williams, potentially the team's biggest target. Meanwhile rookie Scot Paul di Resta, who had the Fridays job last year, will be in the race seat this time around.

The approach of running different drivers on Fridays is not beneficial for the race drivers however, as it limits their set-up time, and it will be interesting to see how long Force India believes Hullkenberg's running will be of benefit.

The car was launched one week later than most and so far there is nothing to point to the step change they need to climb up the grid — so unless they are hiding something they might just have to put their big ambitions on hold for one more season.

 

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Every day leading up to the start of the F1 season, Will Gray will be breaking down a different team's prospects for 2011.

The schedule is as follows: Mar 14 Virgin; Mar 15 HRT; Mar 16 Lotus; Mar 17 Toro Rosso; Mar 18 Sauber; Mar 19 Force India; Mar 20 Williams; Mar 21 Renault, Mar 22 Mercedes; Mar 23 Ferrari; Mar 24 McLaren; Mar 25 Red Bull

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