Formula in force
Few years ago, any suggestion of an Indian-owned team on a Formula One grid would have most likely drawn a hearty laugh and a commiserative pat on the back.
But come March 16, the Force India Formula One team, co-owned by Indian businessman Vijay Mallya, will make its championship debut at the season opener in Melbourne. And after a two-year absence since Narain Karthikeyan's exit from F1, an Indian tricolour in the grandstands will no longer be deemed out of place. Force India would first be looking to depart from the trend it had found itself during its days as Spyker and Midland before. The former had managed one point, the latter none.
Yet for the team, moving forward will be to an extent about inching closer to their past: trying to bring back the success the mother team Jordan enjoyed in 1999, when it pulled off a third place finish in the title race.
A whole new car
New ownership, new drivers in the experienced Giancarlo Fisichella and Vitantonio Liuzzi, and a new gold, white and tungsten look has brought in renewed hope to Force India. But the most vital change has been in the car itself. Aerodynamics remains the key area in which the team has improved. With a renewed $122 million budget, reinforced technical resources and three wind tunnels at hand, the team has introduced an entirely new aero package from the one they last used in a race.
The front wing, front wing flap, front wing endplates, brake ducts, turning vanes, barge boards, sidepod inlets, diffuser, undertray, rear bodywork, rear wing — essentially everything but the nose box and the chassis of the car has been changed, in efforts to move the team from the back of the grid to the midfield. "We expect around 0.7-0.8 seconds improvement from last year's car," team boss Colin Kolles had said after their last test session. The down side is that these changes have come on the car relatively late. Half of the aero package appeared only 15 days ago, the remaining will be out directly for Melbourne.
The drivers are hoping to finish in the top 15, and with some luck, score points along the way. But Mallya has been more specific: "In the first half of the season we want to achieve excess of 95 per cent reliability. We must be in Q2 (spots 11 to 16 on the grid) at least 60 per cent of the time. In the second half, the reliability must be the same if not higher. We must be in Q2 90 per cent of the time, and maybe manage a top 10 finish."
The team is starting from a "historic" lag of two seconds, believes Chief Technical Officer Mike Gascoyne, a result of the lack of investment over the past few years. Yet he has faith in the development program. "Getting out of Q1 (bottom six) would be possible in Melbourne," Gascoyne had said.
The Fisi factor
Helping their cause would be a 35-year-old Italian who has been around for 12 years, scored over 250 points and helped a team win two world championships. New rules from 2008 are set to reward experience more than ever, especially in the first half of the season as other drivers get used to the loss of traction control.
With this aid that was helping reduce excess wheelspin gone, the driver's ability to look after his tyres has become crucial and that's something Fisichella — considered to be particularly smooth —can manage very well. Besides, for the last 11 years he has not scored less than seven points in a championship. And that is a record is he would intend to keep. For youngter Adrian Sutil, upstaging his illustrious teammate would be a good enough way to prove his mettle, if not bolster his resume. And if either of them slip, there's Liuzzi with three seasons' experience, waiting in the wings.
For now though there's little 'Indian' about the team beyond the part-owner, the logo and the name. While Mallya has said he would be happy to have a deserving Indian driver on board, Formula One is not just about the man behind the wheel. Kolles has already said they are already looking into the vast engineering talent India has to offer. Next would be the hope of seeing Indians among the pit crew, among the mechanics, among the designers, and the big one: of an Indian manufacturer powering a Formula One car. So Melbourne may be the starting point for one 'Indian' team, but it may as well serve as a launch pad for many Indian dreams.