Gentlemen restart your engines

New power, new management, new livery – Vijay Mallya has pressed the reset button at Force India. Will this fresh start bring the results?
By Rob Widdows

These are tense times. There are just 18 days to go before the cars must be on the grid in Melbourne. On this day the first, and only, Force India car is blasting round in Barcelona while its stablemates have yet to be built. Computer screens feed through the times from Spain. New parts are drawn and redrawn. The clock is ticking. There are some tired faces in the factory at Silverstone.

I am taken on a rapid tour by Mick Gomme, who came here in 1998 as the spares man for the Jordan team. Now he bears the grand title of race team marketing services co-ordinator, something that might have been a little long-winded in EJ’s day. “It’s only a title,” he laughs, “we all muck in together. There’s only 280 of us in all, and the spirit is back this year. Last year everything was painted in tungsten colour – that’s how they liked it – but now it’s all white and the place feels fresher, lighter. There’s a lot to do, though – new logos, new liveries, new paint jobs – and, because weight is a big issue, the drivers will even have lightweight qualifying overalls! Busy, busy time.” Mick is a man on the move.

Time is a jet plane, to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan – it moves too fast. Especially when you are building new Grand Prix cars to new regulations for a new season. And particularly when you also have a new engine supplier, a new drivetrain and new management. There is much uncharted territory at Force India this year. But Doctor Vijay Mallya, the Indian entrepreneur who owns the team, has never been afraid of uncharted territory.

By the time you read this the cars will have raced in Melbourne. There will be evidence already of their potential. Dr Mallya, who has brokered a deal with McLaren, is not renowned for his patience. According to recent reports in the business pages of the ‘serious’ newspapers, the Indian entrepreneur has been locked in negotiations with Diageo on behalf of his United Breweries Group. Diageo is a McLaren sponsor. Mallya has, as ever, plenty to occupy his agile mind while he flies around the globe attending to his empire.

Dr Mallya, who spends much of his life in the air, recently confessed that he had underestimated the demands of Grand Prix racing. This from a man who took over his father’s brewery empire when he was just 23 and who has since started his own domestic and international airlines. Now he has put in place a dramatically new structure at his racing team, and it has simply got to work.

“This has certainly been my most challenging project to date,” says Mallya, “and it has taken up far more of my time than I anticipated. But I have put the funding in place, we have learnt a lot in our first season, and now I expect results. We mean business; we are not interested in making up the numbers.”

From Woking has come Simon Roberts, the team’s new chief operating officer, and formerly the operations director at McLaren. Over the winter there was a huge shake-up, with both Colin Kolles and Mike Gascoyne leaving Force India after just one season in charge. In came Roberts, while design director Mark Smith and technical director James Key have stepped up to take responsibility for the 2009 cars.

Meanwhile Dr Mallya, with not a little help from Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, has ditched his Ferrari engines, agreed terms with Mercedes-Benz and forged a technical partnership with McLaren Applied Technologies for use of its gearboxes, hydraulic systems and KERS system. Dr Mallya doesn’t hang about and he is looking for a return on this investment.

The man tasked with gluing this new partnership together is Roberts, hurled from relative obscurity within the McLaren conglomerate to land centre-stage at Force India. On secondment from the Woking team, he is described as “the vital axis point between the team’s new technical partners”. How does Roberts translate that into everyday language for us? “It’s important that the team has somebody who is fully immersed in Force India and who also has an understanding of how the McLaren-Mercedes machine works,” he says, sheltering from the wail of engines in Barcelona. “We need to make sure the right conversations happen between the right people in all three areas – that’s the team itself, McLaren and Mercedes-Benz. When I go to see McLaren, I am a Force India man now. My role is to run this team for Vijay Mallya and to ensure we’re all working together, not against each other. So far things have gone well, we’ve had rock-solid reliability, and we’ve started to work on set-ups. We have had some problems with rear tyre wear and with the fuel system, but nothing that we can’t get right before the first race. I think we can go further up the grid, and from what I’ve seen in testing I’m confident that we can move this team forward. How far, only time will tell. Importantly, we have less to worry about, with a proven engine and gearbox, and we can focus more tightly on becoming more competitive.”

Interestingly, the man from Woking has been impressed with what he’s found at the back end of the grid. “This is a really great team; they work together extremely well,” he says. “The speed of response is the most impressive thing for me, one of the first things I noticed. Maybe it’s what you’d expect – being a much smaller team, they are able to react faster. The bigger the team, the more difficult it is to keep the team spirit, and we must never lose that here. There have been no nasty surprises and this is a hard-wired outfit, with fewer layers of management. Sometimes smaller can be easier, faster and more efficient.”

The new VJM02 ran for the first time at Silverstone at the end of February. Three days later, on Sunday March 1, the car arrived at Jerez for its first run in anger, followed by a week in Barcelona. It’s been all hands on deck and the crew haven’t seen much of their bunks. Design director Smith is, however, relishing the opportunity.

“Working with James [Key] we have the responsibility now and we have to deliver the goods that are expected. It’s as simple as that,” he says. “Starting from scratch last November has been a major undertaking, but we now have a real opportunity to put together a good package. We have a proven and leading-edge engine and transmission, as good as any in Formula 1, so there are no excuses there. This narrows our focus but it is tough to get away from the back row of the grid and resources do make a difference. We’re coming from behind not having had, until recently, the resources to do the job. We have to improve the pace of our development from here and that’s not easy, but we do have the capability within the team.”

Slick tyres and the KERS systems will be the focal points of this new season. Force India will not be running KERS in the early races. “It may be more effective, and simpler, not to have KERS and we haven’t been using the McLaren system in testing,” says Smith. “There are, as everyone now knows, challenges with weight and weight distribution. We have done simulations – with and without the system – and there is a case for running without KERS. But once the systems are more fully developed there will be an advantage to having the extra power for overtaking.

“As far as tyre wear is concerned, I think it’s simply a matter of Bridgestone getting the compounds right and understanding the weight distribution in the car. They have gone from grooved tyres to slicks and there is a learning process there. But it’s not hugely complicated and we will find a solution to excessive wear. We are starting to understand how to use the tyres; we’re getting on top of it, and by the first race we will hopefully be in good shape. Reliability will be very important, as ever, especially at the beginning of the season.”

The optimism is almost tangible. The cost-cutting programme in Formula 1 suits Force India just fine – Dr Mallya had been lobbying for this since he arrived on the scene. The team feels a lot happier, a lot less edgy than it was when last I saw them in Valencia. Late summer of 2008 was a low point for the outfit, which was riven with political intrigue, back-biting and sheer frustration. The fun and frivolity of Eddie Jordan was a distant memory. Force India’s director of business affairs Ian Phillips, now in his 40th year in the sport, survived the reshuffle and continues to thrive on the fast-moving, ever-changing world of Grand Prix racing.

“We haven’t had much fun since Eddie sold the place,” says Phillips, “but we’re now in better shape than we have been since January 2005. The old Jordan spirit is back, morale is high and when the car ran for the first time at Silverstone the adrenaline was pumping again – it really felt good. We’re on the way up again, but it’s a bloody big hill to climb, and we had just under 100 days from confirmation of the new engine and gearbox to get the new cars ready. Getting it done was a great achievement. The team was an unhappy place last year, it’s true, but Vijay Mallya looked at it, made a decision to change things, and he was right to do that.”

I suggest that Force India, with its new technical partnership, might now be looked upon by some as a McLaren ‘B’ team. “No, no, no,” insists Phillips, “not at all. The new deal is Concorde-compliant – we looked at that very closely. Some people think the Concorde Agreement doesn’t actually exist and there are teams who would want to look fairly closely at this new relationship, but we are restricted on what we can and cannot do within the rules. McLaren is simply a supplier of engines, gearboxes and KERS.

“Maybe at some point in the future – if the rules change – there may be scope for a real partnership, if you like, but that is not for now. We have to accept where we are, at the bottom of the ladder, and here we have a ready-made solution to the most complex parts of the car. Of course we’re going to say yes to that. Now it’s up to us to get the rest of the package right and we know we have the capability within the team. I think KERS may be a bit of a distraction and it will be interesting to see how many people have a car that is quicker with KERS. It is the right thing for Formula 1 to be seen to be doing, but it’s hugely expensive and nobody needs that extra cost right now.”

On his laptop Phillips has the times coming in from Barcelona testing, and the speed of Jenson Button in the new Brawn GP car is causing some concern. This, after all, is another team which uses the Mercedes-Benz engine and is therefore a benchmark. So might this be an indicator of things to come, or is it merely the customary showboating to attract some new sponsors?

“Pre-season testing is a serious thing this year,” says Phillips. “After all, there will be no more testing once we get to Melbourne. Toyota is looking good and so is Brawn, but both these cars are clearly highly developed and there may be some surprises. We’ve had two great seasons, with great racing, and I think we will see more of the same. Sport should be full of unknowns – that’s part of the excitement – and in testing thus far the bigger teams are not way out front. We shall see.”

An indication of the ambition and intent of this new team is its connection with the aerospace industry. Mallya, through his Kingfisher airline, has some influence within firms such as the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company (EADS) and aircraft manufacturer Airbus. He is a very good customer, given his ownership of both domestic and international carriers back home in India. In partnership with EADS, the team is soon to expand its computational fluid dynamics facility. The wind tunnel, otherwise known as the Brackley Aero Centre, is where hundredths of a second are found by fine-tuning the aerodynamics. The tiniest detail counts, and no serious F1 team can afford to be without this kind of technology.

“The new resources and further developments with EADS will provide an enormous boost to our technical armoury,” states Mallya. “Combined with our new technical partnership with McLaren, this gives us high hopes of making some good progress this year – and into the future. When I said we mean business, I meant it.”

There is still something comfortingly old-fashioned about this Grand Prix team, something of the old Jordan atmosphere and approach. The factory is beautifully organised but not antiseptic, there is security but it’s not in your face like a London club on a Saturday night. Upon arrival for the day it doesn’t feel like the Pentagon. Not every inch of the place is colour-coded. There are pot plants but it’s not like the Eden Project. Corporate speak is creeping in, but that’s the world today. On the road from EJ to Vijay the racers have retained a real passion for the sport. This may have something to do with Dr Mallya himself – a maverick and flamboyant figure in his own heady world. Long may it last.

The problem for Force India, despite its new relationship with McLaren, is that nothing ever stands still in Formula 1. A slight advantage can disappear overnight. And, let’s face it, Force India’s first task is to start the races from higher up the grid, a huge challenge in itself. For this little team, the famous ‘Book of Motor Racing Excuses’ is getting thinner and thinner. They know they have to deliver…