Smooth sailing, or troubled waters?

When Vijay Mallya docked at Valencia for the European GP, it provided an opportunity to find out how Formula 1’s newest team boss is faring
By Rob Widdows

An ancient Indian proverb warns that, when an elephant is in trouble, even a frog will kick him.

By this stage of the 2008 Grand Prix season, cynics predicted, the Force India team would be in trouble. There would be those who would take satisfaction in seeing this flamboyant new creation crumble in the cauldron that is 21st century Formula 1. There are piranhas in this pool and only the strongest swimmers survive.

But this has manifestly not been the case. Force India is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Jordan, Midland and Spyker. The force that is with them is extrovert billionaire Vijay Mallya, not a man to contemplate defeat or failure until every last avenue has been properly explored. Let’s face it, owning an airline right now must have its difficulties. Fortunately he also owns United Breweries, purveyors of Kingfisher beers among many other tinctures and refreshments.

The force is with me, or I am with the force at the European Grand Prix in Valencia where the riverbed is dry, transformed into a seemingly endless park with wondrous modern architecture by Santiago Calatrava. Elsewhere in this vibrant community there is the work of both Frank Gehry and Sir Norman Foster. It is a feast for the eyes. The river Turia, upon which the Romans founded the city, has been cleverly diverted to rid Valencia of the flooding that threatened its very existence. This was a radical move of which Mr Mallya would approve, and while Valencia has big ambitions, so too has the Force India Grand Prix team. The owner may have underestimated the challenge but he feels only stronger now that he knows more precisely what he has to do.

“I understand just how tough this business is,” he says, gazing out across the harbour from his yacht, the Indian Empress, a craft that dwarfs its neighbours – the Delphine chartered by Mr Räikkönen and Force Blue owned by Mr Flavio Briatore (FB in huge chrome lettering on the superstructure is a less than subtle clue here). “We have improved the team’s performance this year,” continues Vijay, “and we have begun to catch up – not enough, perhaps, but don’t forget we are making up ground that has been lost over the last four years, not just one season. I know what we’re up against but I do believe we will be more competitive next year. I have learnt about F1 the hard way, you could say, but that’s not always a bad thing and I’m confident we can move forward next season, especially as everybody will be starting with new cars, new rules, a clean sheet. This may provide some surprises.”

Since he arrived in Valencia for Friday’s free practice Mallya has been back to India for business meetings, returning in time for Sunday’s race. Yes, you did read that right – he has been halfway round the world between practice and the race. Alright, it helps if you own your own Airbus, but…

“Well, that’s part of being in business,” he says, showing little outward sign of fatigue after 18 hours in the sky. “Sometimes you have to do these crazy things. I am involved in many things apart from F1 and they have to be looked after. But an important focus for me right now is the development of our 2009 car and I know it will be a significant improvement. I need contributors in this team, I don’t need to carry passengers, and I have clearly laid down the objectives for next year. I will hold them accountable, they know this, but it takes time. Every single milestone has to be carefully charted and achieved, and there will be no cutting corners. There is no way I can match the budgets of the manufacturer teams, so the FIA’s cost-cutting initiatives are most welcome – if the smaller teams cannot survive then it will be bad for the sport as a whole.”

Largely responsible for the future success of the Force India cars is chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne, who cut his teeth alongside Harvey Postlethwaite at Tyrrell. Gascoyne knows a thing or two about hauling teams further up the grid, having worked with Jordan, Renault and Toyota. He is typically forthright about progress at Force India.

“Look, you have to remember that we’ve had less than a year to get this team back on its feet,” he says, “and already we’ve embarrassed some of the bigger outfits who’ve got more staff in their hospitality tents than we have in our race team. We are very motivated and being the underdog just makes us try harder. I’ve done this before, come from the back of the field, and I see no reason why I can’t do it again. Yes, we’d like a bit more money, and then I think we could get in among the midfield next year. This time last year, with Spyker, we just about had enough money to get to the races and that was frustrating. Now, with Vijay at the helm, and with some great people working for us, we’ve outqualified a works Honda. We’ve got new rules next year, a new car, some very clever young people in our aero department – so yes, we can make progress. A lot of the guys from Jordan are here and we know how to get the job done. The laws of physics don’t change, so we’ll do things scientifically, methodically, and we won’t take short cuts.”

We are witnessing Valencia’s first taste of what it means to welcome Mr Ecclestone’s circus to their city. Big events, however, are nothing new here. This Mediterranean city has already hosted the America’s Cup, yachting’s equivalent of Formula 1, and this they came through with panache and style. But that was out at sea. This weekend the port has been surrendered to the glitz, glamour and skin-crawling shriek of the most sophisticated racing cars on the planet. There is the merest whiff of Monte Carlo, a lot of Long Beach and a touch of Tilbury Docks. Historic Hispanic in the foreground, cranes and containers in the background. The track is wide and smooth, not so much a street circuit, more a circuit laid out on the edge of a city. The drivers are enjoying a new challenge and Giancarlo Fisichella is upbeat, cheerful even, having qualified ahead of Rubens Barrichello and just a whisker behind David Coulthard in the Red Bull.

“I knew when I signed the contract that it would not be easy,” he says. “It’s difficult to find half a second in F1, but we are pushing together. I feel comfortable here, and that’s important for me. People are listening to me, to what I need, and we are moving in the right direction. Some of this weekend was fantastic, you know, a big step forward, and I was just half a second slower than Räikkönen. It was a fantastic qualifying lap and our race pace is better. We need more downforce, but next year anything could happen.”

Less enthusiastic is team principal Colin Kolles, the man tasked with running the show on behalf of Mallya. I suggest that progress has been made. He looks, shall we say, impatient. He gives surprisingly blunt answers that do not come from the public relations manual.

“We have been almost two seconds off the pace, we are in last place, and if you are last you cannot be pleased,” he says. “We may have improved but it does not count. We have not improved enough. We have to work harder and we have to be more efficient. We have the biggest budget in the history of the company but I am not happy with our position – it’s not all about money – and we can be more competitive, more motivated. Nothing in F1 is simple, but I can assure you that everything that has been requested has been received. All departments have made their proposals and they have all been agreed in the budget. So, what I expect now is super performance on the track, simple as that. If there is not the money, then maybe there can be excuses, but that is not the case. I am very happy with the drivers; they cannot be blamed for anything. We know where we are weak, where we are strong, and the weakness is not with the drivers. F1 is full of surprises, some good, some bad, and we will see what happens. I tell you one thing – I will do everything possible to be successful next year,” – he pauses, looking hard at me – “whatever it takes.”

Many in the team, during its various incarnations, will have heard these words before. Ian Phillips, who bears the rather grand title of director of business affairs, is one of Grand Prix racing’s survivors. This battle-scarred veteran has seen it all, run the gauntlet, and been here from EJ to Vijay. Interestingly, after 30 years in F1, he remains positive. Perhaps this is the secret of his survival. Phillips believes the team has potential, that minnows can swim with sharks provided the conditions are right.

“We are recovering from a period of some poor management and no investment. But we have regained our respectability,” he says. “When Eddie Jordan sold up we lost the heart of the team, but now with Mike Gascoyne and Mark Smith coming back the engineering side is working well. There’s a long way to go, but we have visible leadership in Vijay Mallya. People take notice of what he says. You’ve got to realise that F1 is all about resources. Yes, we need inspirational leadership from day to day, but we are competing against teams with 1000 people, and some of them having been at work on next year’s car since last winter. We are simply not in that position, but we are in better shape than we’ve been for a long time despite all the upheaval. Next year you might just see one of the smaller teams hitting the sweet spot with the new rules before the big manufacturer teams. Mike Gascoyne coming back here was the catalyst for attracting good people – and there are reasons to be confident.”

There’s something about these guys who came up through the University of Jordan, the graduates of a slightly eccentric system that saw EJ finally achieve his ambition of winning a Grand Prix. Force India team manager is Andy Stevenson, a Jordan graduate and an absolute racer, a man who simply wants it all to come right for his new patron.

“You may not see it on the TV, or in the magazines, but what we are achieving is remarkable,” he says with genuine pride. “We still miss Eddie, even though he sometimes caused more problems than he fixed, but life moves on. Vijay has brought a buzz back to the factory, put a smile on people’s faces. In a team like ours everybody has a job to do, everybody is flat out, each one an important cog in a small machine. We’re punching above our weight and that’s a good feeling, keeps us all motivated. People talk a lot about next season and what it will mean for us but I don’t see this as a problem – it’s a challenge, and we like those. I mean, that’s what we do: we build racing cars and then we work hard to make them go faster. We’ll take it in our stride; we always have done, and I’ll keep on asking everyone to give that little bit more. We may be a small team but we are dedicated to the cause. Having hundreds of people doesn’t always solve the problems – we’ve proved that in the past.”

So, in football terms, are we comparing Hull City with Manchester United when we ruminate on the chances of Force India getting on terms with the big boys? Well, yes and no. Yes, because the resources are simply worlds apart and Vijay Mallya, however deep his pockets, cannot hope to put that kind of cash on the table. No, because the passion is there, and in motor racing this intangible force can sometimes make all the difference. The man from Mumbai is predictably positive.

“We are now focusing on 2009 and we will produce a nice car,” he says.

“I expect the team to get into Q2 on a regular basis, to be racing for places in the midfield. But I have to balance my ambitions against practical realities – I cannot spend a hundred million on making the car go one second faster – and F1 has never been so ruthlessly competitive as it is now. In this game, baby steps count for a lot and we have taken those steps. We’ve surprised many people in the paddock, and this team is most certainly no longer a non-entity. My people know what I want; now they have to deliver.”

This is a story that is just beginning. The half-term report says ‘must try harder, will try harder’, and the next chapter is a cliff-hanger. This little team should be green with envy, looking up the pitlane at the squillions being spent by the men from Maranello and Woking, but if anything it spurs them on. There is much talk of ‘issues’ and ‘agendas’ in the F1 paddock but the buzz word at Force India is challenge. I hope they make it. If they don’t, it won’t be for any lack of effort.