As a combination, it's exciting: the punching-above-its weight Force India team and the cutting edge of the new generation drivers in Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg.
Di Resta was every bit as composed and super-quick in his rookie season as his formidable résumé suggested he'd be. This is a guy who once beat Lewis Hamilton to a national karting title, beat teammate Sebastian Vettel to the European Formula 3 championship and who combined his 2010 position as Force India's Friday driver with a triumphant campaign in the DTM.
That third driver role was taken over in 2011 by Hulkenberg, 2010's starring rookie, who scored that sensational pole position for Williams in Brazil. His career so far rivals that of di Resta's – a champion in pretty much everything he's contested.
Which of them is better? That'll be one of the fascinating prospects of the 2012 F1 season. Each of them is extravagantly gifted, smart, bursting to prove a point, and not programmed for failure.
The team on one side, its drivers on the other, lend each other traction in the great game upward. But a driver can make that move faster than a team – if his efforts with the smaller team get him signed to a bigger one. The two sides use each other in the shared acceptance that this is the game. The gap between “have” and “have-not” teams is too big to make it feasible that a driver and team grow together, becoming big-league mutually. The driver's career span is so much shorter than a team's and, unlike a driver, a team can quite feasibly survive indefinitely in the mid-grid. So the fast young driver uses the respectably performing smaller team to gain career traction, giving impetus and energy to the team in the process, helping it transcend its circumstances. This is how it's poised as Force India embarks upon 2012.
It's come a long way in six years – from vying with Minardi in propping up the grid to taking sixth in the 2011 constructors championship. In fact, by the end of last year, that sixth place under-sold the Force India VJM04's competitiveness. Developed relentlessly, it was by then comfortably the fifth-fastest car and was even putting pressure on the fourth fastest – Mercedes, the works arm of the entity that supplies Force India's engines.
“Force India is a classic example of a team that understands how to get the best from what it's got and doesn't get too distracted by what it hasn't got,” says Gary Anderson, a technical director of this team when it was called Jordan. Two years ago, Sauber technical director James Key was “blown away” by how much more powerful the Swiss team's simulation tools were than those of the Force India team he'd just left. Yet Force India comfortably out-scored Sauber last year. “There are many better-resourced teams out there with more advanced wind tunnels, bigger CFD departments, etc.,” continues Anderson, “but many of them have made bad decisions with their designs or developments or they do not run as smoothly. Over-inflated big name egos are just not part of this team; there are some really good people there who just work together very well.”