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.”
Although the wind tunnel was increased in scale from 40 percent to 50 percent last year, that still leaves it lagging behind the 60 percent models that most top teams routinely use. Despite its expansion, it's essentially still the tunnel used by Anderson in the Jordan days. “There's a lot of value in understanding the basic stuff you have,” he says. “If used correctly, the tunnel correlates but you have to get to know its traits, its little foibles and make allowances for them. Force India does that very, very well. They have a fine understanding of their tools. Just look at the trouble Ferrari got into last year when they tried to develop their tunnel. I'm sure that potentially they have a much more powerful tool, but last year they struggled to understand it. When you're a team the size of Force India you cannot be trying to reinvent the wheel, because the design opportunities are so limited now by the regulations that it's all about optimizing.”
Force India is never going to beat a big team that optimizes effectively, but Force India last year challenged and often beat several that didn't. Mercedes chose an inappropriately short wheelbase, Williams directed huge engineering effort into a miniature gearbox that failed to bring the aero benefit anticipated, Sauber chose not to pursue the aerodynamically powerful Red Bull Racing-type exhaust layout, and Lotus Renault based its whole car around a radical forward-blowing exhaust that turned out to be of limited aero potential. But Force India, its technical director Andy Green, its aerodynamics chief Simon Phillips and engineering director Dominic Harlow made the right calls, without frills. Force India numbers around 270 people, Mercedes and Williams around 450 and Sauber and Renault, 350. The recent re-financing of Force India – the Sahara Group bought a 42.5 percent share last year by way of a $100 million injection – means it shouldn't be hurting too much, but there are no plans to significantly expand the team or its business model.
To an extent, the team's 2012 prospects are not entirely in its own hands. It can be relied upon to come up with another sound design and to develop it relentlessly, but for that to translate as well or better than in 2011 requires all those bigger teams to make similar fundamental errors as they did last season – and that's difficult to envisage. Then again, it's probably significant that the two small teams that over-delivered last year – Force India and Toro Rosso – each had strong technical links to mega-teams, McLaren and Red Bull, respectively. The Mercedes engine/McLaren gearbox package that includes ancillary systems effectively defines the Force India's rear end layout and the 2011 McLaren and Force India did appear to follow very similar development patterns. The technical links to the bigger teams could well be the reason why unproductive concepts and development paths were not followed at either Force India or Toro Rosso, although it's a sensitive subject, impinging as it does upon the delineation between the banned customer cars and what is defined as “technical cooperation.”
There is a Mercedes and McLaren link with di Resta, too, and it's not too difficult to envisage either Force India driver in either one of those teams before too long. Among the three established winning teams – Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari – there are likely to be a couple of seats up for grabs in the near future. Maybe Mercedes will force itself into that mix but, even if it doesn't, Nico Rosberg is in a prime position to get his backside into a winning car. On the driver side, di Resta and Hulkenberg have to force themselves into that same mix with their performances this year. One of either Eric Vergne or Daniel Ricciardo appear set on a Red Bull course while Sergio Perez and Jules Bianchi are the favored young talents at Ferrari. The natural fit for either di Resta or Hulkenberg would be at Mercedes, where the 43-year-old Michael Schumacher cannot stay indefinitely. Alternatively, if Lewis Hamilton was ever able to throw in his lot with Red Bull, where would McLaren look for a replacement? Probably not much further than this year's Force India lineup.
But the problem both sophomores may have in forcing themselves into that rarefied part of the driver market could be the performance of the other. The career momentum of an aspiring “mega-talent” hinges on the perception that he destroys his teammates. It just might be that di Resta and Hulkenberg are too good for one to dominate the other. Their ultimate speed seems similar but it's achieved in quite different ways – and how that dovetails with the requirements of the 2012 car and, more specifically, the new-spec Pirelli tires, might turn out to be very significant. Di Resta's high momentum/smooth input-style has drawn comparisons with Jenson Button. Whenever the challenge is about keeping the rubber from running too hot – which it was for much of the first half of 2011 – then di Resta will look very good indeed. He's also got a Button-like cool clear-headedness in crucial moments. We saw that last year with his confident calls from the cockpit during the tricky intermediate/slicks stage of the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Hulkenberg, on the other hand, has an aggressive, flamboyant style. He's very at ease with oversteer, the sort of technique that found the tire temperature which, to everyone else was elusive that damp Saturday at Interlagos in 2010, where he was on pole by over one second.
The 2012 Pirelli will have a more flexible construction and a wider footprint than the somewhat rigid 2011 tire. Pirelli promises that this will allow it to be more aggressive with compound selection. Keeping the tire alive for competitive stint lengths should become difficult once more, as it was in the first half of '11 before teams were fully on top of the challenge. That might favor di Resta, but the weaker rear (relative to the front) tire suggests the sort of handling traits that may be perfect for Hulkenberg.
Between now and the first race these two will pool their talents in driving the car's development forward. But, come Melbourne, the game changes and their focus narrows from those other teams to the guy in the other side of the same garage. There are glittering future rewards on offer to each, and they are touching the hem of massive future opportunity. The intensity of that internal fight could be the edge that takes Force India past its immediate competition.
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