During the weekend of the Belgian Grand Prix 2018, Force India was easily the most discussed team in the paddock. The early discussions about the team's ownership status and drivers, Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez’s stellar performances in qualifying meant that the team was also applauded for their sporting success.
Come Race Day, Force India finished 5th and 6th — scoring 18 championship points to already jump Williams in the Constructors’ Championship. In fact, Ocon almost challenged Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton for the lead on the first lap.
Formula One acted in Force India’s interests
First things first, all of Formula One’s stakeholders need to be commended for helping solve Force India’s issues in time for the weekend. This was a possible first for the sport and a hint at the influence, Liberty Media probably has over the participant teams. Lawrence Stroll and his consortium (called Racing Point) could complete only an asset sale — they bought the cars and the factory; all the ingredients the team would require to go racing. However, the legal entity that was permitted to race in Formula One was actually Force India and not Racing Point.
The sale of Force India was actually complicated because Vijay Mallya’s creditors from India were yet to give their nod for sale of the team. However, with the asset sale approved by the administrators, Mallya’s creditors would feel shortchanged. Their freezing orders are now on a company that is defunct and has no assets or income from the Formula 1 prize money.
Vijay Mallya: credit where it is due
There is merit in discussing Vijay Mallya’s leadership at Force India. His direction took the team to their best ever performances in 2016 and 2017, when the team finished 4th (the ‘best of the rest’) in the Constructors’ Championship. However, Mallya’s legal issues from other businesses finally caught up and affected Force India. Let’s remember, Kingfisher Airlines was grounded in October 2012 and it took nearly six years for the impact to be felt on Force India. That the team needed timely funds not to go down under was a publicly discussed fact for those traveling to the races and interacting with the Force India staff. In fact, the Force India team personnel and drivers have been honest and upfront about this issue all along.
Mallya, an astute businessman, knew that Force India’s performances and rise in the Constructors’ Championship would attract investors and he publicly acknowledged that a sale would be possible for the ‘right price’. There were a few public attempts by opportunistic brands to buy into Force India, but an actual sale never took place. It wouldn’t be too surprising if Mallya asked for a premium given his team’s performances. Was the sale price too high for a company that performed well on-track, but didn’t have too healthy a balance sheet? Or is the business of owning a Formula One team too risky for most investors? Either way, given Liberty Media’s attempts to ‘rationalise’ the business of Formula One, now is possibly the best time to invest in a Formula One team. It is only a shame that Force India’s sale was on distress.
Racing Point Force India has started this Belgian Grand Prix with zero points, but with access to their full prize money earned last year. This too was a first for Formula One because such a decision relied on the benevolence of other competing teams (nine of them, in this case). Force India’s rivals actually voted in Force India’s favour - another feather in Liberty Media’s cap. Each rival team has foregone at least $3 million of additional prize money (basically, Force India’s share would have been divided by 9) by agreeing to let Force India keep their share.
However, Force India’s drivers were permitted to keep their points in the Drivers’ Championship, a reason that the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) stewards used to explain why the new entrant ‘Racing Point Force India’ didn’t receive a new engine allocation for the rest of the season. By the way, the FIA accepted Racing Point’s mid-season entry to the Formula One World Championship by accepting a higher entry fee basis as per the current rules.
Lance Stroll vs Sergio Perez/ Esteban Ocon?
There are reports that Lance Stroll would jump into one of the Force India cockpits as early as Monza, leaving Force India to decide which driver to retain for the remainder of 2018. Although Force India’s newly-appointed Team Principal (formerly the team’s COO), Otmar Szafnauer suggested that Sergio Perez and Ocon would be retained by the team for Monza at least. This would mean that Stroll would need to wait till Singapore to get himself into one of his dad’s cars.
However, one could assume that the uncertainty around Force India’s participation and legal status (within Formula One) was one of the reasons why Stroll chose to stick to Williams at Spa. Also, there are existing contracts (Stroll-Williams, Perez and Ocon-Force India) that would need careful maneuvering to ensure that no bridge is burnt in the process; even more so because Ocon is a Mercedes junior driver. Although there’s a good chance that Stroll’s move to Force India in 2018 will end up in tears for one of the drivers on the grid.
At Spa, almost every media person tried to get the drivers (Stroll, Perez and Ocon) to address their immediate future with the team, but the attempts were futile. However, a cameraman’s unexpected capture of a conversation between Sebastian Vettel and Esteban Ocon after Saturday’s qualifying session gave much headway into what the lineup could be in the future.
Force India’s legacy
Force India, under Mallya’s leadership, didn’t succumb to pay driver pressures despite the apparent financial stress. Yes, Adrian Sutil and Sergio Perez did bring money to the team, but these weren’t the pure pay driver deals (although Sutil’s initial entry could be argued). The team’s sponsorship department worked hard to raise money from the drivers’ native markets - the way it is traditionally done in the sport. In the case of Paul Di Resta and now Esteban Ocon, the team offered Mercedes junior drivers a seat with the intention to earn a discount on their expenses with Mercedes - engines and gearboxes.
For Force India, Perez brings the money from Mexican sponsors and the podiums (most crucial!). Both of these are important to attract more sponsorship to the team. In Ocon’s case, he brings a discount from Mercedes. If Force India has chosen Perez over Ocon (Perez claims he has signed an extension for 2019), their decision would be understandable. They would also keep in mind that Ocon would be Mercedes-bound soon, while Perez’s chances with a top-team are diminishing with every passing season and it would be good to retain him (and his points and sponsors) for as long as they can. Although there is little chance that Force India’s decision to hire Stroll’s partner for the rest of 2018 and all of 2019 could be different. Let’s hope the team doesn’t hire a driver just because he would be easier for Stroll to beat.
Stroll vs Mazepin
Finally, the news surrounding Force India’s sale might not have concluded in entirety. Uralkali, the company owned by Force India’s test driver Nikita Mazepin’s father, was also one of the bidders for Force India’s business. They have claimed that the administrators hasn’t acted in the best interest of the team and have asked for clarifications before 10 September failing which they could initiate further legal action. It is interesting how Force India has suddenly become the centre of attraction for two wealthy fathers trying their best to fuel their son’s Formula One careers.
All in all, Lawrence Stroll and his partners have bought a team with a strong legacy in Formula One — Jordan and then Force India. As the team is considering a new name for 2019, let’s hope that the new owners are able to build on the legacy built by their predecessors. As for Indian motorsport fans, the sale of Force India is the last of the strongest Indian connection in Formula One.
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Updated Date: Aug 28, 2018 10:18:03 IST