Monday 12 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: Force India - Changing context

Force India's predicament says a few things about life. That all things are relative. That no man (or F1 team) is an island entirely of itself. That all is judged in its zeitgeist.

Photo: Octane Photography
Force India is by consensus F1's best team pound for pound (which works on a metaphorical weight and a literal money level). It allies a strong power unit and gearbox with an almost as strong driver line up, sound development and sensible race strategies. A slimmed down operation that makes the best of what it has.

These days it gets plenty of respect to go with its comfortable fourth place in the constructors' standings last year - a particularly towering achievement given it came after a big rule change that often catches the smaller teams out. But even so Force India's expected to fall in 2018.

All to do with the sort of phenomena outlined at the outset. Renault, rearming itself as a works squad, is expected to improve. McLaren, having shed its dread Honda, is expected to improve. The assumption is that both will clear Force India in 2018. Without Force India especially doing anything wrong.

Test running suggested the team may meet its fate halfway though. It was all rather underwhelming, the car appeared generally behind many of its rivals on grip, and stabs at calculating the pecking order tended to have it in the bottom half. Sometimes quite far into the bottom half.

Sergio Perez made pessimistic noises about where the Force India is, though oddly his stable-mate Esteban Ocon was much more positive.

But it is Force India's way to start basic with its car but allow lots of development potential. And plenty new is promised on the machine for Melbourne. The team insisted that its Barcelona showings were more about doing homework than chasing performance yet.

And Force India has surprised us plenty before. After all it's far from the first season that we've entered expecting more lavish teams to surpass it - and it's not happened. History tells us never to underestimate this squad.

Sergio Perez - Car #11
Photo: Octane Photography
Perhaps in the same way that a dog is said to take on characteristics of its owner, Sergio Perez has taken on a similar predicament to his team. For a while consistently best of the rest outside the 'big three' squads and bagging points ravenously. But equally doesn't appear to have anywhere to progress - caught in a strange purgatory of maximising what he's doing in the midfield but with little possibility of promotion to the big guys. And like his team he is at sudden risk of being usurped, and not especially due to anything he himself is doing worse.

Last season was a continuation for Perez. He's scored in 27 of the last 30 races and he again racked up the points with eight-out-of-ten type drives in most rounds.

But as noted like his team things are threatening to get away from him somewhat. As 2017 progressed his fast young team-mate Esteban Ocon started to sneak ahead with something like regularity. Such is F1's way before you knew it Perez was being consigned to a mental recess while Ocon got the rave reviews and links to sought after drives. It didn't help that the relationship got spiky, and that Perez wasn't often in the right. He could really do with hitting the ground running this campaign. But for the reasons given, even if he does it's not clear what Perez can run towards.

Esteban Ocon - Car #31
Photo: Octane Photography
A man who almost single-handedly gives lie to the modern claim that it's near-impossible for young guys to distinguish themselves in F1.

In his first full campaign last year, at Force India, Esteban Ocon won many admirers. His team talk of one who is mature, who continuously improves as well as has great car control that allows him to get away with most things. He is popular out of the car too, with a Sebastian Vettel-esque amiability allied with steel when required. He needed this as his relationship with team-mate Sergio Perez this got testy as the season went on, and Ocon indeed seemed to react the better in and out of the car.

It's hard to find fault with him in his driving either. He had an unblemished run of finishes lasting over a year before the Brazil round; he's quick enough to consistently match strong yardsticks in Pascal Wehrlein and Perez; he's a racer too. Only he didn't get a single stewards' reprimand last season. He also got better as the campaign went on and clearly his upward trajectory will continue for a while to come. There was the odd blot - not least pinching Perez into a Baku wall - but they were rare.

The strong campaign should not have been a surprise. After all Ocon beat a certain Max Verstappen to a European F3 crown. And a strong 2018 could well get the Mercedes protegee a promotion to the big team.

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