Force India have gradually improved from back-of-the-grid stragglers to among the most competitive midfield contenders since Vijay Mallya took over the team four years ago.
That progress continued in 2011 despite the loss of several top technical staff last year. The team ended the year sixth, their best finish since 2002, when they were still known as Jordan.
And they were just four points shy of Renault in the teams’ standings.
Vitantonio Liuzzi made way for Paul di Resta at the start of the year and the rookie impressed from the beginning of the season, out-qualifying Adrian Sutil in the first three races.
The pair inherited points in Melbourne after the two Saubers were disqualified. That aside it was a slow start to the season for the team, picking up ten points in the first seven races.
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But the VJM04s made regular appearances in the top ten later in the year, scoring in all bar one of the final ten races. This was due to a combination of reasons.
They included the progress the team made with the car, Renault’s decline in form, and Sutil taking time to come to terms with the new specification tyres.
Sutil’s form improved around the middle of the season and he increasingly lead Force India’s incursions into the points. He beat Nico Rosberg at the Nurburgring to take sixth place and repeated the feat in the season finale.
Di Resta matched his team mate’s best result at Singapore after gambling on starting the race on soft tyres. But similar daring strategies in India and Abu Dhabi failed to pay dividends and were probably employed by the team in an effort to hold on to their best-ever position sixth in the world championship.
If so, this policy was ultimately vindicated. It’s possible they could have taken fifth, but they probably never expected Renault to do quite as badly as they did in the second half of the year.
Pit stops were another of the team’s strengths. Thought not ultimately as quick as the likes of Red Bull or Mercedes, Force India were among the three fastest teams in the pits on nine occasions this year.
An unfortunate exception was Silverstone, where di Resta was badly delayed when he happened to pit on the same lap Sutil had come in with a puncture.
The team continued its 2010 policy of giving track time to a junior driver on Fridays, Nico Hulkenberg taking over from di Resta or Sutil on alternate weekends. This usually did not disrupt their weekends except in Valencia, when Hulkenberg crashed the car and left di Resta unable to do more than a handful of laps in the second session.
More misfortune afflicted di Resta in Germany and Belgium, where he was hit by rivals on the first lap. But he had a few run-ins of his own doing as well, notably in Canada (with Nick Heidfeld) and Monaco (with Jaime Alguersuari), which earned him his two penalties of the year.
Those indiscretions aside, this was an impressive F1 debut for a driver who spent the last four seasons doing just ten races a year in touring cars, and lacking the experience at many F1 venues enjoyed by the likes of Sergio Perez and Pastor Maldonado.
It leaves the team weighing up whether to drop either of its drivers – both of which were impressive in their own right – to make way for Hulkenberg, who also clearly belongs in F1. A decision is expected within the next few days.
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- What F1 Fanatics really thought of the 2011 season
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Images © Force India F1 Team, Pirelli/LAT