Force India finished fourth in the world championship for the last two years in a row. And there is no shortage of threats to its position as ‘best of the rest’ behind F1’s top trio of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.
But the team isn’t going into the 2018 F1 season just looking over its shoulder, as chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer explains speaking exclusively to RaceFans.
Following the launch of the VJM11 at the Circuit de Catalunya, Szafnauer reveals they want to take the fight to the top teams – and they believe they can do it on a fraction of the budget.
While admitting the team operates on one of the smallest budgets in F1, along with Sauber, Szafnauer says the team is targeting “the budget that’s required to do even better.”
“There’s no secret that there’s a high correlation between money and success in this business,” he says. “Now you can do well on a limited budget but on that limited budget you’ve got to ask yourself ‘can you win it’? Probably not.”
“So we look forward, because we’re a bunch of racers, to doing the best we can. If we can accumulate even more budget such that we can translate that into more performance, that’s what we’re about.”
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His estimate of how much money the team needs to raise its sights to the top three may seem low. “I think where we stand now in the region [of] £15 million more per year [will] take us challenging third.”
“If you challenge third you’ve got to punch clever and actually get third,” he adds. “But another £15 million we should be able to.”
But under F1’s prize money structure the rewards for Force India moving up from fourth to third would be considerably less, in the region of £3-4 million. This illustrates Force India’s predicament.
“If you can get to third then you get that money,” agrees Szafnauer. “But you’ve got to have the money first and then you get to third.”
The root of the problem facing the team is the manner in which F1’s revenues are distributed. Some of it is distributed among all the teams as prize money, but large chunks also go to favoured Constructors Championship Bonus teams excluding, among others, Force India.
It points to why F1 needs “a more equitable distribution of the money”, as Szafnauer explains. “Can you imagine going from fourth to third and you only get three or four million more? It should be a lot more.”
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“The reason you only go up a little bit is because a lot has been taken up by the bonuses. Get rid of those bonuses and you can make those steps chunkier.”
But earlier this year Force India, along with Sauber, dropped the complaint against Formula One it had brought to the European Union. Its objection to F1’s prize money distribution was one aspect of the complaint.
While no change has been made to how the money is shared out, Szafnauer says it withdrew the complaint “because we have a greater collaboration now with the commercial rights holder and they’re saying the right things that they want to do the same.” It’s a clear signal of their confidence in Liberty Media’s intention to rebalance a sport which is tilted against independent outfits like Force India.
They’re going to have to be patient, however. Szafanuer doesn’t expect any change in the prize money situation before 2021. Until then they have a fight on their hands.
Force India’s midfield opposition has become more threatening in the off-season. “We’ve got to box clever,” says Szafnauer “For sure it worries me.”
The rise of rapidly-expanding manufacturer rival Renault is the most obvious threat. McLaren are desperate to come out fighting after three years in the Honda doldrums. And a renewed threat from Force India’s closest competitor of the past few seasons is also on Szafnauer’s radar.
“Williams [have] a chief aerodynamicist that came from Ferrari [Dirk de Beer] and Paddy Lowe’s won a lot with Mercedes so they know what they’re doing.” Plus, he adds, “they’ve got more money than we do.”
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Force India is expanding its workforce, though not as rapidly as the likes of Renault or Sauber. The emphasis is on “hiring the right people.” Doing more with less is this team’s mantra, and without the injection of capital needed to become top-three contenders, holding on to fourth place will be an achievement.
Szafnauer believes it’s a fight they can win. “I can’t predict the future but for sure we can do fourth.”
“If we don’t it’s because it was a close competition and somebody else got us. But for sure we’ve got the potential to finish fourth.”
Otmar Szafnauer spoke to RaceFans at the launch of the Force India VJM11 at the Circuit de Catalunya.
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