Force India has been dubbed the ‘best pound-for-pound outfit in Formula 1′ as it looks for consecutive fourth place constructors’ championship finishes this season, and a possible fight with Red Bull for third in 2018.
Without the weight of expectation on Vijay Mallya’s team, Force India has batted away the challenges of Williams, Toro Rosso and Renault in what could have been a tight fourth place battle, with a car that is reliable and fast enough to produce consistent points-scoring finishes.
At the mid season point, the Silverstone-based team sits 83 points behind Red Bull, in fourth place, and 60 points ahead of Williams.
It’s a comfortable position, but with Esteban Ocon taking the fight to Sergio Perez this season, sparks have started flying between the pair and rumours of a civil war duly hit the headlines after the Canadian Grand Prix with an escalation threatening the team after the Azerbaijan GP.
The tension that’s present in the Red Bull camp isn’t so palpable at Force India yet, with former Manor F1 driver Ocon providing a healthy dose of competition to fourth-year Force India racer Perez. Ocon has earned 45 points compared to Perez’s 56 points and it’s already clear that Ocon’s second fiddle status has quickly faded.
It is, however, a worry for the team that Ocon took out his team-mate at Baku, and the team has had to address the issue internally. In a recent interview, Ocon attempted to cool the situation but denied that the collision in Azerbaijan was his fault alone as the circuit was a ‘state of emergency’.
“We ended his 15-race scoring streak! We!” maintained 20-year old Ocon.
“I went to the factory right afterwards and the team said that it was a race incident and that we both made mistakes.
“Of course that shouldn’t happen – but a race on such a track is close to a state of emergency. We have been told that we should be more careful in the future as it was not only his fault or only my fault. End of story.”
Ocon also hinted that he’s working harder than his Mexican team-mate due to a lack of experience.
“I have to work very hard! I have a lot less experience than Sergio [Perez] so I have to catch up on so many details that come naturally to him.
“Before and after each race I am mostly in the factory for simulator work. I think that is what makes a big difference.
“I don’t want to say a number,” he replied to a question asked about his training efforts compared to Perez’s. “So let’s put it this way: [I put in] a lot more!”
“I am not here to stay behind him all the time. I want to push – very hard,” said Ocon.
Perez delivers, and he is being pushed even after his previous, experienced team-mate Nico Hulkenberg moved to Renault. With a proven track record of 18 points finishes from the last 20 races, just one retirement in the last 40 races (at Baku 2017) and 125 career starts, Perez has played a significant role in giving Force India its ‘best pound-for-pound’ badge.
The catch here for Force India is that Perez is verging on wantaway status. At this mid-point, he’s pushing for a new contract with the team knowing that the frontrunners are keeping tabs on his talents. With a lower budget than its competitors, Force India has the dilemma either of delivering a new, more expensive contract or letting go of a proven prospect.
“In terms of my future, I just hope that once I come back to the next race, after the summer break, I can have a new contract,” Perez said to ESPN in August.
“That would be good you know, but you never know what will happen.
“I think the team has been moving forwards every year. Although last year we achieved the same position which we have now which is fourth, I think we have consolidated that fourth place.
“I think the team is moving forwards; there is a lot more interest in terms of sponsorship into the team, more investment but it’s not easy to make the next step with the big boys, with the big teams, it’s not easy.”
Don’t rule out a move for Perez, but it all seems to hinge on a more lucrative contract from Force India, and the possibility of a third place challenge in 2018; neither of those possibilities are out of the question.
Force India’s 2017 season in numbers
The most reliable team in F1 right now is Force India, with 1334 raced laps – the highest number completed so far this season – over Mercedes’ 1330.
While the Mercedes engine delivers for Force India, the chassis isn’t as strong as Red Bull’s, which explains why Red Bull retains the third place constructors’ position, even though the team has completed the fewest raced laps out of any team this season: 928.
Reliability failures have been all but non-existent for Force India this year and its only DNF classification came from Perez’s collision with Ocon in Azerbaijan this year.
The team has finished in a non-points scoring position only in Monaco (Ocon 12th and Perez 13th), also managing to stay on the lead lap in six out of 11 races in a consecutive stretch from Bahrain to Azerbaijan.
Ocon may seem like the second driver if we purely examine how many laps Perez has led over the Frenchman, with Perez leading that head-to-head 516-156. That’s not such a scathing statistic considering Ocon finishes in an average position of 8.3, compared to Perez’s average finishing position of 7.5.
The competition remains close when we factor in the average numbers of positions gained as Ocon gains 2.8 per race compared to Perez’s one. In fact, Ocon has only finished lower than his starting position once this season, having lost one place from seventh at Silverstone.
Perez wins almost all the head-to-head battles when it comes to fastest laps (intra-team) and qualifying with 10 fastest laps over Ocon’s one. Ocon lapped faster than his team-mate only in Canada, when, controversially, the team couldn’t convince Perez to swap place with Ocon for a likely podium finish over the slowing Daniel Ricciardo in front.
The Mexican almost sweeps the qualifying battle 9-2, only being out-qualified by his team-mate in Bahrain and Monaco, but the difference between the two remains narrow as Ocon has an average starting position of 11th, compared to Perez’s ninth.
Ocon is threatening, then, to catch up to his team-mate over the second half of the season with just an 11 point gap between the two. A clear upward trend of qualifying performances from the Frenchman – starting the season qualifying no better than 10th before the Canadian GP but continuing the season with a string of top 10 qualifying performances up from Hungary, where he qualified 12th – starts to paint a picture of a thriving team-mate battle within the Force India camp.
That’s not to say that Perez is in a slump, rather that Ocon has gotten a firm grip on the VJM10’s wheel and when he makes his 21st career start in the Belgian GP on August 27, expect the two to be neck and neck; the gap will close even more over the remaining races.
The question lingers: will tempers in the Force India camp continue to flare?
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