Force India has made an interesting move in signing Nicholas Latifi as its test and reserve driver for F1 this season. The 22 year old Canadian will support the simulator programme and drive during a number of Friday practice sessions next year.
Force India brought on Paul Di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg in this way.
The Force India team is the poster boy of F1 midfield teams; consistently able to punch above its budget weight in the F1 series, beating manufacturer backed teams like Renault and McLaren Honda last year as well as fellow Mercedes engined customer Williams.
Last season the team finished fourth in the constructors’ championship, but is facing up to some new realities for 2018 and beyond. One is the likelihood of slipping behind Renault and its new customer McLaren and another is the economic reality.
The team has managed brilliantly despite the headwinds of F1’s financial climate, which rewards the top teams with generous bonuses – $100m in Ferrari’s case – but not the midfield teams. The team receives in the region of $72m a year from F1, compared to $180m for Ferrari and $97m for McLaren. Then it has sponsorship and shareholder funding to add to that to make its budget of around $120m.
Main shareholder Vijay Mallya clearly has his hands full in the courts at the moment and the relationship with drinks brand Diageo is complicated, so the signing of Latifi is clearly a tactical move by the team.
It receives around $12m a year from the backers of Sergio Perez and some small offset from Mercedes for running Esteban Ocon. They provided wonderful entertainment last season and are likely to do so again in 2018, but Force India must also look beyond that and in Latifi they have a young driver who has competed at the front in GP2 and won a race last year in F2 and who has similar levels of backing to Lance Stroll at Williams.
As Liberty Media gets down to the serious business of reshaping the commercial relationships between the sport and its teams from 2021 onwards, we are starting to see teams in the midfield making these tactical plays to ensure survival in the belief that the new deal after 2020 will level the playing field a little more for them.
Williams is set to announce Sergey Sirotkin soon as its second driver alongside Stroll. Sirotkin brings an estimated $30m over two years, which will take Williams to the end of 2019.
Latifi will contribute a more modest sum as a test and reserve driver, but if that becomes a race seat in 2019 it is likely to be in a similar bracket. Mallya in his quote announcing the deal said, “Nicholas will learn a huge amount as he gets embedded in the team, and looks forward to a career in Formula One.”
This very specific wording suggests that this is the first step in a longer collaboration.
“I’m really excited about the opportunity,” said Latifi. “Sahara Force India is a team that has shown constant improvement for the last few years and I’m proud to become a part of one of the success stories of Formula One. I am eager to show the team what I can do and help them as they continue to close the gap to the front of the grid.”
Force India gave young British hopeful George Russell some test and practice outings last year and is hopeful of maintaining its relationship with the Mercedes protege, who will race in F2 this season.
But clearly there is a time for pragmatism.
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