Williams and Force India Heading in Opposite Directions After Bahrain Grand Prix

Matthew WalthertFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2014

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN - APRIL 06:  Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India drives during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 6, 2014 in Sakhir, Bahrain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

During Formula One preseason testing, the two midfield teams with the most buzz were Williams and Force India.

After three races, though both teams have performed significantly better than they did in 2013, they are headed in opposite directions.

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN - APRIL 06:  Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India celebrates finishing third during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 6, 2014 in Sakhir, Bahrain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

In Bahrain, Force India secured their best result of the season when Sergio Perez came home third. In fact, it was the team's best finish since Giancarlo Fisichella nearly won the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix, ultimately settling for second.

Meanwhile, after Valtteri Bottas finished fifth in Australia (which could have been even higher), Williams have scored two straight seventh- and eighth-place finishes, with Felipe Massa leading Bottas across the line both times.

Considering the team had only two points-scoring finishes all of last year, this is a stunning improvement. But it is also a long way from the race victories, or at least podiums, that have been predicted in some quarters.

Scoring consistently—10 points in each race—has allowed Williams, now fifth in the Constructors' Championship, to stay in touch with big spenders like Ferrari and Red Bull.

It seems like Force India, though, is just getting rolling. The team from Silverstone has improved their points haul in each race, and despite Perez suffering a gearbox failure, which prevented him from starting in Malaysia, they are now second in the Constructors' standings.

In Bahrain, Nico Hulkenberg was battling the two Red Bulls at the end of the race, managing to hold off Sebastian Vettel for his second fifth-place finish in a row.

Vijay Mallya
Vijay MallyaScott Heavey/Getty Images

Incredibly, team principal Vijay Mallya thought the team's best-ever grand prix (at least in terms of points scored) should have been even better. He told the official F1 website after the race that, "The safety car compromised us as we should have finished three and four - because of the safety car we lost the gap - but we still raced and we won third and fifth places on merit and not because of somebody else’s misfortune or somebody else’s hard luck story."

Both Force India and Williams have similarly limited budgets. As they are both using Mercedes power units, the differences between them will have to be found elsewhere.

One important area where Force India has the advantage is in the cockpit. Hulkenberg is a legitimate star-in-the-making, and only his inferior car last season kept him off the podium. In 2014, it is only a matter of time.

Bottas leads Massa in Bahrain.
Bottas leads Massa in Bahrain.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Perez proved his talent two years ago at Sauber but was unlucky to move to McLaren for one of the worst seasons in the team's history. The Mexican was then dumped to make room for Kevin Magnussen, but the skill he showed in 2012 has not disappeared, as he proved in Bahrain.

At Williams, while Bottas has demonstrated his immense potential on a few occasions, he is still young and prone to mistakes (see the Australian Grand Prix for an example). Massa has won 11 grands prix and is a sentimental favourite, but his last victory came in 2008.

Where Williams do have an advantage—and not just over Force India—is in straight-line speed. Here are the top five cars through the speed trap for each race this season:

2014 Speed Trap Leaders
1.Magnussen (316.9 kph)Massa (324.5 kph)Massa (335.7 kph)
2.Bottas (312.5 kph)Bottas (320.6 kph)Rosberg (333.8 kph)
3.Kvyat (306.3 kph)Hulkenberg (312.9 kph)Bottas (331.6 kph)
4.Alonso (304.5 kph)Rosberg (312.7 kph)Button (331.2 kph)
5.Hulkenberg (304.2 kph)Kvyat (310.0 kph)Perez (329.7 kph)

In Australia, Massa would likely have joined his teammate near the top of the chart had he not been taken out by Kamui Kobayashi at the first corner of the race.

Top-end speed is not everything, though. On a relatively small budget, Williams will struggle to close the gap to the teams ahead of them in terms of aerodynamic performance as the development race heats up.

While they should be able to challenge, and maybe beat, the Renault- and Ferrari-powered teams—including even Red Bull and Ferrari—over the course of the season, beating Force India and the other Mercedes teams is unlikely.

Perez held off everyone but the two Mercedes in Bahrain.
Perez held off everyone but the two Mercedes in Bahrain.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

In the meantime, if Force India remains on the same upward trajectory, the win F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone predicted for them before the season is certainly within reach.

It may require some misfortune at Mercedes, but if Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg continue duelling as they did in Bahrain, something is bound to go wrong eventually. Had one of them locked a wheel during one of their many side-by-side tussles, it could have been Perez on the top step of the podium at Sakhir.

No matter what, though, both teams should be very proud of their improvements since 2013. Even having midfield teams talked about as potential race winners is refreshing compared to last year's single-team domination.

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