The team which will be looking to 2009 with the most optimism will be Force India. With their new collaboration with McLaren, the removal of Mike Gascoyne and Colin Kolles from management, and Vijay Mallya running the team, there is a lot of changing going on in the little Brackley team. The hope is that they are changing for the better.
Mallya has aimed high, claiming that the team should be able to fight for points in 2009 and even challenge for wins in 2010. It's an outlandish claim which seems naive, as the team failed to score points this year.
However, with more money going into Force India (supposedly) and the new McLaren collaboration, there is hope of at least seeing a more competitive team than at least 2008.
The contract between Force India and McLaren calls for them to be supplied with engines, gearboxes, and, perhaps the most important of all, KERS. This immediately puts the Force India team at an advantage as they do not have to develop KERS. The deal basically gives them about one second of pace on a platter.
This is a bit of a coup for Force India; KERS has been a real dog to master. Toyota has already stated their belief that their KERS will not be ready until midseason, while Ferrari has also struggled to perfect the system.
Force India will not have to worry about this tricky piece and can concentrate on the new aero rules and tune their car accordingly.
Of course the KERS system is not the only benefit. Force India will also receive the McLaren engine and gearbox, which are extremely reliable, fast, efficient, and state of the art. In the last three seasons McLaren, has seen just two retirements from mechanical failure.
With this technical package sealed, Vijay Mallya is confident about the future.
"Winning races I think I can certainly aspire for, maybe in 2010. But, for 2009, I would be happy if we are regularly in the points. That would be already a major step forward." (Autosport.com)
Those are strong words from a man who runs a team that failed to score this year.
However, the team is helped by the uncertainty that surrounds the 2009 season. It is obvious from the talk that many teams will bring out two cars during winter: one car to develop and fine tune, the other with all the goodies and parts which will replace the winglets seen in 2008.
This is to prevent prying eyes from copying their designs and take the upper hand. Indeed, it seems that Australia 2009 is certainly going to be a topsy turvy race.
This allows Force India to dream of F1 glory. But, from Mallya's words, he seems to think that 2011 will be the clincher for the team. Essentially, 2009-10 are the rehearsal years for the moment of destiny—the 2011 Indian Grand Prix.
"I would love to see a Force India car on the podium in the inaugural Indian grand Prix." (Autosport.com)
Of course, with the sense of stability the McLaren package will bring to Force India, they may indeed challenge for a podium in a couple of years. Nobody can predict who will be the fastest in 2011, especially as F1 will look very different to now.
However, my feeling is that Mallya is showing the signs of optimism that always befalls a rather over-reaching team boss.
He expects Force India, on its meager funds, to challenge for wins by 2010? That would be some feat and almost impossible to achieve for a number of simple reasons.
Firstly, Mallya has completely restructured the team, making himself the head of the whole outfit. In one year, Mallya feels he is better suited to running the team than Mike Gascoyne, a highly respected technical director, and Colin Kolles, a man who knows the team inside out.
It seems strange that a man who until this year had no F1 experience believes that his views will represent the best intentions for the team.
Secondly, if Mallya thinks that signing with McLaren will allow the team to win races, he may be in for a bit of a shock. McLaren will not allow Force India to jeopardize the Woking outfit's position.
"If, as a consequence of this relationship, Force India are in a position to give us a hard time on the circuit then I think that's an interesting prospect. That is something that ultimately we've got to respond to. We're in Formula One to compete." (Autosport.com)
McLaren aren't going to control Force India, but they will prevent them from being a threat.
Finally, Mallya is pinning his hopes on the McLaren package propelling them up the grid by itself. On recent form, the Force India car is the slowest on the grid. While 2009 will certainly be less predictable on the technical front, it seems unlikely that a team can go from back markers to front runners in just one season.
Of course, Force India could draw on the experience of Toro Rosso who did that this year. However, Torro Rosso had already shown they could put the car into the points on a regular basis (end of 2007) and also brought in a new car designed completely by a wealthier team, and by one of the juggernauts of F1 design in Adrian Newey.
Force India hasn't shown the potential to move up and, despite bringing in a new car (up to 2009 spec), are not guaranteed it will be quick. As I said, before they had Ferrari engines for two seasons (the first coming under the Spyker banner) and that yielded them just one point.
McLaren isn't offering to build their car, but only to supply them with equipment. Excellent world class equipment, but not something that will propel Force India onto the top of the ladder.
So, while the future is no doubt bright for Force India, brighter than under Midland or Spyker, the Brackley team still has a long way to go. Yes, they will have the engine, KERS, and gearbox under their belt, but they must now build a car which is reliable and fast. Only then will we have a true indication of the potential of Force India in the coming years.
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