The sucess of small f1 team force india formula team


11 Mar 2013
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The team that once hit grand prix-winning heights with Jordan reached its Formula 1's nadir in the mid-noughties. Autosport's sister publication F1 Racing tells how the team, now as Force India, became F1's best bang-for-its-buck squad again 

By James Roberts and Dieter Rencken

Close up, placed under the spotlight, the VJM09 is a sleek, refined machine, with its unique slotted nose and tight rear packaging. It's quick, too. This year, Force India vied with Williams to have the fourth-fastest car in F1. Fourth. That's an impressive vault up the grid from the team's humble beginning. In 2008, its first year under the ownership of Indian tycoon Vijay Mallya, Force India languished at the bottom of the constructors' championship, points-free.

Over the following eight seasons, it has risen to snap at the heels of F1's biggest teams. So how has it made such progress on a budget little more than a third of that of the big three ahead - Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari?

The secret is that only a third of the VJM09 is made in the tiny Silverstone factory. Everything else - windtunnel research, the drivetrain, electronics, monocoque, engine cover, sidepods, floor and hydraulics - is outsourced. It makes the team the most cost-effective operation in F1, but reaching this peak of efficiency is the fulfilment of a project many years in the making.

When Eddie Jordan left F1 at the end of 2004, his team passed into the hands of Alex Shnaider, under the Midland moniker, before being sold on to Michiel Mol (cue a 'Spyker' rebrand) and then to Vijay Mallya in 2007. The self-styled 'king of good times' christened the team Force India, and he retains a 42.5% ownership stake equal to that of Sahara's Subrata Roy. The Dutch Mol family still retains a 15% share.

Mallya appointed his long-time ally Bob Fernley to look after day-to-day operations, and Bob continues today as deputy team principal. It's to Fernley's office we retreat from the humid Sepang paddock, to discuss the team's beginnings.

"There were some very good people here who had been part of the team from the Jordan days," says Fernley, "but we had to make some decisions to progress, and that was a pivotal moment for the start of our first five-year plan. We felt it would be helpful to align ourselves with a championship-winning team, so we closed the gearbox department at our factory.

"That was quite an outrageous decision from a staffing point of view, and a lot of people were uncomfortable with it. But Vijay and I tried to explain the rationale behind it: is a McLaren gearbox technically better than a Force India gearbox? Yes. Is a McLaren gearbox more reliable than a Force India gearbox? Yes. Will the deal we put together be more cost-effective? Again, the answer is yes. So which bit of this decision have we got wrong?"

That alliance with McLaren led to a switch to Mercedes as an engine and drivetrain supplier, a partnership that would yield advantages when the hybrid engine formula began in 2014. The link-up also included the use of McLaren's simulator and brought greater CFD know-how.

The union was never intended to last. Fernley likened the relationship to 'learning to ride a bicycle', and the stabilisers were cast aside in 2009, when former Honda man Otmar Szafnauer took over as chief operating officer to replace Simon Roberts, who returned to McLaren. Now freewheeling, Force India has started to make small investments in critical areas to commence the next stage of it development.

Szafnauer takes up the story: "We were in the early days of CFD when I arrived, and we used Tata's supercomputer in India for our experiments. We'd set up programmes, send them to India overnight, and the aim was to get the results the next morning. But the number of times the link broke, the server stopped overnight or we had to wait two days for the results... There were so many inefficiencies that eventually I said, 'Stop. We need our own CFD computer, let's spend the bit of money we do have on that.' Instantly, we saw improvement."

Szafnauer hired Andrew Green as the team's new technical director. Green had worked in the money-no-object environments of both BAR and Red Bull, but leaned on his early experiences at Jordan in the early 1990s to transform a staff of 385, operating on a budget of £90million (compare that with Mercedes' 815 employees/ £250million budget), into F1's most successful team relative to spend.

"On my first week here, I looked at the total annual budget for the team and thought, 'Is this just my R&D budget, or is this really the whole budget?' When I realised it was the latter, it was a shock. But you focus on the bare essentials and build it up from there," says Green.

He cites a formula adhered to by Force India that's known as 'the 80/20 rule', whereby 80% of gain is achieved for 20% of cost.

"We don't spend money on aspects of the car that we believe will give only marginal gains. We know that we can spend half a million pounds on a new suspension system that might yield 0.1 seconds or we could spend the same amount on aerodynamics that could yield a whole second."

He admits maintaining that balance can be "very frustrating" for the 150 Force India engineers who are "champing at the bit to get on and design stuff and make the car go faster."

"I have to rein them in," he adds, "and say, 'We can't look at that area, it's just not efficient, you've got to look somewhere else.' That's what we do on a daily basis. Everyone has bought into that mentality and everyone understands: if we overspend, that's it, we're finished.

"At Red Bull, if you had an idea, you designed it, made it and tested it," he recalls. "And if it didn't work, you threw it away. You'd try everything and pick the bits that worked. I'd love to do that, but we don't have the money. So we pick our shots wisely and make sure that every one of them hits the right target."

One of the first goals was investment into CFD; another was to create a tyre research department when the transition was made from Bridgestone to Pirelli in 2011. That's been instrumental in Sergio Perez achieving four podiums over the past three years, using smart strategy and in-race tyre preservation.

More recently the decision was made to rent windtunnel time in Toyota's state-of-the-art 60% scale facility in Germany, rather than upgrade Jordan's old 50% scale tunnel in Brackley. It was more cost-effective to outsource and the high-fidelity results of the Toyota tunnel have resulted in a greater correlation between CFD experiments and on-track performance.

As the FIA sporting regulations are limiting windtunnel usage, teams are discovering that by running their own tunnels they are increasingly spending more time improving their efficiency. It's another example of Force India's cost-effective way of operating, as its windtunnel time can focus purely on performance.

The same principle applies to the VJM09. There is a small machining and composites department at Silverstone where the team makes its own front and rear wings, steering wheels and suspension. Much of the rest of the car is made by local specialist suppliers. The floor, sidepods and engine cover are outsourced. The hydraulics are from Mercedes, as are the power unit, drivetrain and gearbox. The wiring loom is bought in, too. But over the next three to five years the team will bring more in-house and increase its self-sufficiency.

More machines and larger autoclaves need more space, and any upgrade at Dadford Road HQ will have a detrimental effect on the process of car building. Even so, the team's monocoque will be built in-house for the first time in 2017.

With a clearly defined operating structure, Force India is a lean, efficient organisation untroubled by layers of management. But with responsibility comes accountability.

"Our structure does help," says chief race engineer Tom McCullough. "There are no egos, no politics. We focus on getting the most out of people. The environment we have, the atmosphere in the factory, the structure of the meetings. You can't hide behind anyone, you have to make decisions."

As a result, good people get headhunted and some are tempted by the big-spending teams just down the road. Force India, though, has a strategy to fend off would-be poachers.

"We try to make this a good place to work, where we respect that people have a life outside F1," Green says. "We don't crack whips; we try to keep people motivated. We have clever people who at any point can say, 'I've had enough, I'm going to Red Bull' and they'd be snapped up in an instant. But they don't, because they enjoying working here and they know if they go to a bigger team, they become a smaller cog and play a smaller part.

"We can challenge our staff with new projects. When I came up through the ranks at Jordan, I used to look at everything. I'd be designing pedals one day, suspension the next, then a gearbox, so I was lucky to get a view of the whole car. Big teams section staff into very small areas of the car. So one guy can spend a year drawing brake ducts or axles. We encourage people to move, to refresh them and make it exciting."

With motivated workers, efficient decision-making and cost-effective spending, you can see how Force India has been able to claw its way from 10th in the constructors' table to fourth this year. That ascent brings benefits: not only can it have a say in the direction of grand prix racing, thanks to a seat on the Strategy Group, but it benefits from a bigger share of the F1's prize pot.

Force India operates on £90million, with roughly £50million coming from TV money. The remaining £30m comes from sponsors, some of whom, for example Telmex, are linked to drivers. The remaining £10m comes from shareholders. So if you can run a team on £90million, where does the extra £140million spent by the likes of Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari go?

The answer is, it's all focused on research and development. And that's how much it takes to find an extra second - or sometimes less - on track. It's also why F1's top teams will have much more of an advantage over Force India next year, when a wholesale change of the technical regulations is brought in.

With bigger cars, more aero and wider tyres it will be much harder for the smaller teams to devote time and resource to creating a car that can compete with F1's big guns. That explains Nico Hulkenberg's seemingly nonsensical decision to leave F1's current fourth-best team to join eighth-placed Renault.

Unless Force India can conjure a design 'magic bullet', its unlikely to be fighting at the sharp end of the grid in the next few years, which is a shame for a team whose current position has been achieved on merit rather than reservoirs of cash.

"What hurts us is the long lead times, because when we produce a new car for 2017, our limited production capacity means we're constantly having to send our things to get made," says Green.

"But releasing parts early means they're not as developed. So the teams who can reduce their lead times will produce more parts and get more updates on track. That will hurt us, particularly in the first part of next year.

"The development rate will be so strong that big teams will bring big updates to almost every race. We can't compete with that and when our updates come they will be more significant, but in between times we'll fall behind."

So P4 and 'best of the rest' may be a high-water mark for Force India, unless there's a change in revenue distribution. Force India can compete on a level playing field only if the bigger teams are restricted in spending. It isn't sustainable, argues Fernley, for Force India to increase spending to manufacturer-team levels.

"The £250million a year budget is not a business model; it's typical of a manufacturing company who will spend whatever they can to win. Force India has to be attractive to another investor at some point," says Fernley.

"Vijay is an incredible supporter of F1 but at some point he will want to sell. How would you sell Mercedes or Red Bull? Who can afford it other than a major car manufacturer? They are not sustainable.

"But does that mean we will not be able to move up to third or higher? Unless there is some sort of financial control, it is never going to happen. Even with a cost cap of £150million a year, that's £1million a week spent on development. How much more do you need? For me, Formula 1 should be an intellectual exercise. It's not about how much you can spend."

In the longer term, cost controls might appear, but, for now, this little team can be proud of what it has achieved with such limited resource. Force India's race crew may walk the pitlane peering enviously at the kit afforded by richer neighbours, but they might be surprised at how many in F1 are looking enviously at them.

Many rival operations could learn a thing or two from the Force India way of racing: lean, mean and, right now, pound-for-pound the best value team in Formula 1.

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