When Vijay Mallya, the embattled businessman, bought a failing Formula One team in 2007, few paddock insiders took him seriously.
Many thought that he was just another rich businessman looking for a hobby, and that he would eventually come to prove true a recurring joke: “What’s the fastest way to make a small fortune? Start with a big fortune and buy a Formula One team.”
When the name of Mallya’s team was announced, Force India, his project seemed even less convincing, according to conventional wisdom: How could putting a national spin on a team possibly fly, especially when the nation in question had so little tradition or interest in auto racing?
But now, as that team is reaching the end of its ninth season, the sceptics have been persuaded. Force India, which is based in Silverstone, England, has been a resounding success — by Formula One terms — and has steadily climbed up the grid.
Yet also during that period, Mallya himself has had a reversal of fortune, becoming mired in a debt scandal. Mallya, 60, denies the accusations and is now living in Britain, which in May refused a request by the Indian government to deport him.
At the same time, his role as a Formula One team owner and his bona fides as a racer have only improved. At the British Grand Prix in July, the first race that Mallya has attended this year his enthusiasm for the sport was palpable.
“I’m absolutely delighted and over the moon to be here in Silverstone,” Mallya said. “Apart from the fact that Silverstone is a very special for Force India, I am personally delighted I’m here, because all the other races I have virtually experienced in this virtual world. But sadly, currently I am unable to travel. One thing I sure am passionate about is Force India and Formula One. And I spend a lot more time, I get a lot of pleasure out of it, and the team is delivering results.”
Force India is indeed doing that. Since it entered the series in 2008, the team has made a constant climb up the standings. From the lowly 10th position that first year — which was the last place, in fact, because an 11th team dropped out early in the year — Force India moved up to ninth the following year and seventh the next year. Last year it finished the season fifth in the series. The team is currently in fifth place, with seven races left in the season.
The secret of Force India’s success? First, the underlying base of the team that Mallya bought was one of the strongest in the series, despite a difficult period during which the team changed hands several times, in 2005, 2006 and 2007. It was the old Jordan Grand Prix team, which finished as high as third in the championship in 1999 and was one of the most nimble, enthusiastic and well-staffed teams in the series.
When Mallya took it over, it still had a sound foundation and factory. With a flow of funding — including an injection of $100 million by Subrata Roy, and his company Sahara India Pariwar, which bought 42.5% of the team in 2011 — the team has made good choices on drivers and technology. Other teams, however, sank by having the wrong engine at the wrong time or by using pay drivers rather than proven talent.
The Jordan team had its biggest successes with Honda and Ford engines before changing to Toyota power in the final years. When the team became Midland and then Spyker in 2006, it kept the Toyota engine. But in 2007, Spyker started using Ferrari engines, which it kept in the first year as Force India.
When Force India changed to the Mercedes engine the following year, its results began to improve. That was the same year that Mercedes won the title as an engine provider to the Brawn team.
Staying with the Mercedes engine, Force India has continued to profit, especially since 2014, when the new downsized, hybrid-engine formula began. With its superior engine, the Mercedes team has won almost all races and all the titles since then.
Force India has also kept the same drivers since 2014: Mexican Sergio Pérez and Nico Hülkenberg of Germany. Although the latter came to the team with the bigger reputation, it is Pérez who has scored several podiums for the team, with Hülkenberg having had none.
But the German is strong, and the consistency the team has developed by keeping the same driver pairing has allowed Force India to concentrate on other areas, such as chassis development and building team personnel.
The team also has the strong and vocal Robert Fernley as deputy team principal. Fernley, who is British, often stands in for Mallya, given the owner’s relatively small presence with the team at the races, and he does the tasks that don’t interest Mallya.
Pérez finished in third position at the Monaco GP in May and at the European GP, in June. Between those two races, at the Canadian GP, Fernley was asked if the team was punching above its weight.
"I don’t think that we’re punching above our weight,” Fernley replied. “I think we’re working to reality, really, in terms of where the team is. The resources have been built up. Vijay has invested heavily in the team and we’re moving forward as a team as a whole. We may be under-resourced in terms of personnel, but I think we do a good job in terms of assets. I’d like to think we’re punching where we should be.”