Cautious optimism. That is how Sahara Force India went into the 2016 Formula One season, their ninth in the sport, in this current guise. Fifth in the constructors was a long-time ambition of owner Dr Vijay Mallaya, which the team finally achieved in 2015. 2016 would be the year the Force awakened.
The car, the VJM09 was an evolution from the successful VJM08, complete with the unique ‘nostril design’ on the nose, given how successful the Silverstone based outfit were in the second half of ’15 with the B-spec 08, hopes were high. Fourth was a realistic target, but could they plot the course for third in the constructors championship?
As the chassis was due to be powered by the all-conquering and class leading Mercedes Power Unit, the team knew that their 2016 challenger would be in and around the points from the get-go.
The early part of the season reflected the team’s performances from the same stage in 2015. Fighting just on the fringes of the points. This was due to being caught out on strategy, with Sergio Perez in Australia and a run of rotten bad luck, that saw just 16 points hauled in the opening five races.
The team, generally in the past, have struggled on the low-speed circuits, high on downforce. However, Monaco represented the best ever result for the team. Third place for Perez, 15 points, and eight points for Nico Hulkenberg’s sixth placed finish. The result catapulted the team up the standings.
Disappointment followed with just five points in Canada, where the car just didn’t ‘turn its tyres on’ – getting enough heat into them – and Austria where engine and brake problems put both cars out. However, in Azerbaijan, Perez’s third place was the team’s fifth ever podium, of which he has four.
Only a Perez non-score in Hungary, P11, was the only blemish on the points scoring record after the Austrian double DNF, with 81 points, and fifth in the constructors representing a job well-done in 2016 so far.
The rebirth of Sergio Perez at Force India since his move there in 2014 has been remarkable. He is now on the edge of the great drivers currently in the sport, who on his day can be unstoppable.
Despite some initial bad-luck in the early fly-away races, Perez was there or thereabouts. It only needed everything to come together before the results the car, and he were capable off were put in. It soon came.
Monaco, was his third podium for Force India, and sixth in F1, and a typical Perez drive. Neutering the sensitive Pirelli rubber is a trademark, and the Mexican delivered again, holding Sebastian Vettel off for a spot on the most prestigious podium of them all.
Around Monaco/Canada there was rife speculation that Kimi Raikkonen would be dropped for 2017, and Perez to join Vettel at Ferrari. Proof that Perez has truly taken his second chance in F1, something not many drivers are granted. He earned plenty of kudos in Azerbaijan, qualifying P2, albeit with a gearbox penalty, and racing to a second podium in three races.
His pass of Raikkonen for the slot was seen as highly symbolic. Ultimately the Finn was given another year. 48 points from 12 races, marks a respectable year, and despite the team claiming he is signed up for 2017, Renault want Perez. A side-ways move maybe, but having comprehensively out-performed Nico Hulkenberg over their two and a bit seasons together, the first aim of any driver, at the moment the sky is the limit for Perez.
Rating out of 10: 8.5
Hulkenberg was once regarded as the next big thing in German motorsport, but his career has somewhat stalled, yet to stand on a F1 podium.
After his post Le Mans win bounce last year, aside in Brazil, Hulkenberg was thrashed by Perez. Coming into 2016, he needed to rectify that. Six points from five races was reflective of the early season, and his P6 in Monaco would usually grab the headlines, except he was overshadowed by the achievements of the sister VJM09.
Since then, aside from the Austrian DNF, he has scored 22 points, with a total of 33, to sit 10th at mid-way, locked in a battle for eighth with Perez, 48, with the duo sandwiching the Williams’s.
A morale boosting performance in Germany to beat Perez, seventh to 10th, ended Hulkenberg’s half-season on a positive note. Starting from P2 in Austria and a non-score was harsh, for one of F1’s most talented but unluckiest drivers.
Rating out of 10: 7
Goals for the rest of the season
Keeping hold off Perez is key with Hulkenberg already confirmed for 2017. The best way to do that is to finish fourth in the constructors. 15 points behind Williams, the momentum is with Force India, as their car seems to be more versatile and adaptable to track and weather conditions. If Perez and Hulkenberg keep up their good form, there is no reason why the Force can’t Awaken in 2017 in a highly lucrative and prestigious fourth place.
For a team on a tight budget, that will be a blockbuster achievement.