The last underdog standing
One team on the grid has seen more change in the past few years than all the others combined. From Jordan to Midland to Spyker, they started 2008 as Force India. With a new billionaire owner, Dr Vijay Mallya, Ferrari engines, a strengthened technical team headed by the irrepressible Mike Gascoyne, and a driver line-up featuring veteran Giancarlo Fisichella and promising talent Adrian Sutil, it was a fresh start.
And the newly-confident Force India set itself some ambitious targets. Not only did they hope to inspire a legion of Formula One super fans back in India, they also wanted to make real inroads into the midfield by regularly making it into Q2 and even maybe, scoring some points. Mallya vowed they wouldnt be at the back anymore.
Despite the optimism, Force Indias aims would prove tough propositions to crack. The main stumbling block was that the VJM01 was pretty much just a rechristened version of the 2007 Spyker. Even a frantic winter spent testing and with a wind tunnel upgraded to 24-hour running, there just werent enough hours in the day to improve significantly before Australias season opener.
Nevertheless, in Melbourne both Sutil and Fisichella surpassed expectations, qualifying relatively strongly in 17th and 19th. Though they were well adrift of the pole position time (and neither finished the race), it was a warning shot to the teams nearest rivals, in particular fellow backmarkers Super Aguri, and even to some of the bigger names (Renaults Piquet qualified down in 21st).
Thered be other stand-out performances, too. At a rainy Monaco a brilliant Sutil moved up the field from 18th to fourth and was all set to score the teams first points until Kimi Raikkonen crashed into the back of him, forcing the German to retire. Fisichella was equally capable of capitalising on the weather and in September qualified 12th at a wet Monza, beating eventual world champion Lewis Hamilton by over 2.5 seconds in Q2.
Even at the Brazilian season finale, good fortune, weather and clever strategy combined to give the team another very real chance of points, with Fisichella running as high as fifth, after pitting early for dry tyres. A clutch problem, however, relegated him to 18th and Force India would end the year the only team without a single world championship point. It would also be the first full season in Fisichellas 13-year career that hed failed to score.
That same hit and miss reliability can be blamed for much of the teams misery. They racked up 17 retirements, including 10 double DNFs - the worse tally of all contenders. And it didnt help that following the demise of Super Aguri in April, and Toro Rossos surprise victory at Monza, Force India were the only squad still consistently propping up the back of the field.
But the lack of tangible results masked some genuine progress. Relentless development work prompted real improvements in terms of the cars pace. Regular aero updates and the final arrival of a seamless shift gearbox paid dividends, turning what had been a three-second qualifying deficit to the frontrunners for Spyker in Brazil 2007, into a 1.6-second deficit for the Force India a year later. Off track, their reputation grew as well - Force India are fast becoming the party team of the paddock, rivalling even Red Bull for celebrity pull, while theres an ever-growing Indian fan base ready to cheer them on ahead of a future Indian Grand Prix.
For its go-getting owner, however, the subtle progress was scant reward for a years worth of work and in November it was announced that Gascoyne and team principal Colin Kolles would leave, with Mallya taking direct control. The Ferrari engines have also been ditched in favour of a more encompassing link-up with McLaren and Mercedes-Benz for 2009, encompassing engine, gearbox and KERS.
Force India are clearly in the midst of yet another evolution - perhaps even revolution - and with the 2009 regulation changes set to mix things up, and with their development programme now well-rooted, Mallyas team may yet make good their ambitious aims.