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A Force to be reckoned with? Exclusive Vijay Mallya Q&A

05 Mar 2014

Several times in recent seasons Force India have threatened to break free of the midfield and to start routinely challenging the frontrunners, only for that challenge to fade. This year, team boss Vijay Mallya is confident things could be different. With Mercedes-powered teams leading the way in pre-season testing, both on reliability and pace, the charismatic Mallya is hoping to see both Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez score points in the opening round…

Q: Vijay, you popped over to Bahrain on the last day of the final test to see Force India. Were you satisfied with what you saw from your team?

Vijay Mallya: We are doing reasonably well. Actually I am quite pleased, but largely because of the number of laps that we’ve managed to achieve. Very clearly all the technical changes are extremely complicated and sensitive - difficult to understand. I think that’s why many teams are having problems. We started off being overawed by the technical challenge, but we’ve come to terms with understanding the car better. We are now able to run it more reliably - and the result is the many laps we’ve been able to do at the two Bahrain tests. It is a good feeling to know that reliability has been established positively. Now let’s talk about the pace: there is more to come. We had a few problems at the last Bahrain test and we still have more performance to get out of the car, so the fact that we are consistently among the top three is something that is very encouraging for the whole team. If we manage to ensure reliability - even at the current level of performance - I think when we go racing we will certainly be in the points - touch wood!

Q: The Mercedes-powered teams look the most likely to score points in the opening races. Is that what you believe too?

VM: Yes, I would say that my decision to go with Mercedes early last year and to sign a long-term agreement with them was the right decision - the results speak for themselves. The Mercedes-powered teams are clearly ahead and are currently more reliable than the others.

Q: But you can’t have known last year that the Mercedes engine would be the pacesetter, so on what did you base decision to stay with them long term? Was it a gut decision?

VM: We have been using the Mercedes engine for years and have seen the German precision - and the commitment. We’ve been very happy with their engines in the last couple of years and when Mercedes agreed to give us the entire powertrain - gearbox included - it was a no-brainer. I decided to go with Mercedes - and I was right.

Q: Could 2014 finally be the year that we see a Force India driver on the podium again?

VM: Ha, I don’t want to test my luck, but certainly this year is the right year to be optimistic.

Q: We have obviously seen some teams struggling in testing. Do you think that was for real or only sandbagging?

VM: I would find sandbagging very, very strange. If you don’t put enough laps in during testing you can’t ensure reliability. You cannot use a race to establish reliability. And in order to find the optimum set-up for a car - whether it is for qualifying or race trim - you have to actually test it on the track. And that’s what the tests are meant for. I would find it surprising if there are some teams that sandbagged right through testing and will suddenly show some dramatic improvements in the race itself. I don’t believe that this will happen - but in Formula One I have learned that anything can happen! (laughs)

Q: In Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez you have a very promising driver line-up. Are you pleased with your guys?

VM: I am very happy with our two guys. Nico is a highly talented and highly rated driver and I am very glad to have him back. Checo Perez was selected by none other than McLaren. And if he was found to be good enough to get a McLaren race seat, I know that he also has a great amount of ability. Nico and Checo will do very well for us.

Q: Where do the strengths lie in each of your drivers?

VM: I like to say that both are highly talented. Their driving styles might be a little different, but then no two drivers are the same in any case. What I am more concerned about is that they are quick and give us good feedback, that they are technically knowledgeable and good human beings and easy to get along with. Both my drivers meet these criteria very well.

Q: Nico visited Checo in Mexico over the winter - that hardly happens with team mates. Is that a good sign for you that they really want to pull together as a team?

VM: This is a fantastic sign. That is what team spirit is all about.

Q: Force India have moved steadily up the pecking order over the years. What’s your plan for 2014?

VM: Ha, to move even further up the pecking order. And the signs look pretty encouraging.

Q: How much personal interest did you take in the making of this year’s car?

VM: My job is it to put together a good team - which I did; to give them a free hand - which I did; to have a periodical look at the development without interfering - which I did; but to monitor the progress - which I also did. Before this car was built I was with them in the wind tunnel and had several conferences with the design team and our technical director Andrew Green. So yes, I track the progress. We are a bit handicapped because our facilities are old. Many other teams have much better facilities than we have. Now we are planning to give the engineering team better resources in the factory by upgrading the equipment, which hopefully will make us even more competitive.

Q: You are a racer at heart, so what did you make of the winter tests? In your opinion, who's got it and who not?

VM: Let’s start from the beginning: the test in Jerez was just to gain experience, whereas Bahrain one and two were about running the car. As I said before, running the car is to establish reliability and that is a huge factor. After that you start to work on the competitiveness of the car in terms of pace - qualifying and race pace - which is totally different. It is always a thin red line - and even more so this year. You can have a quick car, but if it is unreliable and cannot finish a race it is of no use. Equally, if you have a car that is totally reliable - particularly in the early races - but maybe not so quick, you still have a good chance.

Q: So what are your expectations for the first four flyaway races? Are you looking to cash in in on any engine advantage?

VM: The first four races present a great opportunity, particularly for the Mercedes-powered teams, because so far they are showing that they are ahead of the rest. But in the end it will be all about - here comes the word again - reliability. You can do many fancy things during testing, but a race is a race and the conditions of a race are very different. By the time we get back to Europe many teams will have sorted out their issues and some big upgrades will be coming from Barcelona onwards. So yes, my guess is that these four races will be a bit of a luxury for the Mercedes-powered teams - and once we get to Europe, that is where some serious racing will start.

Q: So the plan for the first four races is to take the points and run?

VM: Don’t get me wrong, we are also planning some big updates for Europe. It definitely isn’t as if we would plan nothing. As you mentioned earlier, since I took over we’ve step-by-step moved up the pecking order every year, and this year is different because of the huge technology change. But in previous years we were racing with the biggest and the best and still scoring points, so there might be an additional opportunity now for us in 2014.

Q: If you could dream up the Australian race, what’s your guess - how will it develop?

VM: Ha, the crystal ball questions. In a race anything can happen. The drivers have a very important role to play. It’s the conditions on that particular day. If it’s a bright, sunny day it’s one thing. If it rains it’s another. But certainly I could see a double-points finish - a least that is what I’m looking forward to.

Q: So you are heading into this season with more confidence than in previous years?

VM: Certainly. We are racing with the best and outperforming some of the best, which we haven’t done before. If that’s not a good sign and every reason to be optimistic… Or let’s put it this way: cautiously optimistic.