Comment – Driver Changes at Force India

Force India announced its long-rumored 2011 driver line-up on Wednesday, and in doing so, has produced a considerable amount of debate in F1 circles over the last 48 hours.  Adrian Sutil will continue with the team for his 5th year, while reigning DTM champion Paul di Resta moves up from his reserve role last season to step into the seat previously held by Vitantonio Liuzzi.  Williams refugee and rising star Nico Hulkenberg moves into di Resta’s reserve role, and will be involved in the team’s pre-season testing program as well as participate in Friday practice sessions during Grand Prix weekends.  In this game of musical chairs, the music’s stopped and Liuzzi is now out of a drive at Force India despite his contract with the team for 2011.

With so much going on, Force India is surely the belle of the ball for the 2011 silly season as the team’s moves raise a number of issues for all involved.  The primary topic of debate relates to Liuzzi’s future and his existing contract with the team for 2011.  The first question raised is whether Liuzzi deserved to be axed by the team in favor of di Resta?  While some pundits and even Fernando Alonso believe that Liuzzi is a talent worthy of a spot on the F1 grid, his cumulative performance over the course of his career paints a different picture.  Liuzzi had a troubled campaign last year, suffering from the same kinds of problems with the Bridgestone control tire that also plagued Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher.  The all-important teammate comparison to Adrian Sutil is particularly revealing; Sutil’s season average BPR score was 80.824, ranking him 11th.  That compares to Liuzzi’s 76.086, ranking him down in 17th.  The resulting comparison between the two teammates results in a TEAM COMP +/- of 2.369, which is significant over a 19 race season and historically high in relation to other teams and past seasons.  As BPR F1’s readers know, the AVG rating is computed without regard to reliability and therefore provides a true impression of how each driver performed when he did get to the finish un-delayed.  It’s important to note that we are making a comparison to Sutil, who has matured over the course of his F1 career but proved during the second half of the 2010 season that he remains a fairly inconsistent driver (more on that later).

The most glaring indicator that Liuzzi hasn’t earned his future at Force India is the fact that he’s failed to outperform his teammate over the course of a season, or in any single event, in a way he’s been outperformed on numerous occasions; including his previous stint at Scuderia Toro Rosso.  To illustrate, go back through the BPR Season Summaries for the 2010, 2009, and 2007 seasons and you’ll see what I’m referring to.  Remember, this isn’t the first time Liuzzi’s been out of a drive in Formula 1, as he was dropped by Toro Rosso following the 2007 season in favor of reigning CART champion Sebastien Bourdais.  The point is that there’s a reason why for the second time in his career, Liuzzi has been given the boot in favor of a driver who has yet to prove his F1 mettle.

The second Liuzzi-related issue pertains to his contract.  As previously mentioned, Liuzzi’s current contract extended to the 2011 season and estimates put the year’s compensation somewhere north of €2 million in total value.  Rumor has it that no contractual agreement was reached between Force India and Liuzzi before the team made its announcement yesterday, and both parties’ continued silence in regard to the situation only serves to confirm those rumors.  There has been talk that Liuzzi could be afforded a drive at HRT paid for by Force India, which is probably the best situation for all involved.  If that’s not the case, then the road ahead is considerably more bumpy dependent on whether Liuzzi’s contract is bought-out or flatly dishonored by Force India.  In either of those cases, Liuzzi will have the option to take the matter to the FIA’s Contract Recognition Board and thereby begin a long and drawn-out process of seeking compensation for Force India’s breach of contract.  The backdrop of this story is the continuing and pervasive nature of contract breaches in Formula 1, and what that means for the sport.  Liuzzi isn’t the first contracted F1 driver to be let go without just compensation, which fits a long-standing trend of teams failing to fully and timely pay support staff, contractors, suppliers, etc.  Of particular note is a recent article featured in the Daily Mail which highlights a study conducted by Dun & Bradstreet on the state of contractual fulfillment by all Formula 1 teams.  Is it any surprise that the study revealed Force India was the F1 team least likely to pay its bills or employees on time?  A quote at the end of the article is particularly illuminating:

One supplier, who did not wish to be named, said his company has had to pay its own staff late as a result. ‘If Vijay sold his yacht, it would keep the team going for a couple of years,’ he said.

For a man who wants to position himself as India’s leading business man, Vijay Mallya surely isn’t setting the foundation for his goals through his business dealings in Formula 1.

Beyond Liuzzi is the now-settled lineup at Force India.  At 24, Paul di Resta is certainly deserving of an F1 drive at this stage of his career despite being out of full-time single-seater racing for 5 years.  The young Scotsman has received strong support from Mercedes and motorsport head Norbert Haug, whom he’s raced for in the DTM for the last several years.  Reports suggest that di Resta’s drive is largely funded by Mercedes via an agreement to provide Force India with a KERS package at no cost; which has a total value approaching €10 million.  If true, the deal is particularly sweet for Force India considering the German manufacturer’s KERS technology proved to be the most effective on the grid during the 2009 season.

The Mercedes deal could go a long way towards explaining the untimely and potentially risky dismissal of Liuzzi.  Di Resta’s arrival at Force India further aligns the team with Mercedes following the McLaren/Mercedes technical partnership formed back in 2009.  The strengthening of that alliance comes at a precarious time for Force India following a 2010 season which saw the team hemorrhage  key technical personnel to Sauber and Team Lotus.  The former Jordan team has come a long way under Mallya’s guidance since its days as Midland/Spyker, with TEAM AVG ratings constantly improving each year since 2007: 60.888, 69.207, 76.281, and 78.455 in 2010.  However, it’s clear to see the negative performance effects of Force India’s personnel losses in the 2010 season-ending BPR charts and trend plots.  Force India finds itself at risk of undoing the progress the team has made in recent seasons if steps aren’t taken to rebuild the team’s technical package.  Mallya and company are under no illusions as to what their partnership with McLaren and Mercedes means to Force India’s on-track performance, and the no-cost acquisition of F1’s leading KERS system is but one example of the benefits to be had.  Pragmatically speaking, the Liuzzi situation and whatever consequences it may bring may very well be worth the price Force India is made to pay for bringing di Resta on-board.

Finally, the last topic of note is the arrival of Nico Hulkenberg at Force India as the team’s reserve driver.  Hulkenberg and manager Willi Weber have lofty ambitions for the young German’s F1 future, and many in the F1 paddock believe Hulkenberg’s talent matches those ambitions.  Williams dropping Hulkenberg in favor of Pastor Maldonado certainly didn’t help his planned ascent to the top, but Hulkenberg’s signing as a reserve driver at Force India is an indication of his plans to return to a race seat as soon as possible.  Weber stated publicly that he approached Mercedes and discussed Hulkenberg taking a similar reserve driver position with the German manufacturer, but left those talks feeling as though Force India was the better option in the short term.   Weber’s statement indicates that Mercedes has every intent of retaining its current pairing of Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher through the 2012 season.  Schumacher confirmed his intent to remain at Mercedes through 2012 just yesterday.  With the other top teams’ driver lineups projected to remain relatively stagnant through 2012, the implication is that Hulkenberg has positioned himself for a race seat at Force India next year.  A Hulkenberg/di Resta pairing at Force India in 2012 sets up a nice apples-to-apples comparison for what should be Michael Schumacher’s current drive at Mercedes in 2013.

Of course, that would leave Adrian Sutil needing to parlay his current 1-year contract with Force India into a drive further up the field in 2012; hopefully, he we will help us all forget the 2010 Korean Grand Prix by then.

posted by Trey Blincoe


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