It has been a turbulent ride for the Force India team in the last one month or so. Their owners has been hit hard by plenty of cases and despite the claims made by team that they are ‘stable’, it looks like the team is on the verge of collapsing or maybe not.
Vijay Mallya and Michiel Mol took over the Spyker team in October 2007 and since then Mallya has been proud of his efforts and constantly stated that he was happy to put his country on the grid. Soon after it was assumed that either Narain Karthikeyan or Karun Chandhok will be behind the wheels as Mallya was pretty much strong about his plans of developing the Indian Motorsports. But the assumptions were all put to rest as Mallya stated that none of the Indian drivers were good enough to be in Formula 1. Although the Indian duo were deeply hurt with Mallya’s statements, the trio have maintained a good relationship at least in public. But maybe, it’s time for Mallya to finally sign an Indian driver.
Ever since Mallya took over this team, they managed to stay in the news right from the word ‘Go’. Although in the first season, the major highlight on-track was that of Adrian Sutil and his heroics at Monaco where he ran as high as fourth position before being hit by Kimi Raikkonen from the back, the major news came towards the end of the season when Force India announced a five year deal with McLaren-Mercedes. It was announced on 10th November 2008 that Force India will race with Mercedes Engines and with key components like that of Gearbox, Hydraulics and KERS will be powered by McLaren. They also revealed that there is a strong technical partnership with the McLaren team which is strictly under the regulations of FIA. Although this technical partnership sparked off few controversies, it was a major announcement for this team. It has been said that VJM-02 which was their 2009 contender was developed in 100 days as the partnership with McLaren-Mercedes was announced towards the end of the 2008 season and certain aspects of the design had to be re-framed to suit the Mercedes Engine. Fortunately for the team, they could see the immediate benefits of that deal as the car proved to be quite fast in low downforce circuits and they stunned the F1 universe when Fisichella took the Pole position at Spa. Although Fisichella could manage to finish the race only in second place, it was one of the most iconic event for this team. The team managed to continue its momentum to the following weekend at Monza. In the end, 2009 was quite a remarkable season for Force India as they strengthened their position on the grid and ensured that their performance on-track was much talked about. They made realistic target for the 2010 season where they claimed that VJM-03 was focused on all aspects and not just particular circuits and this lifted their relative position in the constructors championship but they had launched themselves into a controversy with Team Lotus and this started a long legal battle with the Anglo-Malaysian team. Most importantly, the team's high profile staff members started leaving and it created a void in their plans. James Key, Lewis Butler, Marianne Hinson and Ian Phillips left the team to pursue their careers mostly at rival teams. Andrew Green was responsible for the development of VJM-04 which further aimed at improving their position in the constructors championship and the 2011 season also featured the Inaugural Indian Grand Prix. Force India ensured that they were not distracted by the off-track legal controversies and ensured that the void spaces created no harm in their aspirations. Although they couldn’t get onto the podium at the Indian Grand Prix, Force India finished the season in a solid sixth place in the constructors championship and just four points shy of the fifth placed Renault team which marked a successful campaign for this team in their recent years. On October 12th, Just weeks before the Inaugural Indian Grand Prix, Mallya announced a partnership with Sahara and also confirmed speculations that Sahara has purchased 42.5% of the team’s share for $100 Million.
Air Turbulence hits Mallya:
It has been long and widely speculated that Kingfisher Airlines has hit a high tide. Kingfisher Airlines is a part of the UB Group and Mallya is the chairman of UB Group which is one of the largest Conglomerate in the country. Ever since the speculations started about the financial crisis at Kingfisher, Several people have hit out at Mallya and blamed his lavish lifestyle for the mess. Quite recently, a court in Hyderabad has issued a NBW (Non-Bailable Warrant) to Mallya and 4 other top people at Kingfisher Airlines. The case was filed by GMR India who stated that the cheques issued by Kingfisher has bounced and that the company owes more than $2 Million. The case which is now withdrawn following the payment of dues was a big talking point in the country and among the F1 Universe as well. Much of the Kingfisher’s fleet has been grounded for quite a few weeks now and the deadlock between its staff and the management never seem to get over and the company has been constantly criticized by its staff over the non-payment of their salary for over 6 months now. Constant steps by the management to please its staff seems to go in-vain and although FDI in aviation was approved by the Government here quite recently, there seems to be no takers for Kingfisher who once upon a time was the No.2 Airline in the country.
Although the core business of UB Group is beverages. Their business ranges from Engineering to Fertilizers to Information Technology. Royal Challengers Bangalore is an IPL Team which is also owned by UB Group.
Initially, the major sponsors of Force India were Mallya’s Companies. Over the time, many others were part of the team but the core funds were coming in from UB Group until Sahara came on-board. This was the reason, many people in India questioned Mallya and Kingfisher and criticised them over the non payment of dues as they were amused by the fact that the Kingfisher Airlines has funds to sponsor a Formula 1 team but couldn’t settle their dues
Sahara, Into the blues:
In a judgment issued on August 31, Supreme Court of India had directed the two Sahara Group of companies namely, Sahara India Real Estate Corporation and Sahara Housing Investment Corporation to deposit INR 24,000 crores that they had collected from Investors along with their original documents within 10 days. This was due to the fact that court had found the financial schemes run by these two companies to be illegal. More then 3 crore investors were affected and the court had also directed the companies to repay the amount along with the interest. Initially Sahara Group agreed to repay the dues but a week after the Judgment, the group issued the statement that they will file a review petition against the verdict as it casts a serious 'aspersions' upon the firm’s business ethics without any basis. Earlier today, Supreme court had directed the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) to act as per the law if Sahara Group fails to follow the judgment. The court has also clarified that SEBI should ensure the court’s judgement is followed while also stating that Sahara is free to file its review petition and also directed SEBI to freeze the firm’s bank accounts if they fail to refund the amount.
Sahara India like UB Group is also one of the largest conglomerate in the country, Their core business is Infrastructure and housing but has diversified interests that ranges from Media & Entertainment to Finance. They have been an active promoter of Sports in the country and has been the major sponsor for the Indian Cricket team for quite sometime now.
Although they haven't commented yet on how this verdict will affect their involvement in sports as such. They have so far managed to put a brave face to the public.
The Hulk’s Sauber aspirations:
For the last few weeks, Nico Hulkenberg has been widely tipped to race for Sauber in the 2013 season. Some reports have claimed that Hulkenberg has already signed on the dotted lines at Korea. While Hulkenberg hasn’t exactly denied these reports, it’s widely believed that these reports are true and it’s expected that Sauber will announce Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez as their drivers for next season within the next few races.
Although at the moment we can only speculate, This will leave a open space at Force India for the next season.
It’s time to settle the dues:
As per Force India’s tradition, Jules Bianchi should be the frontrunner for any vacant spot if it exists. Although Bianchi is mighty young driver and is an exciting prospect for the future, there are plenty of other drivers who are eager to step into the team. Jamie Alguersuari, Adrian Sutil, Kobayashi and Heikki Kovalainen are some of the drivers who are in the frame for the vacant spot.
Mallya has been highly vocal about an Indian Prospect driving for his team, In the past he has issued various statements against the quality of Indian drivers.
"My job is to make sure that the team is successful. Whichever driver I need, that is completely my decision. I want someone to convince me and justify the drama about this Indian driver thing. The fact remains, right now, no Indian driver is good enough for Formula One, Force India carries the hope of a billion and I too would love to have an Indian driver but he must be good enough. There is no rule, even though some people trying or propagate otherwise, that you have to have a driver of particular nationality. We need only the best drivers to get the maximum performance,"
Back in 2009, Mallya has also stated that Karun has to win GP2 races and has to go through the simulator to gain more experience and to show his talent. However Karun hit back at Mallya and stated that simulator is more of a glorified toy to which Mallya responded with the following statement.
“The simulator is not some kind of toy, as some people tried to make people believe. Even commercial pilots use simulator before getting their licence to fly a plane. This is a misinterpretation that I'm offering him just the simulator and not the car. This is the same simulator used by drivers like Lewis Hamilton, Adrian Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi,"
Some sections of the media has also reported that Karun Chandhok and Narain Karthikeyan were both involved in a simulator tests at the MTC back in 2010 itself but the results of those sessions weren’t revealed to anyone.
After the Sahara partnership last year, It was again widely believed that either of the Indian drivers would get a chance but then these reports were denied by Mallya.
Officially both Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok have not been involved in any testing sessions with the Force India team and if it wasn’t for Narain, much of the Indian fans wouldn’t have got an exposure in Formula 1 as it was Narain who put India on the World of Formula 1. It was his inspiring efforts to get into the pinnacle of motorsport that lifted few eyebrows and when it was announced that he would drive in the 2005 Formula 1 season, many people in the country were curious at what the sport is all about.
For Mallya, it’s more about his personal pride. Many people associated with Indian Motorsports have claimed that Mallya wants to take full credit for what he is doing at the pinnacle of motorsport and as long as the Indian driver is kept out of his team, Mallya will gain more respect with the general masses around the world.
Although those reports are highly debatable, Mallya has to ensure that the Indian drivers get a testing session to say the least. Financially though, Sahara Force India would gain substantially on the prospect of an Indian driver driving for the team. The Tata Group has been widely supporting Narain irrespective of the team and for sure they would like to see Narain in a midfield team and it would be an amazing situation for the Indian companies not just the Tata Group to be associated with an Indian driver and also the Indian team. Karun Chandhok has clarified on more than one occasion that the potential sponsors are confused on supporting an Indian driver or the Indian team.
Force India needs the finances on all aspects and not just to survive and if the current reports are to go by Force India needs substantial investment from someone other than the UB group and the Sahara Group to ensure they don’t collapse if either of the two companies withdraw from the team. It was Bob Fernley who has been constantly denying the reports that the NBW issued against Mallya will have an impact on the team and he also stated that the owners will have to increase the budget to ensure the team fights higher up the order.
The only way Force India can silence the critics and also fight higher up the order is to find someone who is willing to fund the team and the finances will go only North if it decides to field a Indian driver.