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Fernley: Force India aiming to improve on fifth in 2016

Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley believes that the team can target Williams next season, given that the Grove outfit is also a Mercedes customer.

Force India achieved its highest ever World Championship placing this year, having formally secured fifth place in Brazil. It had previously finish sixth on three occasions, although under its previous identity of Jordan the Silverstone-based team finished as high as third in 1999 and fourth in 1998, as well as achieving fifth in 1991, 1994, 1996, 1997 and 2001.

This year’s result gives the team guaranteed extra funding from FOM for next year, while more useful support will come with the Aston Martin deal, if and when it is confirmed.

“It does show that there has been a genuine step-up,” Fernley told this writer. “Our powertrain is probably the best in the business, so I don’t think there are any issues there. And I think chassis-wise we are a genuinely top four or five car. To take the next move into the top four requires another step, but we’ve got the assets to do it today.

“What we have to look at is setting our sights on whether or not we can compete with Williams, because they are a similarly-funded team with similar assets, albeit a bit more in-depth because of the amount of investment they’ve put in over the years. Clearly we want to close down on them. I think we’ve been chipping away at them over the second half of the season.”

Fernley says that switching the wind tunnel programme to the Toyota facility in Germany was a key factor in this year’s performance, and he stresses that it was important to get that transition out of the way well before teams start preparing for major aero changes in 2017.

“It’s the result of enhancing the aero programme in Germany. I think you’re seeing the results of that coming through now. For us it was very fortunate to do it last year, because this year it would have been very difficult with the new regulations coming in 2017. We just got the timing right for the first half of the season.”

Meanwhile in the short term confirmation of fifth place will allow the team to do a little more development work at the final weekend of the season.

“I think it allows as more freedom for Abu Dhabi. I think you can afford to do a little bit more testing work in the sessions and things like that. Whenever you do testing in FP1 and FP2 sessions you tend to compromise the race set-up or the qualifying set-up.”

Regarding the status of the Aston Martin deal he said: “I don’t think we can offer a better package to Aston. The decision now is between their shareholders and the Force India shareholders.”

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Force India expects to confirm Perez soon

Force India expects to announce that Sergio Perez is staying for 2016 in the coming days, despite the Mexican and his sponsorship being linked to the Renault/Lotus deal.

The team has already confirmed Nico Hulkenberg for next season, but deputy team principal Bob Fernley says that the delay on Perez is simply because the deal he has to conclude with team boss Vijay Mallya is more complicated than that involving Hulkenberg.

“Vijay is finishing off the discussions with him, and I think by Singapore we should be clear to announce everything,” Fernley told this writer. “One deal is more complex, there are commercial issues involved, whereas the other is a driver contract.”

Fernley insists that driver continuity is good for the team, and says that Hulkenberg’s decision to stay was an indication of his faith in the Silverstone outfit.

“We have two drivers that get on well within the team, they’re pushing each other all the time. Both of them are excellent racers. I’m not sure that we could do better, that’s the key.

“I think that they are both very happy at Force India. Obviously Nico had a choice, and he’s made that choice, and I think it’s the same thing probably with Checo. Nico was out of contract, Checo’s is a renewal.”

Meanwhile Fernley says that the sixth and seventh place finish in Monza was the best the team could expect, given it had the fourth fastest car and there was only one retirement ahead.

“It was optimal for us, and you can’t fault optimal. It was a good race. Nico had some handling issues, he wasn’t happy with the handling of the car through all the race, so he did very well to keep Ericsson behind him for the distance, and he delivered it home. He was uncomfortable with it even when the tyres were new.”

Regarding the next race he said: “Singapore should be good, I don’t see any reason why we can’t fight for the top 10 again. What helps us now is that we’ve got a little bit of a cushion on the points, without worrying too much.”

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Force India satisfied with form after late start

Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley says his team can be satisfied with successful “damage limitation” over the first four races.

The VJM08 was completed late and did very little testing, and the team looked set for a tough start to the season. However a double score in Melbourne and then eighth place for Sergio Perez in Bahrain left the team just a point behind Lotus and Toro Rosso in the constructors’ table, and eight points behind Sauber.

“We set out obviously to try do damage limitation in these first four races,” Fernley told this writer.. “And I think the efforts of the team to get a good qualifying position in Bahrain gave us an opportunity, and we took it with both hands.

“And that means after four races we’re pretty well on a par with all our competitors. Given where we were after the Barcelona test I think I would have taken it! We’ve got Lotus, Toro Rosso within a point of us, and Sauber a few points away. We’re in good shape from that point of view, so the damage limitation programme has been delivered.”

Perez and Nico Hulkenberg ran different strategies in Bahrain, and Fernley says that the German actually helped his team mate by holding up his rivals.

“Nico didn’t have the best of starts, he lost a couple of places. He had a reasonable first stint and we decided that a three-stop was right for him, but we couldn’t quite deliver the performance that a three-stop was going to need.

“However, sometimes running a three and a two as alternative strategies can benefit the other car a little bit. I think Nico did a good job for us in the first stint which probably helped Checo come through as well, as he backed up three or four cars for a while. That’s not taking anything away from what was a perfectly executed drive from Checo.”

Fernley says that while updates will be in the car in Spain the main package is still in schedule for Austria: “There are bits and pieces coming, but none of it will add a huge amount of performance. It’s more a case of preparing ready for the package coming in Austria.”

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Marussia bid “lacked substance” says Force India’s Fernley

Marussia’s application to run its 2014 car this season was rejected by the F1 Strategy Group because it lacked substance and had compliance issues, according to Force India team principal Robert Fernley.

It’s understood that one of the compliance issues related to the fact that the letter came from team CEO Graeme Lowdon, and not from the administrator, as should have been the case.

The brief letter also contained little or no information about the team’s future plans, such as a possible new owner or investor, or any intention to ready a 2015 car. As such some of those present at the meeting, including Bernie Ecclestone, did not believe that the team – whose Banbury factory has been sold to Haas – had a chance of mounting a credible entry into the 2015 championship.

In order to grant permission to Marussia, unanimity was required. Force India was the first to vote, and as soon as the team responded with a ‘No’ in effect it didn’t matter what anyone else had to say. It’s understood that others also expressed opposition, as would other teams not represented in the meeting, such as Sauber and Lotus, who would have had a vote had the matter proceeded to the F1 Commission. Apparently the discussion on the subject was relatively brief.

“The strategy group was faced with an application for Marussia’s 2014 cars to compete in the 2015 championship,” said Fernley. “During the meeting it emerged that there were compliance issues and that the application lacked substance. Equally, the speculative application submitted contained no supporting documentation to reinforce the case for offering special dispensation.

“For example, no details were supplied of who the new owners would be or the operational structures that would be put in place. Given the lack of information, uncertain guarantees, and the speculative nature of the application, the decision was taken that it is better to focus on ensuring the continued participation of the remaining independent teams.”

The Strategy Group includes Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and Williams on a permanent basis, as well as the next best placed constructor, which this year is Force India. Each team has a vote, while the FIA has six votes and Formula One Management has six votes.

Those at the meeting included Ecclestone, Jean Todt, Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda (Mercedes), Ron Dennis and Eric Boullier (McLaren), Sergio Marchionne and Maurizio Arrivabene (Ferrari), Christian Horner (Red Bull), Claire Williams (Williams) and Fernley.

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Nico Hulkenberg: “It was pretty annoying and frustrating…”

Nico Hulkenberg finished the 2014 season on a high with a solid sixth place in Abu Dhabi, but the Force India driver was frustrated to have lost 5s with a penalty for forcing Kevin Magnussen off track on the first lap.

Hulkenberg insisted that he was not at fault, and said that without the extra handicap he would have beaten Jenson Button to fifth place. The Briton finished 1.8s ahead.

“Not much we could do there,” he told this writer. “It was reported to the stewards, and once they decide, you can’t appeal it. It was pretty annoying and frustrating to have that, because I’d done nothing wrong, it was just the battle in the heat of the first lap of the race. Kevin was pushing me wide the corner before. We were going side-by-side around Turn 6 or 7, I wasn’t purposely pushing him wide, I was sliding, and that’s what happens.

“That’s racing, and we want to see racing, don’t we? I think we touched very slightly, nothing bad or serious. Otherwise I think it could have been a fifth place, I’m pretty certain. But still a very satisfying and good end to the year.”

Regarding Force India’s improvement in form from qualifying to the race he said: “That was quite unexpected and a surprise, to be honest. Obviously it’s good that the car is at its best in the race, but this performance is really a bit out of the blue. Since Friday we changed the set-up quite a bit, but we don’t do long runs from that point onwards.

“I was confident in the car, there was good harmony between me and the car, and it was going quite well. It’s been a trend always this year that in qualy we don’t seem as strong as in the race. On the aero side we still have a lot of work in front of us, we need to get better there.”

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Perez finally confirmed at Force India

Sergio Perez has finally been officially confirmed as Nico Hulkenberg’s new team mate at Force India.

The Mexican began talking to the team soon after he was dropped by McLaren, whose boss Martin Whitmarsh also tried to persuade the Silverstone outfit to take his departing driver.

His longtime mentor Carlos Slim personally intervened to help Perez land the drive.

“He brings a healthy mix of youth and experience, and I’ve been very impressed with his recent performances,” said Dr Vijay Mallya. “He already has several podium finishes to his name and being chosen by McLaren last year was a clear indication that he is a driver to watch for the future. We also recognise Sergio’s incredible talent and we are proud to have him in our team. He clearly has great speed and plenty of fire in his belly. Our job is to make sure he settles in quickly by creating the right atmosphere so that he can realise his potential. By pairing Sergio alongside Nico, we enter the new season with an extremely competitive line-up, which will go toward helping us achieve our goals for the new season.”

“Coming here was always my first choice and I’m really happy everything has now been confirmed,” said Perez. “I want to say thank you to Vijay and the whole team for giving me the opportunity. This is a young team with a lot of determination and they’ve produced competitive cars for the last few years. It’s all change for next season with the new regulations, but I already have a good feeling about 2014. My plan now is to visit the factory and get to know everyone in the team.”

The news means that Adrian Sutil, who had an ongoing contract with Force India, is currently without a drive. However he remains close to Sauber, with whom he has been in close contact for some weeks.

Meanwhile Paul Di Resta has known for some months that he has been out of a job.

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Mallya in no hurry to decide 2014 Force India line-up

Dr Vijay Mallya insists that he’s in no hurry to confirm Force India’s driver line-up for 2014.

Along with Lotus the team is among the most attractive with seats potentially available, and the likes of Felipe Massa and Nico Hulkenberg have been linked with a drive.

“People have come to me, but I’m notorious for making the decision at the very last minute.” Mallya told this writer. “The reason is because I think that if one was to announce a change now – if I intend to make a change – I tend to believe it will demotivate a driver who’s leaving, which I don’t think is very fair. Be that as it may, I have been approached, and I’ll consider all our options.

“There are people who believe that we have an excellent driver line-up today. Both are very talented youngsters. We’ve always tried to have a solid driver line-up, and we’ll continue that going forward.”

Asked if he was interested in Massa – who potentially has some backing – Mallya said that money was not the key issue.

“The decision will be made on the driver’s competence and potential contribution to the team. None of our race seats has ever been for sale, and I’m totally against that concept, because I will not compromise the hard work of the design team and the engineers by putting in a driver whose sole criteria is whether he brings in money or not.

“I have to admit that Massa is not just a Grand Prix winner but a damn good driver. I think even this season he’s outqualified Alonso a few times, so there’s no question about his competence. But we’ll see as it goes along.”

He also didn’t rule out bringing back Hulkenberg, even if it meant having two German drivers should Adrian Sutil stay.

“Why not? For me if nationality were to ever matter all other things being equal it would probably tilt the scales in favour of an Indian, but there are no Indians around. Beyond that, as long as there is no Indian on the horizon, I don’t care.

“To me the focus is on a driver who’s talented, can get the most out of the car, can give proper feedback, can help the engineers develop the car, and make us as a team more competitive.”

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