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Defiant Mallya Force India to dizzying heights

‘It’s about being smart with the way we go racing as we can’t compete with the huge budgets of manufacturer teams

Image Credit: AP
Vijay Mallya
Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: In India, Vijay Mallya has become a bit of a fallen hero. But in the world of Formula One, he is very much alive and kicking as his Sahara Force India team have come a long way after years of perseverance.

A period of eight days, starting on December 4, will be one of the biggest challenges of the Indian business tycoon’s career.

On Monday, Mallya, wanted in India for multimillion financial irregularities amounting to nearly Rs90 billion (Dh5.07 billion), appeared before a court in London where his extradition hearing was confirmed to start next month.

However, Mallya, who owns over 42.5 per cent stake in Force India, has kept that particular venture afloat and made sure that all the turmoil had very little effect on his team’s aspirations.

As Mallya celebrates the 10th anniversary of acquiring the struggling Spyker F1 team, the renamed Sahara Force India have also taken giant strides. They have secured the fourth position in the constructors’ championship for the second year in a row with the forthcoming Ethad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix still to go.

“To have secured fourth place in the championship for two consecutive years is a tremendous achievement. It’s thanks to a huge effort from each of the 400 team members who have all played their part,” the 61-year-old Mallya told Gulf News in a rare email interview.

Mallya was of the view that there is no quick fixes when it comes to Formula One racing and one has to play the ‘long game and think strategically’.

“This year we celebrate our tenth year of racing. When we started, we were qualifying at the back of the field and finishing last. Bringing the team to the level of competitiveness we see today has been a long journey. We’ve planned well and made improvements with each year.”

What actually changed the sagging fortunes of Sahara Force India, who now just have the three big sharks — Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull ahead of them, is the astute business brain of Mallya. He has hand-picked the right people on-board along with the aggressive drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon.

“At the start of the journey, I recruited key people, such as Bob Fernley and Otmar Szafnauer — both of them true racers. We’ve also retained long-standing team members such as Andy Stevenson, who runs the race team,” says Mallya, who went on to add that the inclusion of Andrew Green as Technical Director and Tom McCullough as the Chief Engineer was a huge shot in the arm.

“Each of them deserve credit for the competitiveness of the team. They say a team is only as strong as the people that make it up and we have fantastically talented people in all areas of the company.”

The long-standing partnership with Mercedes has also been a huge plus and another right choice that they made, asserted Mallya.

“Mercedes has given us stability. The decision to use the wind tunnel in Cologne has provided access to a fantastic resource. We’ve also understood the importance of tyres by employing excellent tyre engineers. We allocate our resources effectively,” said Mallya, accepting the only way they could have matched the heavy spending Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bulls was by being wise.

“It’s about being smart with the way we go racing. We can’t compete with the huge budgets of manufacturer teams, but we make the most of what we do have,” says Mallya, who was confident that his team can keep building on the success in the next season as well.

“The challenge for 2018 is to keep improving and narrowing the gap to the teams ahead of us. Maintaining fourth place will be a challenge, but we have stability in all areas of the technical team and a very strong driver line-up so we are up for it.”