Force India has called a press conference tomorrow in which its 2011 sriver line-up is finally expected to be unveiled. The media has been called to the Glasgow headquarters of the team’s whiskey sponsor, White & Mackay, which is owned by Vijay Mallya’s brewery consortium.
The location of the press conference itself could give an indication that the team will confirm 2010 test and reserve driver Paul di Resta has been promoted to a race seat.
But matters could be more complicated behind the scenes…
The prediction that di Resta will be promoted is interesting, with many sources still claiming that the team has not yet reached a settlement with Vitantonio Liuzzi, the driver believed as the most likely (when compared with team-mate Adrian Sutil) to be cast aside. Liuzzi still holds a valid contract to race for the team in 2011.
There is little doubt that Liuzzi’s 2010 season performance – in comparison with Sutil – was disappointing (indeed, we certainly felt so in our end-of-year review), but closer inspection would should that he ran closer to the pace of his team-mate and generally bore the brunt of the reliability issues.
What hurt the Italian were continued difficulties adapting to the mechanical and aerodynamic packages brought onto the VJM03 during the season, a fact that the team regularly admitted to when asked about his performances during the season.
The problems Liuzzi was having with the car in turn then led to generally poor performances in qualifying. Of all the ‘A’-team drivers, he was the one most frequently eliminated with the ‘B’-team outfits in the first phase of qualifying.
This leaves the team in something of a quandary: while it could argue that Liuzzi performed worse than Sutil (the numbers all add up to support this), it would have trouble arguing that his performances were dreadful enough to get him sacked.
What is clear is that the team wants to keep Sutil and sign di Resta, and a three-into-two situation just won’t play out here. Di Resta comes with his own risks: he hasn’t raced a single-seater for over five years, for a start. But there are probably strong commercial implications for signing him: most obvious being that he is a long-time favourite of Mercedes-Benz (who supply customer engines to Force India). It would be almost certain that a hefty discount to buy the engines from Mercedes might be part of the deal.
The most pertinent issue for the team – should it be trying to lever Liuzzi out – is in trying to settle the issue quickly and quietly. If it can’t do so, then Liuzzi could theoretically apply for an injunction if the team decides he’s not on the list of nominated drivers.
Such a scenario would prove costly for the team – effectively forcing it out of valuable pre-season testing until it settles the matter, with the most logical option being that Force India finances the second, vacant seat at Hispania Racing to place Liuzzi there instead.
Ultimately, Liuzzi can’t stop the team from firing him, but his influence lies in determining what settlement he can negotiate. It’s hardly like team owner Dr Vijay Mallya wouldn’t be able to afford to pay Liuzzi out or bankroll a seat at HRT, but Mallya has had a history of not parting with his cash unless forced to, and that typically occurs after the matter has gone to court.