One point was all Force India had taken from the opening three races of 2018.

A sluggish start started to worry the pink team as their fantastic form last year – finishing fourth in the Constructors’ Championship – looked to have washed away entering the 2018 season.

It is raw pace they have lacked, they struggle to stay in the top ten and what is to blame? They have got arguably the best power unit package of the field, their budget increased due to their result in 2017 and the aerodynamics on the car look reasonable. Yes, rivals like McLaren and Renault have stepped up their game with engine development, but why can’t Force India match their performance even with a talented driver line-up of their own?

Sunday in Azerbaijan was a great refresher for the team. They got their first podium since the inaugural race in Baku 2016, but was it down to luck or sheer pace?


Friday

FREE PRACTICE SESSION 1 FREE PRACTICE SESSION 2
Pos. Driver Time Laps Pos. Driver Time Laps
3. Sergio Pérez 1:45.075 26 7. Esteban Ocon 1:43.814 30
5. Esteban Ocon 1:45.237 29 12. Sergio Pérez 1:44.142 31
Esteban Ocon, Force India Mercedes VJM11 - 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Esteban Ocon started his weekend promisingly by finishing in the top-ten in both Friday practice sessions.

The business of Friday morning was very promising for Force India.

Once again, Formula 1 in 2018 had arrived at a circuit with unique track characteristics to the previous three Grands Prix. This time, it was hard on brakes and tough on engines with long straights and 90-degree corners. Force India’s mighty Mercedes power unit could stretch its legs and the VJM11’s improved aerodynamics – off research and a budget increase from their Constructors’ Championship success last year – could be put to the test.

Additionally, in the seaside location known as the ‘city of winds’, drivers and cars were challenged throughout the weekend with grip issues. Awkward tailwinds made entries into corners tricky with plenty detouring to the run-off areas, while strong crosswinds through corners caused heavy lateral loads swirling across the car.

The pink liveried team jumped out of the gates quickly from the get-go as Sergio Pérez placed himself third with his teammate Esteban Ocon not too far behind in fifth during the morning session before switching the focus to race runs in the 90-minute afternoon period.

“It’s been a positive day and I think it’s going to be a very interesting weekend,” hinted Pérez at the end of Friday’s running.

“It’s a track I really enjoy and with any street circuit it’s all about finding the limits and pushing them as much as you can.

“The fight in the middle of the grid is going to be very close, but I think we can be competitive. The work we have done today gives me encouragement and I have a good feeling with the car.

“The track conditions at the end of the day saw the temperatures drop quite a lot and that’s why we saw drivers making mistakes and running wide. It’s going to be tricky during qualifying tomorrow.”

“It’s been an encouraging day of practice allowing us to achieve most of our objectives,” added Otmar Szafnauer, Chief Operating Officer of Force India.

“The first session was basically an aero testing session with both cars trying some development parts. The second session was routine with a mixture of qualifying and race preparations.

“It’s clear that the margins between the midfield teams are very small, but the early indications suggest both our cars have a good opportunity to qualify inside the top ten tomorrow.”


Saturday

FREE PRACTICE SESSION 3 QUALIFYING
Pos. Driver Time Laps Pos. Driver Time Laps
6. Sergio Pérez 1:43.936 9 7. Esteban Ocon 1:42.523 20
9. Esteban Ocon 1:44.220 11 8. Sergio Pérez 1:42.547 17
Sergio Perez, Force India Mercedes VJM11 - 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Both Pérez and teammate Ocon qualified inside the top-ten at the Baku City Circuit.

Signs looked great that Force India could potentially get both its drivers into Q3 for the first time in 2018.

The duo finished off Free Practice 3 in the top ten in preparation for the afternoon’s all-important Qualifying session.

Ocon got the ball rolling in Q1 gaining a lucky tow off a rival to place him second on the time sheets, briefly above Mercedes and Red Bull Racing.

The pair put their thoughts to Sunday’s midfield battle electing to run times on the purple-walled Ultrasoft tyres in Q2 to be their race starting tyre for the following day.

Both drivers made it into Q3 with Ocon taking bragging rights at the end of the afternoon qualifying by starting one place higher than his teammate in seventh position. Fittingly, the Frenchman gave Force India its best qualifying result for 2018 to-date.

“The car is working well and it’s been very enjoyable to drive,” Ocon said  after qualifying.

“Today we were the fourth fastest team and we really deserved this result. Tomorrow is a big opportunity and we need to make the most of it. We saw last year what can happen here with safety cars and incidents, so we need to be patient and stay out of trouble.”

“I am pretty happy with our performance today,” added Pérez. “I don’t think we [Sergio’s side of the garage] fully maximised our performance.

“There were so many yellow flags and the wind made things very complicated, which is why there were so many errors. I couldn’t get a proper clean run until Q3.

“The race tomorrow will be all about being in the right place at the right time and making the most of the opportunities as they arise. The track suits us and I believe there is plenty of potential to make up a few more places.

“Days like these are a great motivation for everyone in the team and show we are making progress. We were the top team in the midfield today but it’s tomorrow that really counts.”


Sunday

FORMULA 1 2018 AZERBAIJAN GRAND PRIX – FINAL CLASSIFICATION (51 LAPS)
Driver Team / Entry Laps Result
3. Sergio Pérez Force India F1 Team Mercedes VJM11 51 + 4.024
DNF. Esteban Ocon Force India F1 Team Mercedes VJM11 56 + 16.895
Sergio Perez, Force India Mercedes VJM11 - 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

His eighth career podium put Pérez ahead of the late Pedro Rodriguez to become Mexico’s most successful F1 driver.

Temperatures suggested prior to race day that winds would be strong throughout Sunday and gusts certainly swirled around the track measuring at its highest speeds all weekend.

Force India’s start was costly with Pérez clipping the side of his endplate on the back of Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari into Turn 2. Six-hundred metres later, Räikkönen and Ocon would collide, sending Esteban into the barriers at Turn 3 to end his race.

Plenty of debris littered the track from other incidents on lap one as Pérez had the opportunity to pit under yellow flag conditions. The Mexican made a front wing change and switched yellow-walled soft compound exiting the pit lane from nearly the tail end of the field.

On the restart, Pérez was found to have briefly overtaken Kevin Magnussen before the Safety Car control line. He was handed a five-second time penalty to serve during his second pit stop.

Pérez’s pace was great on the Softs, slicing his way through the field and by mid-race he was behind the ‘big three’ teams in seventh position. Once clearing the midfield, he struggled to catch Räikkönen, however, his crucial moment for the race was about to happen.

The Safety Car scrambled again eleven laps out from the finish after the two Red Bulls clashed into Turn 1. Pérez took the opportunity to change to new tyres, like the majority of the field, and serve his five-second penalty. Similar to Vettel’s situation in Melbourne, Pérez was able – under Safety Car conditions – serve his time penalty and get back out on track in less time than it would take under green flag conditions.

On the restart, Pérez had gained two places thanks to Red Bull’s troubles and was sitting in a solid fifth position. The action ahead didn’t end there however as Sebastian Vettel tried to divebomb race-leader Valteri Bottas into Turn 1, locking up his tyres and going wide. He lost two positions in the scramble and all but killed his tyres. Vettel’s pace was ruined with heavily flat-spotted Pirelli rubber and that gave Pérez the chance to act stealing fourth position later in the lap.

The very next lap, Bottas would end his race running over a piece of stranded debris left on track forcing the Finn to pull over three laps out from the chequered flag. Pérez was gifted the podium position with only a handful of laps to go, with the Mexican earning his eighth podium and his second in Baku.

Just like he said on Saturday, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time and making the most of the opportunities that fall in front of you.

Sergio Perez, Force India Mercedes VJM11 - 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Pérez overcame a front wing change and a five-second time penalty to finish in a superb this place.

“I’m extremely happy. Our race was a rollercoaster,” jovially uttered Pérez.

“I was struggling [towards the end of the race] and every corner was a lottery, but then I saw the cars in front of me were struggling too.

“My pace was unbelievable and I think they were the best two laps of my life. This podium means a lot to me, I am very pleased and proud for myself, my family, my team and Mexico.

“The team did a great pit stop and I was able to serve my penalty and still come out in front of Grosjean.

“I was looking after my tyres because we only had Supersofts left and warming them up was very difficult.

“I passed Seb [Vettel] but then he recovered and put pressure on me. I had to give it everything in the last two laps.”

“It’s disappointing not to finish the race on a day in which we had such good pace,” explained Ocon after notching up just the second DNF of his Formula 1 career.

“I had a flying start and I managed to pass Kimi. I was ahead of him all the way to Turn 2 and when we went into the corner. I was behind Ricciardo, but Kimi made a lunge and put me in the barriers.

“I feel it was my corner and I was on the racing line, but he locked up and hit me. I feel the mistake was on his side: we’ll see what the Stewards say but that won’t change the outcome for me.

“It’s a shame because Sergio showed we had the pace to do really well here today. I am still very pleased for the team’s result and I hope we can carry our performance forward to Barcelona and beyond.”

“Sergio drove a remarkable race,” furthered Otmar Szafnauer.

“He did everything we asked of him and the strategy was spot on, even allowing us to recover from a five-second penalty.

“This result is down to a tremendous team effort and feels all the more enjoyable after a difficult start to the season and some unlucky races.

“Of course, it was disappointing to lose Esteban on lap one when he was taken out by Räikkönen because he would surely have scored points as well.

“The result gives us a nice boost as we return to Europe and shows just how much progress we have made over the last month to bring performance to the car.”

The team jump to sixth on the Constructors’ Championship standings on sixteen points behind rivals McLaren and Renault with Pérez boosting himself up to ninth in the Drivers’ Championship standings, three points shy of Max Verstappen.

So, can success in Azerbaijan continue as we enter the European leg?

Barcelona is known for teams to bring in plenty of development upgrades to their car, so what can Force India bring to the table? Unfortunately, it’s a big step to match as their rivals are current and former works teams holding plenty of long-term experience and money – unlike the privateer team based just outside Silverstone.

Additionally, it will be the squad’s first time back to the Circuit de Catalunya since pre-season testing in February and March. Teams hold a lot of data at this circuit and unlike Azerbaijan, everyone will be on top of each other come Free Practice 1 in the warmer and sunnier conditions unlike earlier in the year.

Images via Sahara Force India F1 Team

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Luke McCullough

Journalist at MotorsportM8
Melbourne based and Australian Grand Prix enthusiast with over 10+ years of attendance.

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