Forty-eight hours before the start of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, confirmation finally came through that Force India – the team formerly run by Indian powerhouse businessman Vijay Mallya – had been rescued from administration.

A consortium led by Canadian businessman Lawrence Stroll, the father of Williams driver Lance Stroll, had led a consortium to buy out the troubled team and would work with the FIA to get the it ready to race over the final half of the 2018 season.

The investors consisted of Stroll, his business partner Silas Chou, fellow Canadian entrepreneur Andre Desmarais, Monaco Sports and Management’s Jonathan Dudman, fashion business leader John Idol, telecommunications investor John McCaw Jr and financial expert Michael de Picciotto.

The new group immediately promoted former Force India Chief Operating Officer Otmar Szafnauer to the role of Team Principal and CEO. In response to the changes, long-time Deputy Team Principal Robert Fernley decided to stand down from his role having acted as the de facto man in charge during most race weekends.

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

Force India was the centre of the media’s attention in the wake of its last-minute rescue.

Szafnauer had played an integral role in the team’s improving performance since the start of the 2010 season when the team finished seventh in the Constructors’ Championship. In 2016 and 2017, the Silverstone team has peaked with fourth overall in the standings.

“On Monday I stood in front of the workforce at Silverstone and Brackley and applauded the achievements of this team in recent years,” said Lawrence Stroll, who took over the ownership of the team.

“The strength of any company is the people that make it up and it’s a huge privilege to begin this exciting new journey with such a talented group of men and women.

“I’ve been fortunate to establish and grow a number of successful businesses, but the opportunity to take this team forward to the next level is perhaps the most exciting challenge yet. Together with my fellow shareholders, we will invest in new resources and bring fresh energy to empower the workforce to continue racing at the very highest level.

“We are all passionate about motor racing; we recognise the racers’ spirit in Force India, and we are extremely motivated to make this team even more special in the years ahead.”

While the sense of relief and excitement was palpable, it was tinged with conjecture over whether the team – considered a new entrant under its new ownership structure – would keep the 59 championship points it had earned to-date or be entitled to the prizemoney it would have won under its previous ownership and entry structure.

In the end it was ruled that the original Sahara Force India team would be excluded stripped of its Constructors’ Championship points, while the new entry – under the dull Racing Points Force India name – would have to start from scratch at the bottom of the standings.

Despite additional speculation that Lawrence Stroll would move his son from the struggling Williams team to his own outfit, Force India retained its existing driver pairing of Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon. Both drivers would keep the championship points they had earned in 2018, along with the existing power unit element tally.


Friday

FREE PRACTICE SESSION 1 FREE PRACTICE SESSION 2
Pos. Driver Time Laps Pos. Driver Time Laps
7. Esteban Ocon 1:45.786 22 7. Sergio Pérez 1:44.662 27
9. Sergio Pérez 1:46.169 21 13. Esteban Ocon 1:45.935 24
Sergio Perez, Force India Mercedes VJM11 - 2018 Belgian Grand Prix

The Force India cars led the midfield charge in Friday practice, which proved a good sign of things to come at Spa-Francorchamps.

Fans were reunited with Formula 1 as they arrived back on track after a lengthy 26-day, mid-season break. With the recent administration changes within the team, it was just another weekend in Formula 1 by the time Free Practice 1 commenced.

Esteban Ocon finished ‘best of the rest’ in seventh for the opening 90-minutes in a straightforward session for both Force India drivers.

Sergio Pérez made an improvement up the timesheets in Free Practice 2, also finishing seventh as the team switched their focus to long-run, race pace for the afternoon.

Ocon unfortunately suffered a puncture early on during the installation lap forcing him to run with only one tyre for the practice program leaving him only in thirteenth at the end of Friday’s running.

“It’s great to be racing again. The car is performing well and I felt very comfortable in the first session,” said Ocon, who was nonetheless happy with how his day went.

“We tried a different direction in the afternoon, which didn’t really work and I also had a puncture which meant I had to do most of the session on one set of supersoft tyres. Even so, we have made some good progress today and I think we can fight for a place in Q3 tomorrow.”

“I love this track and I’ve really enjoyed getting back in the car today. When you spend a few weeks off, there is nowhere better than Spa to return to action,” added Pérez.

“The car felt very good today and I’m happy with the balance. It’s probably the best balance we have had all year. So there is the potential for a strong weekend, regardless of what the weather does.”

“The conditions remained pretty consistent throughout the day, which is always a bonus here in Spa, and this helped us evaluate the different tyre compounds and rear wing levels,” concluded newly appointed Team Principal, Otmar Szafnauer.

“We still have some work to do, especially on our long run pace, but overall it was a reasonable day and we were able to collect a lot of data for our engineers to analyse tonight.”


Saturday

FREE PRACTICE SESSION 3 QUALIFYING
Pos. Driver Time Laps Pos. Driver Time Laps
8. Sergio Pérez 1:45.341 10 3. Esteban Ocon 2:01.851 16
10. Esteban Ocon 1:45.485 13 4. Sergio Pérez 2:01.894 14
Esteban Ocon, Force India Mercedes VJM11 - 2018 Belgian Grand Prix

Second-row lockout: Esteban Ocon qualified a career-best third-fastest, while teammate Sergio Pérez was fourth.

Times in the final practice session of the weekend revealed the afternoon’s qualifying session was going to be closer than ever with two other teams in Renault and Haas challenging Force India for a strong result.

Pérez set up well to narrowly finish ahead of Ocon in preparation for qualifying, finishing behind rookie Charles Leclerc in the Alfa Romeo Sauber. Both drivers could only be separated by two-tenths going into the all-important qualifying runs that afternoon which were predicted to be affected by rain late in the hour-long session.

The duo comfortably made it through to Q2. At the end of the first 18 minutes of qualifying, the pair sat eleventh and twelfth with almost identical times, separated only by 0.001 seconds.

In Q2 they improved their times as the track remained dry while the clouds darkened. Pérez found a whole second to sit sixth on the timesheets ahead of Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull at the end of the next 15 minutes, while Ocon snuck into Q3 with the ninth-fastest time.

Along with their fellow top-ten qualifiers, Pérez and Ocon posted their fastest Q2 laps on the red-walled Supersofts, on which they would start Sunday’s 44-lap race.

The drama intensified as rain arrived at the Ardennes circuit during the eight-minute break between Q2 and Q3. Engineers were still convinced dry tyres were the way to go, sending both Pérez and Ocon out on slicks – a tactic adopted by the rest of the pit lane. That would prove to be an almost costly mistake as drivers started to slide off the track at high speed.

Even Pérez – who has 147 Grands Prix under his belt – had two scares around the slippery circuit. He ran wide at Eau Rouge on his out-lap and narrowly saved a slide into the tyre wall, and then clumsily hopped over the Bus Stop chicane kerbs trying to get back to pit lane, dislodging a number of small aerodynamic components from his front wing and bodywork in the process.

Needing to do an extra tour of the circuit, Pérez was effectively left with just one attempt at a flying lap once he returned to the pits to swap to Intermediate tyres.

Crucially for both drivers, the Force India strategists were smart enough to start both cars with enough fuel to ensure they wouldn’t have to be pulled back into their garages for a top-up. It was not a strategy followed for both Red Bull Racing drivers and Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen, who found themselves stranded in the pits when track conditions were at their best at the end of the session.

Ocon’s first proper flying lap left him provisionally sixth-fastest, but the Frenchman had enough time for one more attempt and was also one of the final runners on the steadily drying track.

His final lap placed him in an astonishing third position on the grid with the fastest first sector to his name. The Frenchman bumped teammate Pérez – who set his final time moments before – into fourth, but it still left both Force Indias locking out the second row of the grid behind championship contenders Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.

It was the team’s best combined qualifying result since its formation in 2008 and the team’s best overall result since Giancarlo Fisichella’s stunning pole position at the same circuit in 2009.

“It’s a fantastic day. After everything that has happened in the last few weeks it’s a special moment and we should enjoy the day,” a blissful Ocon said after qualifying a career-best third-fastest.

“I’m very proud of the entire team because they kept up their motivation and worked really hard to give me a quick car today. Even without the rain, we looked strong and made it well into Q3 in the dry. When the rain started falling, we knew there was the chance to get an even better result, but it wasn’t easy.

“I’m so excited for the race. We have a quick car, especially down the straights and we will race hard tomorrow.”

“So many emotions are going through my head – it has been a really difficult session, which makes the result even sweeter,” furthered Pérez.

“The rain made things stressful and we had to take some risks. I had a massive moment in Eau Rouge and I was lucky to stay out of the wall, but I was really expecting the worst – there’s no small crash there.

“We had to come in for inters and I locked my rears at the final corner. I jumped on the kerb, damaged my front wing and the time we took to change it meant I only had the chance to do one lap on inters.

“Perhaps with one more lap I would have been able to fight for pole position, but we can still be very happy about P4. We are in a great position for tomorrow and we can put up a strong fight in the race. At the very least, we are targeting a lot of points – but you can never make predictions in Spa.”

“It’s a very positive result today although we got a bit lucky with some of the decisions we made when the rain came,” concluded Szafnauer.

“We had a quick car, as we saw in Q1 and Q2, but it is also thanks to the good decisions of the engineers that we were able to place both cars so far up the grid. The track was improving with every second at the end of Q3.

“We are in a strong position for tomorrow’s race. We know there are some very quick cars behind us, but we are going to give everything to bring home a lot of points.”


Sunday

FORMULA 1 2018 JOHNNIE WALKER BELGIAN GRAND PRIX – FINAL CLASSIFICATION (44 LAPS)
Driver Team / Entry Laps Result
5. Sergio Pérez Racing Point Force India Mercedes VJM11 44 + 1:11.023
6. Esteban Ocon Racing Point Force India Mercedes VJM11 44 + 1:19.520
Esteban Ocon & Sergio Perez, Force India Mercedes VJM11 - 2018 Belgian Grand Prix

The Force Indias of Esteban Ocon (L) and Sergio Pérez (R) almost stole the lead on the opening lap of the race.

With the opportunity to restart the team’s Constructors’ Championship points tally, both drivers needed to start cleanly and avoid running into each other as they had done at this very race last year.

They did just that, slotting in behind Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel at La Source.

A strong slipstream along the Kemmel Straight gave the opportunity to both Pérez, Ocon and Vettel to pounce on Hamilton’s vulnerable Mercedes. They ran four-wide on approach to the Les Combes chicane, but Ocon (on the absolute inside) sensible braked early to avoid ruining his entry to the chicane or – worse still – the race of the other three runners.

Pérez, running on the far left of the quartet, was unable to make a bold pass and slotted in behind Hamilton, who was overtaken for the lead by Vettel. Ocon slipped to fourth place.

A Safety Car intervention calmed proceedings with Fernando Alonso, Nico Hülkenburg and Charles Leclerc involved in a nasty aerial accident at the first corner of La Source. Fortunately, all drivers were unhurt – Force India’s outstanding starting positions had helped avoid the carnage behind.

With the Safety Car peeling back into the pits, Max Verstappen made ground on fourth-placed Ocon. Despite Ocon’s superior horsepower advantage over Verstappen’s Renault-powered Red Bull, the Dutch youngster still managed to breeze past his rival thanks to a DRS-assisted slipstream along the Kemmel Straight. Two laps later, he put the same move on Pérez to move into third place.

Opting for one-stop strategies for both drivers, Ocon performed his tyre change on Lap 25. Pérez followed suit, with the duo switching to the yellow-walled Soft tyres to see them through the chequered flag.

Although both drivers ran in the same order, the pair was threatened by the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. The Finn, who pitted at the end of Lap 1 after damaging his front wing on Sergey Sirokin’s Williams, was staging his own recovery drive from the tail of the field. He overtook Ocon on Lap 32 and breezed past Pérez eight laps later around the outside of the Les Combes chicane.

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

Fifth-placed Pérez is greeted by his delighted team.

Pérez and Ocon finished fifth and sixth – the team’s best result of the 2018 season. While the pink cars were not a match for their ‘big three’ rivals, they still bagged 18 points to move straight into ninth position in the Constructors’ Championship standings ahead of Williams, and just one point behind eighth-placed Sauber.

“It’s a great performance by the team today and I think we executed an almost perfect weekend,” Pérez explained on Sunday evening after the race.

“My only disappointment is from yesterday because I think pole position was within reach, but we can definitely be happy about the points we have scored. We just couldn’t have kept the top teams behind us in the dry so to be ‘best of the rest’, with Esteban right behind me, is the most we could have done.

“There was nothing I could do to keep Valtteri [Bottas] behind me – sometimes you just need to pick your fights and think of the bigger picture. I am happy with what we have achieved; we have scored some important points for the team and sent a strong message for the next few races. It’s a nice start of a new era for the team.”

“I am satisfied with today’s race and I think we finished where we deserved to with the pace we had,” added sixth-placed Ocon.

“I made a good start and I was on the inside of Sebastian [Vettel] at turn one. He had better traction, but I was very quick on the straight and tried to get the lead on the Kemmel straight. I had a good run down, slipstreaming both Vettel and Lewis [Hamilton] and I tried to find a way on the inside, but in the end I lost a place to Sergio. It was good, fair racing all around.

“It’s a good start to the ‘new’ life of the team; we scored a lot of points which is important for our championship comeback. We showed good pace all weekend and hopefully this is going to continue in the final part of the season.”

“To come away from Spa with 18 points feels pretty good. We have been quick all weekend and it was important to convert our potential into a strong result today,” concluded Otmar Szafnauer.

“Once things settled down [after the eventful first lap], both drivers delivered clean and tidy races, but ultimately we didn’t have the pace to race for the podium today.

“Picking up fifth and sixth is just what we needed and it’s a credit to all 405 members of staff who have showed great resolve in recent weeks. I congratulate them all and look forward to scoring more points in the races to come.”

Images via Racing Point Force India

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Luke McCullough

Melbourne Based - 17 Grand Prix attendances and counting in Australia, Singapore, Canada, France, Austria and Great Britain.
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