With just four weeks remaining until the start of the new Formula One season, testing has begun and the teams and drivers are preparing for the first race of 2013 in earnest.
The one exception in all this is Force India. The first pre-season test finished over a week ago and yet with just 26 days until first practice gets underway at Melbourne, Paul di Resta is still the only race driver to be confirmed at the Silverstone-based team.
It is a situation that is as farcical as it is baffling. For a midfield team like Force India, who have had no problems building their car and – despite team owner Vijay Mallya’s ongoing problems in India – no immediate financial problems heading into the new season, it is ridiculous that at this late stage of proceedings nobody has been confirmed to be driving the team’s second car.
Ferrari academy driver Jules Bianchi had seemed to be the frontrunner to drive alongside di Resta. The Frenchman was the team’s reserve driver last season and it has been reported that Ferrari want him to be promoted to a race seat this year, possibly in return for a cheap engine supply starting in 2014. Bianchi impressed in testing at Jerez and had looked to have given himself a great chance of landing the drive.
But then last week came the news that the team’s former driver Adrian Sutil had had a seat fitting and is expected to test in Barcelona next week. Sutil, who was dropped by Force India at the end of 2011 after the German driver’s well documented brush with the law, was said by AUTOSPORT last week to now be the favourite for the drive, which would then leave Bianchi out in the cold.
Now it’s possible that this could all be part of a political game to try and persuade Ferrari or Bianchi to stump up some extra cash and take the seat, but all it does is further complicate a frankly ridiculous situation.
Whatever the motives behind this delay, there has been plenty of time for Force India to sort out their plans and reveal the identity of their second driver. The team has known since last October that Nico Hulkenberg was leaving them to join Sauber. It wasn’t as though he just decided to walk out on them at the 11th hour. That is way more than enough time for the team to find someone to replace Hulkenberg.
If Force India wanted a pay driver to fill the second seat it’s hardly like there’s a shortage of them floating about at the moment, whereas if they wanted to sign a driver based purely on talent the likes of Kamui Kobayashi and Heikki Kovalainen were both available and would have both been perfectly good signings for them.
It’s also not as if it was ever going to be difficult to sign up any of the drivers that were linked to the second seat. Both Sutil and Jaime Alguersuari did not drive competitively last year and (any possible visa issues for Sutil aside) would not have taken much persuading to put pen to paper, Bianchi has the support of Ferrari in finding a seat on the grid and was the team’s reserve driver in 2012, whilst Bruno Senna was released by Williams at the end of November.
Whoever ends up getting the drive, the only losers out of this situation will be Force India themselves. Whoever gets the seat will be thrown in halfway through pre-season testing, possibly with no mileage and be expected to play catch-up with every other driver on the grid. As a result, the team’s second driver will have less time to adapt and get to grips with his new car, and is therefore likely to turn up at Melbourne without the correct form of preparation.
To put no finer point on it, Force India have shot themselves in the foot. It is a problem entirely of their own doing and one that could, and should, have been so easily avoided.
Will it cost them? Only time will tell.