• Q&A with Force India's Bob Fernley

'They're championship material'

Laurence Edmondson February 4, 2012

ESPNF1 caught up with Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley at the launch of the new VJM05 to talk about targets for 2012, the team's financial future and Adrian Sutil

Bob Fernley at the launch of the Force India VJM05 © Sutton Images
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You've targeted fifth in the constructors' championship, which will not be easy given the competition you're up against. How did you arrive at that target?
When we completed the reconstruction [of the team] in 2008 and 2009 we set out a very clear programme for ourselves and we're exactly where we wanted to be with that. It would have been nice to over-perform but Formula One doesn't usually allow you to do that. I think that fifth is realistic, but it's not going to be easy - there are six other teams that are also doing exactly what we're doing. They're talented and many of them have actually got better resources in terms of their factories and capabilities. So I don't underestimate for one minute how difficult and challenging it's going to be, but if we don't set our sights on doing that then we'd be doing a disservice to the whole team.

How about challenging the top four? Is that even possible with your current budget or would you need another level of investment to achieve that?
I think we're now at the stage where we've delivered the reconstruction plan to the shareholders' satisfaction and now we're obviously talking to the shareholders about how we become a podium-contending team. That's the next step for us, but that requires investment.

You've talked about your driver pairing as one of the best on the grid below the top four teams. Just how good do you think Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg are?
I believe that they are potentially both championship material - I am really excited about them both. Even the top four teams, pretty much across the board in those, you've got drivers that are coming towards the end of their career. Obviously they have great experience and stabilise the team, but we've got two youngsters that are charging forwards. So that's a difference in approach, but I think our line-up is as exciting as those top four teams.

With Paul there seems to be a rumour every week that he's going to Mercedes. How do you deal with that? Surely at some point you will have to let him go...
The first thing is that we've got to have strong contracts. But you have to be realistic as a team, especially as Force India, and if Paul or Nico came to us at the end of 2012 or 2013 and said 'I've been offered a drive at Ferrari, Red Bull or McLaren', how are you going to get in their way? You're going to have to release them. Obviously there would be financial discussions in that, but the whole point of Force India is to identify young drivers as they come through. We won't be able to afford Paul or Nico in years to come so we've got to be ahead of the game, and that's what we've done.

The new Force India VJM05 on track © Press Association
To keep Paul and Nico you had to lose Adrian Sutil. That must have been a tough decision after he finished ninth in the championship last year.
It was a very tough decision. First of all Adrian had been with us for a number of years, he probably had his best season in 2011 and we liked Adrian as a person - he's a very decent person. So to make that decision to bring Nico and Paul through was not easy and it took quite a lot of deliberation.

And what was the thinking behind it?
I think the thinking was predominantly that Adrian had only been with Force India through his career and you have to look at the whole package. It's not just about how quick they are - Adrian is incredibly quick - but it's about feedback, technical programmes and everything else we are doing and we just felt that perhaps Paul and Nico together gave us a better combination.

So Adrian's personal situation away from the track had nothing to do with it?
No, it never even featured into it. Even in China when everything blew up Force India stood by him totally. We would have done now [had he stayed], but what I don't understand at the moment is, from Adrian's point of view, where it leaves him from a legal element for joining a team. I've got great sympathy for him, he doesn't deserve what has happened.

Back to Force India, are you confident you can attract sponsors and are you confident you'll have enough investment to challenge the top teams in a few years?
I think we need more investment and that will be something we discuss with the shareholders this year, because obviously the infrastructure we have at Silverstone is not adequate to be a contender. I think Force India generally punches above its weight, but you can't continue to do that. You need to have the solid background to make it all work and that's the next step.

And the market for sponsorship, is it as hard as it looks?
It is hard, but we've got a new, relatively young and dynamic commercial team at Force India. We're very lucky because we've got Sahara and Vijay to support us, so we don't need external sponsorship. But that should never be stopping us from moving in that direction and we are having some successes.