Has Force India peaked?

It is a cliche to say, but it’s true — predicting a team’s performance on the basis of testing form is a mug’s game. Just ask Mr Sniff Petrol.

But one thing I am pretty sure of is that Force India have taken a step backwards. Force India’s 2010 was a story of unfulfilled promise.

At the start of the year, they were firmly the best of the midfield bunch (with the exception of Renault, who managed to compete with Mercedes to be viewed more as a front-running team). But by the end of the year they had fallen firmly behind Williams, and slipped into the clutches of Sauber and Toro Rosso.

When I watched the season review DVD over winter, one of the things that surprised me was how good Force India were at the start of the season. I had totally forgotten. By the end of the year they were so underwhelming and failing to finish ahead of Williams — over whom they had a respectable lead at mid-season — cemented that sense.

Nevertheless, they finished seventh in the Constructors’ Championship. That is a very good result by the team’s recent standards. The team that was Jordan, then Midland, then Spyker before becoming Force India has not had such a good year since 2002.

Of the team’s four owners in recent years, Vijay Mallya is the one who has turned the team from the grid’s tailenders into a serious midfield force. He deserves great credit for that.

But it seems that as soon as this was achieved, the whole project ran out of steam. During last season, the team seemed to suffer from an exodus of staff. Most notably, James Key moved over to Sauber, who now look set to leapfrog Force India having made great progress during 2010 and a promising winter of testing. Another clutch of staff moved to Lotus, another team that looks to be on the up.

This sense that Force India have lost ground in the midfield battle was summed up for me in comments made by Adrian Sutil last week:

Looking at Sauber and Williams, they started last year a bit worse than they finished.

Over the winter they have done a good job and look quite strong, also Toro Rosso have made a step and are in this group who look very close together. Going into the top ten will be a tough goal.

Adrian Sutil has singled out Sauber, Williams and Toro Rosso as ones to watch. But those are precisely the three teams that make up the midfield group that Force India were leading one year ago. It strikes me as a long-winded way of saying “Force India look crap”. Sutil has expanded on those thoughts this week, urging his team to find more speed.

But it’s difficult to know where that speed will come from. On the outside, it seems to me that Force India has peaked. The energy they had in late 2009 and early 2010 has gone, and I don’t see them moving on the way up any time soon.

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