Force India has long established itself as being one of Formula 1’s pound-for-pound champions, finishing fourth in the constructors’ championship each of the past two years.

However, with McLaren and Renault in the ascendance, its position at the front of the midfield looks at serious threat. And while it pushes to keep hold of its standing in F1, the team is looking to plan for the future, with a sea-change nearing in 2021 under new plans for the sport.

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CrashTV: 

Otmar, Force India is still riding high after Sergio Perez’s podium in Baku. Do you see it as being the turning point in the team’s season?

Otmar Szafnauer: Yeah, I’d agree with that. It was a podium finish! How many other teams have had podiums this year? Three?

Since Checo was on the podium in Baku two years ago, only Williams outside the big three...

OS: Yeah. So we’ve had our fair share. Not the lion’s share, but a fair share. Not even our fair share, less than our fair share!

And that’s with the competition greater than ever this season.

OS: It makes it that much sweeter to be on the podium first.

Come the end season as well, it’ll be that much more important?

OS: Yeah, for sure. It was a nice points-scoring effort.

Do you think this is shaping up to be one of Force India’s toughest seasons in recent years in F1 given that competition?

OS: Oh no, we’ve had tougher, a few years ago. But the competition’s getting better, so from that regard, it will be tough. But that’s what we’re about. We’re a racing team. By definition we’re racing. So it should be alright. We welcome the challenge.

Operationally, Force India has always been very strong, and combined with one of the strongest driver line-ups in the midfield too, that bodes well.

OS: And a good powertrain, and understanding the car and the tyres, and all that stuff we still have. We should be able to make it work.

Are you guys already looking to next year with Checo and Esteban as well?

OS: Not from a driver perspective, but we’re looking to next year from a car perspective, because the rules again have changed. We’ve had to start work on that already.

Was that a good step changing the rules for 2019 with the aerodynamic tweaks? There was some opposition from some of the teams...

OS: Time will tell.

Because there is that risk all these changes won’t actually make any difference, or make it worse?

OS: There is always that risk. But hopefully with intelligent decision making, it can’t be worse. The only risk that I see is that it’s not significantly better, but it costs a lot of money. But I think we should take the risk for the benefit of the fan.

Doing things for the benefit of the fan is a mantra going into 2021 as well with discussions with Liberty. The fan must come first.

OS: Yep, the fan must come first.

So how are talks going with Liberty? Have you spoken any more with them?

OS: Everyone’s got to talk. We haven’t progressed anything with them. I think they said they’re going to go and see all of the teams individually, and we’re not one of those teams they’ve come to see yet. So we haven’t progressed, no.

The presentation they put to the teams seemed to hit quite a nice middle ground, satisfying a lot of people in a lot of areas. How happy were you with it?

OS: I think that’s the definition of compromise. We’re happy with the compromise.

Do you think the bigger teams are going to be willing to come down to that level, though?

OS: That is for them to… I can’t speak on their behalf. Good question, but I can’t say.

Matters such as a telemetry clampdown and the loss of virtual garages, these are things that would surely play into the hands of a smaller team such as Force India?

OS: Maybe, but we have a virtual garage, so we’ll have to get rid of it like everybody else. We just have to be careful that we make those types of decisions in the areas that are actually going to save us money. So for us, once a virtual garage is up and running, we don’t populate it with extra employees. We populate it with employees that have day jobs, so to speak. Head of vehicle science or dynamics is there. The head of the aero analysis group is there. We’re not going to be able to get rid of those people, so if they just work every other Sunday, it doesn’t cost us any more. So we’ve got to be careful that we don’t dumb down the sport with gaining any benefit. Because dumbing down the sport also has an impact on the fan that cares about the sophistication and technology of Formula 1. You don’t want to alienate those guys. But if it saves us money, that’s a different story. We’ve got to really concentrate on making good decisions and informed decisions. That’s the key.

And that will be what comes from the individual chats with Liberty and the teams?

OS: That’s the opinion I’ll… well it’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Those are the facts I’ll point out.

In terms of the financial restructuring plans as well, are you happy with what they’ve put forward?

OS: Yeah, happy. Happy.

Did it go far enough? Or would you rather it have gone further?

OS: Like I said at the beginning, that’s the defintion of compromise. You can always say it should have gone further, but you’ve got to strike a good balance and a good compromise. For me? I’m happy.

For the long-term future of Force India, how crucial is it that this proposal is stuck to and not made any big concessions for the bigger teams?

OS: I think the closer we stick to this proposal the better our chances of long term future.  

You're on of F1's most prominent Americans. The Miami news has came out recently about plans for a race there in 2019. It’s a pretty good step for the sport in the United States. What is your response to it?

OS: It’s a great venue, I love the city, it’s fantastic. 

For F1, the US has always been it’s 'problem child' market, it’s always been so hard to tap into and really crack. Will a second race there help it get to that point? Do you think it will solve the issue?

OS: Well I think it will go towards making it more popular in America, that’s for sure. 

And what is needed to finally crack it for F1 to finally say: "We’ve got America?"

OS: A race in Vegas! I think there’s a lot that goes into cracking America including the fact that all the European races start at 4am on the west coast. So the more you have in that timezone, whether it’s in America, or Mexico, or Canada, or Brazil, and if you have a few of them in that time zone then I think you’ll get more fans. It’s tough to have the majority of the races that are unsuitable or un-sociable times, where you have got to wake up on a Sunday morning to watch it live and to me, watching racing taped is better than not watching racing but there’s something about seeing it live. Some certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ about it.

I guess in the digital age as well you go on Twitter and accidentally see it...

OS: Or your kids do and whisper it in your ear. So I think it goes a long way towards that to have more in that timezone and plus there’s nothing like a live race attract fans and get them hooked.

With the calendar expansion possibly taking it to 22 races next year - although we don’t know what’s going on with Germany at the moment yet - but with it edging closer towards those 25 races that Liberty want, what kind of pressure is that going to put on teams and how realistic is it that we can make that happen?

OS: For sure it will have an impact on the travelling staff. So to expect them to travel to 25 races and turn cars around when they are not racing is maybe a step too far. I think we’re nearly at the cracking point now. 

Is there maybe a contradiction that Liberty have come in and said ‘we want a cost cap, we want to cut costs, but also we need to be going to another three or four races a season?’

OS: Yeah I mean the thing is, and it’s a bit of a business model conundrum, is Liberty see 25 races as additional revenue but they don’t bear these types of costs in adding these types of races. Their cost of adding races is marginal to the revenue they receive. We bear the costs. For example, not just the costs of tiring the guys out. If we run another five races we are going to need another engine, we are going to need umpteen more radiators, uprights, suspension components, wings, they all wear out. They are finely designed so that if they last too long, then they don’t perform. So we are going to have to buy a lot more components and you have to say that there is an economic threshold that if you are not above, we’re losing money going to 25 races. That we have to make sure is profitable, because they don’t bear the cost, we do. 

And it needs to be relative that the added revenue they are getting needs to come to you guys too through increased payouts basically?

OS: Well that naturally happens but by the time it filters down to some of the teams  their costs are higher than the revenue they get back and it doesn’t make sense to go. So we have to be careful with that in forming decisions.

Do you think that’s the biggest challenge Liberty faces in the future?

OS: The calendar is one of many. 

Finally, back on drivers, are you expecting a fight to keep hold of Esteban next year? There’s all these rumours linking him to Mercedes possibly?

OS: No, I’m not going to fight them. 

Well, not fight them per se, but are you expecting to have a challenge to keep hold of him?

OS: Nah, I think we’ll keep him. You never know.

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