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Having proudly waved the flag of India on the F1 grid for almost a decade, Vijay Mallya’s Force India is now set to “feel the force” of his home country in a whole different way entirely.
With news breaking yesterday that Mallya was arrested in London on an extradition request from India, doubts have been cast over the continued viability of the racing operation the 61-year-old has led since 2008.
Charged with fraud and money laundering, he is reported to owe creditors more than $1 billion in loans extended to finance his now-defunct Kingfisher airlines.
Whether Mallya can continue to finance Force India is anyone’s guess, but it’s sure to get harder as the net cast by the Indian government continues to close around him. Yet whatever happens, Force India cannot afford to become a casualty.
A flamboyant face on the grid known for his lavish parties and bad haircuts (how many blokes with grey hair do you see rocking a mullet?), under Mallya the former Spyker has turned into an all-around F1 success story.
In 2016, the team finished fourth in the constructor’s standings – the highest spot in their history – despite possessing a budget far below that of the major teams.
According to F1 journalist Joe Saward, the team “is funded largely with prize money” (somewhere in the $70-80m range), but even with the backing brought in by driver Sergio Perez and their new deal with Austrian company BWT it is hard to place their budget any higher than $100 million – making their achievements all the more impressive.
Deputy Team Principal Bob Fernley, technical director Andrew Green, and COO Otmar Szafnauer have been nothing short of exceptional in their leadership of Force India over the past few years, and deserve to see their efforts continue to prosper.
Race wins may be well outside their grasp, but the team is a consistent points finisher, and has a record of supporting drivers with talent as well as financial backing, making it the perfect example of a well-run midfield team.
Assuming Mallya does end up needing to sell the team and can’t find a buyer (Joe Saward reports he wants $250 million for it), allow me to make a proposal that ensures Force India stays in operation: Liberty Media should buy the team.
That may be out of left-field in the context of F1, but it’s not unheard-of in Liberty’s home of America for a “league” to buy a team in order to ensure its survival. In 2010, the NBA bought the New Orleans Hornets from previous owner George Shinn before selling them to Tom Benson in 2012, under the agreement he keep them in New Orleans.
No strangers to team ownership themselves (already owning baseball’s Atlanta Braves), Liberty should be willing to step in similarly as temporary owners should Mallya be unable to continue.
An 18 car grid would be bad enough already, when those two missing cars are of the quality of Force India’s, it would be a severe loss indeed.
Inside Line Opinion by Ben Stevens