The Liuzzi affair…
I rate all four of Force India’s contracted drivers quite highly. I’m a big Adrian Sutil fan and feel he has a lot more to give than he’s already shown, Paul di Resta I’ve rated since he beat Vettel in F3 and am delighted to see in F1, Nico Hulkenberg’s a rough diamond but a star in the making, and Vitantonio Liuzzi has been quite hard done by ever since he got into F1 – he compared quite well to Vettel initially at Toro Rosso, and didn’t do badly at Force India. But it seems it was not enough to stop him getting the chop a year early on his contract.
Team owner Vijay Mallya has had a tendency to change his mind quite a lot regarding drivers. Tonio is said to have had a race deal with the team for 2009 in his initial test driver contract, but it seems they couldn’t find a way of getting rid of Sutil and Fisichella – I think he might have got a bit of compensation out of that behind slightly-ajar doors but I’m not sure. And then as soon as he did get his chance, he was out of favour and looked like being dumped in favour of di Resta – I seem to remember the feeling was that it didn’t look that great for him before the season even began, before di Resta had even participated in an F1 weekend.
The problem may be something behind the scenes. Liuzzi was signed thanks to Colin Kolles, then the team boss, who rated him highly, only to promptly get the sack himself – hence why Tonio is being linked so strongly to HRT. And the shift from being in favour to not was quite sudden, which perhaps suggest something sudden behind the scenes.
The other thing with Liuzzi is that while he’s clearly good, he hasn’t really improved at all. The guy’s been in F1 for 5 years, and was doing testing for a while before that too with Williams and Sauber. There have been no flashes of brilliance. And thus you have to doubt his ultimate potential – has he peaked already? Yes, he could win races in a decent car, but so could most of the guys on the grid now. You have to question that F3000 title that, let’s face it, even as someone who thinks positively of him, I have to admit was against less-than-average opposition.
And here’s where he doesn’t compare well with Sutil. Even if you don’t rate him, Adrian has shown he is capable of the odd very good race – the only particularly good race I can think of from Tonio was China 2007, but even then he was comfortably beaten by his team mate. And when you’re a midfield team, particularly one owned by an airline and alcohol magnate who owns most of the companies whose logos are on the car, it’s often better to have the driver who, once a year, pulls a blinder and gets a freak podium, rather than the guy who’s plodding around getting 7ths and 8ths every week – the former is what will get you the headlines and exposure, even if it’s not representative.
This is roughly what happened in 2010 – Sutil just about had the edge anyway, but had a couple of stand-out drives where he finished quite high up, whereas Tonio’s best race was arguably the very first one of the year, and everyone had forgotten about him. Standing out from the crowd, especially in times like this with pay drivers knocking around with massive potential sponsorship deals in their pocket, is what you need to do as a driver.
Either way, there is a question of trust now hanging over Vijay Mallya’s head as a result of this. While I am very much an outsider to all of this, my perception is that I don’t think of Force India as any more or less trustworthy than anyone else in the paddock. Why is Hulkenberg joining them? Because Williams got rid of him despite taking that pole. They wanted to loan him to Hispania, the weakest team on the grid. Williams ethically have been one of the worst teams in recent F1 history, dumping decent drivers because of money several times – remember Wurz “retiring” ahead of the last race in 2007 in order to give Kazuki Nakajima a run? Plus there’s Kimi getting paid by Ferrari off a year after signing a contract extension, Alonso being forced out of McLaren 2 years early, and plenty of other cans of worms to open. I don’t see any teams that could take a moral high ground these days – even Virgin were at it this year not giving reserve driver Andy Soucek any running, and they’ve only been in it a season!
At the end of the day, in F1, and perhaps sport generally these days, contracts are only worth the paper they’re written on. That’s not just Force India – all of them do it if they can get away with it. They may be getting the most attention for other reasons…