LONDON (Reuters) - Eddie Jordan had fun in Formula One and now Indian tycoon Vijay Mallya intends to bring back the good times after buying the team founded by the Irish entrepreneur.
Force India will represent a startling new departure for the sport when the first Indian-owned team make their debut at the Australian Grand Prix on March 16 but they have not forgotten their roots.
A decade ago, in 1999, the Jordan team punched well above their weight by finishing third in the championship and winning races while bringing a renegade, rock’n’roll attitude to the sport.
The Silverstone-based team then slid into decline, were sold to Russian-born Canadian billionaire Alex Shnaider in 2005 and renamed Midland before being passed on to Dutch sportscar maker Spyker.
Mallya, a liquor and airline billionaire known in India as ‘The King of Good Times’, took over last year with Dutch entrepreneur Michiel Mol and Force India were created.
“There is a good old English saying which holds that history repeats itself,” Mallya told Reuters during last week’s final pre-season test in Barcelona. “Jordan was a winning team in 1999, there’s no reason why it can’t go back to its winning ways in 2009.”
Formula One regulations are changing next year, which could level the field considerably, but it will still take some doing for a team that scored only a point as Spyker last year.
Mallya, who has said he wants Force India to be on the podium when New Delhi hosts a Formula One race in 2010, recognizes the obstacles but expects results.
He said the Ferrari-powered team should at least aim to get through to the second phase of qualifying this season and be reliable.
“With the right kind of direction, motivation and of course the right kind of resources — both engineering as well as financial — we are already showing improvement,” he said.
“I am a firm believer that money cannot buy performance so I don’t necessarily subscribe to having a big budget and then taking it for granted that you will succeed,” added the former Toyota sponsor.
“I know of many teams with big budgets that are not entirely successful.
“Having said that, 2009 presents us with a unique opportunity. With the new specifications, all the teams have to change significantly so if we are behind the game in 2008 it gives us the ability to be on a par in 2009.”
Jordan, a keen drummer, was invited to play with his band at the team’s Christmas party and some of the old spirit is returning.
Soaring spirits are in any case what Mallya is all about, with his UB Group last year acquiring the Whyte & Mackay Scotch whisky maker to become the world’s second largest spirits company, while his Kingfisher airline is expanding rapidly.
“Vijay always says that he wants everyone to enjoy themselves like they used to,” a team insider told Reuters.
“He constantly mentions Eddie’s name, he definitely uses him as his yardstick. That’s the role model that he cites which certainly enthuses everyone at Silverstone after three very miserable years.”
Italian Giancarlo Fisichella, the 35-year-old Roman who secured Jordan’s last race win in a wet and accident-strewn Brazilian Grand Prix in 2003, is back in the driving seat. His fellow driver is the far less experienced German Adrian Sutil.
Mike Gascoyne, an important figure in Jordan’s early years, is in charge of the technical side with former Jordan head of mechanical design Mark Smith also back on the payroll.
Ian Phillips, Eddie Jordan’s right-hand man who has his finger very much on the paddock pulse after decades in the sport, remains a key presence.
“We want to be like Jordan was in 1999 — not the biggest team but small and efficient and rocking the boat a bit,” Gascoyne told Reuters.
Jordan liked what he saw.
“I was impressed when I went back at Christmas, I hadn’t been back for some years prior to that — in fact since the day I left,” he told Reuters.
“Vijay made a speech and I spoke to the whole team, mainly the people as had been there before,” he added. “It was not an extraordinary motivational speech but it was about pulling together, making sure that we have a target, to focus and achieve it.
“He (Mallya) is a bit of a maverick and I like him. He’s not afraid to spend money, he stands up and says his dream is to be like Jordan again and winning races — not on a regular basis, because that is unlikely to happen. But he is going to make a big effort to get it where it was.”
Mallya said the party had been the perfect opportunity to get his message across.
“I invited Eddie to come and play. Eddie has been a great entertainer and a motivator of many people in the team during his time and I just thought it would be a nice gesture.
“It is absolutely essential to have a high level of motivation amongst employees, people must be excited about what they do, they must relish challenge and when I inherited the team obviously that spirit was sadly lacking,” he said.
“In the last few months I think I have succeeded in bringing back that spirit and people are excited, you can see the energy in the garage and you can feel the energy in the motorhome, you can feel the energy back at Silverstone.”
Editing by Clare Fallon