BAKU (Reuters) - Sergio Perez put Force India back on the podium in Baku on Sunday but team boss Bob Fernley sees little hope of anyone else from outside Formula One’s top three teams doing something similar this season.
Until Perez’s breakthrough in a crazy Azerbaijan Grand Prix, only one other man since 2016 had broken into the exclusive group of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull drivers that has filled every podium position.
That was Canadian teenager Lance Stroll, who was third for now-struggling Williams in an equally chaotic grand prix in Azerbaijan last June.
Force India’s most recent podium before Sunday was also in Baku, with Perez third in the 2016 race after qualifying a stunning second.
They might have had another last year but Perez and Esteban Ocon collided, an incident that led the team, owned by financially-troubled magnate Vijay Mallya, to enforce strict terms of engagement.
“It will be extremely difficult to get podiums for anybody other than the top three (teams),” Fernley told Reuters when asked whether Perez’s podium might ultimately be as much of a one-off as Stroll’s.
The deputy team principal said it would take another “massive incident” for it to happen again, adding “ ... and that’s not going to happen that often”.
Mercedes, winners of both titles for the past four years, took their first win of the season with Lewis Hamilton handed victory on a plate after Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas collected a puncture three laps from the end while leading.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was undone by the safety car and a mistimed lunge on Bottas, finishing fourth, while the Red Bull drivers collided with each other and put themselves out of the reckoning.
Perez, who has never had a winning car, would not have got near the podium without that totally unpredictable sequence of events.
The last team to win a race — other than Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull — was Lotus (now Renault) with Kimi Raikkonen in 2013, before the V6 turbo hybrid era.
Force India, fourth overall last year with a highest individual race finish of fourth, had scored only one point in three races before Baku and Perez’s result lifted them from ninth to sixth.
“The points are the key thing,” said Fernley of the read-out from Sunday’s race. “It puts us back into contention again, which was needed.
“But I think we also have to keep feet on the ground. We’re not quite there yet and we’ll probably still be having a few issues in Barcelona.
“But we’re getting better. It’s a long season and reliability, race craft all come into it.”
The Spanish Grand Prix, on May 13, is next up as the first race of the European season proper and one at which all teams are expected to bring aerodynamic upgrades.
The Circuit de Catalunya is also a benchmark for performance, since it hosted pre-season testing.
“There’s aero changes all the time but we had a correlation issue after Melbourne (the season-opener) and we’re still not fully on top of that,” said Fernley of what Mercedes-powered Force India have in the pipeline.
“We’ve got to continue that work, it will come but it’s not quite there yet.”
Force India’s other driver Ocon retired on the opening lap after a collision with Ferrari’s Raikkonen that Fernley put down to a racing incident.
“The decision 50-50 is probably about right. Could Esteban have given him room? Possibly. Should Kimi be coming down on the inside on a dirty track? Probably not. But it’s racing and that’s what we do it for.
“The thing that’s probably hurting Esteban most is that he ended up in an incident which he got badly penalized by in terms of not being able to continue, and Kimi went on to come second,” he added.
Editing by Peter Rutherford