By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Force India are enjoying their highest-scoring Formula One season, the team punching above their weight to secure fourth place in the constructors' championship for the second year in a row.
But, as chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer wryly observes, there is a point at which success is a bit of a mixed blessing.
"Every point we gain now, it doesn't help us to secure fourth but it does cost us in entry for the championship next year, another $5,000 per point to the FIA," the Romanian-born American told Reuters.
"We can't afford that," he added, before a hasty "only joking".
Every point costs $5,161, on top of a basic sum of $516,128, when it comes to calculating a team's 2018 entrance fee. The rate for champions Mercedes is even greater -- $6,194 per point and they have 625 so far.
Force India's 177 -- four points more than last year's haul -- will cost the Silverstone-based team $913,497 on top of the base fee and there is still next week's finale in Abu Dhabi to come.
That is a tidy sum for a team counting ever penny, with a staff of 400 and an annual budget of around $100 million compared to rivals with double the workforce and three times the financial clout.
Force India cannot overhaul third-placed Red Bull, who are 181 points ahead, and nor are they in any danger from fifth-placed Williams on 82.
They will still be pushing hard, however.
Mexican Sergio Perez and French team mate Esteban Ocon are free to race each other, after being reined in as a result of earlier clashes, and will be hoping to wrap up on a high.
Formula One is far from a level playing field and Szafnauer, who works with deputy principal Bob Fernley to steer the team at the track in the absence of embattled co-owner Vijay Mallya, knows 2018 will be another tough battle.
When it comes to discretionary spend -- the amount left over after engine bills, travel costs and staff wages are deducted from the budget -- Force India have far less than their main rivals.
"For us that's probably one tenth of what some of the others have," said Szafnauer.
Force India have been helped by former champions McLaren enduring a nightmare with Honda, Williams failing to make the most of their Mercedes engine and Renault rebuilding. But all three can be expected to raise their game next year.
"We're up for the challenge and we will target to three-peat the fourth place," said Szafnauer, who saw various main ingredients to Force India's success, apart from having a Mercedes engine.
Technical director Andrew Green, chief race engineer Tom McCullough and sporting director Andy Stevenson have played a key role while securing top tyre engineers and the use of Toyota's wind tunnel in Cologne were also crucial.
"Mercedes have done a great job for us," said Szafnauer. "But you can point at Williams and say they've got the same great engine as you but they haven't managed it. So it's not just the engine.
"We like to hire like-minded people that are basically racers and all pull in the same direction to get the job in hand done without any politics," he added.
The poaching of staff is a concern for any successful team, but Szafnauer said only two were lured away last year -- one to Renault and another to Williams.
Mallya's financial and legal problems, with the flamboyant liquor baron confined to Britain and fighting a bid by India to extradite him on fraud charges that he denies, have also had to be handled with sensitivity.
"We just have to reassure the staff that Vijay's issues that sometimes play out in the media, have zero impact on the team," said Szafnauer.
"Those are his issues and he keeps those separate from the team. So far that's been the case and I don't think that's going to change in the future."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by John O'Brien)