Formula E: India’s Mahindra Racing looks for the winning spark
Can the only Indian team competing in Formula E make it big in a championship year?
As the sporting calendar begins filling up, the buzz in motorsport continues to revolve around Formula One (F1). But over two days, starting 26 February, season 7 of Formula E has ushered in a new chapter for the competition. For Formula E, the single-seater motorsport competition that features only electric cars, was granted championship status by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body of motorsport, in November.
This milestone means the competition—with its high-speed, electric street- racing format—will rub shoulders with F1, the World Rally Championship, World Endurance Championship and World Rallycross Championship in international single-seater motor racing. Twelve teams are vying for the championship—among them, India’s Mahindra Racing.
The team has been part of the Formula E ecosystem since the inaugural 2014-15 season. Over the last six seasons, the Banbury-based outfit has slowly become a mainstay in the competition. “We are really excited about the world championship status. It’s really important that we have done it in six, short years… (As a team), we have now put our feet in motorsport for the last six years, but we still have the opportunity to become the first (Formula E) world champions. So, the motivation is there,” Dilbagh Gill, team principal and CEO, Mahindra Racing, says during a video call from Boston, US.
Since the 2014-15 season, the team has seen mixed results, with four race wins and 18 podium finishes from 69 races. Their high point was undoubtedly the 2016-17 season, when they finished third in the team standings. Season 6, Gill admits, was a disaster as they finished ninth among 12 teams. “I don’t want to give any excuses. We messed up the whole season,” he says.
So it’s a fresh start of sorts for both Formula E, with its new championship status, and Mahindra Racing, which has an exciting new car and driver line-up. Over the years, it has had experienced drivers, including many with stints in F1—Karun Chandhok, Jérôme d’Ambrosio, Pascal Wehrlein and Nick Heidfeld. Season 7 has the all-British duo of Alexander Sims and Alex Lynn at the wheel of the M7Electro. “In terms of changes between the M6Electro and the M7, they are one of the biggest we have ever done over the last seven years. We have literally changed every part in the car and worked closely with our new supplier, (German manufacturer) ZF, on designing the power train,” says Gill.
The power train, a key factor in Formula E cars, has three main components: the motor, inverter and gearbox. The inverter, says Gill, has a lot of the fun stuff. “A lot of our software is actually sitting in the inverter. “It converts the DC current of a battery to AC for the motor, and vice versa... When we are regenerating (power, also known as ‘regen’) while braking, it converts the AC power. At the same time, it needs to switch on and switch off in microseconds.” Such minuscule settings, driven by technology and astute sporting decisions, are what make Formula E challenging.
The competition comes with its own set of fascinating rules and regulations. An E-Prix, or race, is 45 minutes long, plus one lap. The highlight are the electric cars, and that’s where aspects like “Attack Mode” and “Fanboost” come into play.
The former, introduced in the 2018-19 season, allows a driver to pick up an extra dose of power. To do so, they must arm their car and drive off the racing line through an “Activation Zone”. As reward for taking a slower racing line, they are able to collect an extra 35 kW of power, which can be used for a few laps when they want to defend or overtake an opponent. The number of times “Attack Mode” can be used, and the duration it’s available for, changes from track to track. “Fan Boost”, a unique Formula E rule, allows viewers and fans to vote for drivers before and during a race. Drivers with the most fan votes receive an extra boost of power, for a few seconds, which can be used at any point.
The qualifying format is different too. Drivers are divided into four groups based on a reverse championship standing order; there are five qualifying sessions. The fastest are at the front and the slowest at the back. During group qualifying sessions, each driver gets just one flying lap to set a time. At the end, the six fastest drivers go out one by one for a super pole shoot-out, which decides the starting order for the top six. You essentially get one shot at starting at the front of the grid.
Both Sims and Lynn are versatile drivers with an impressive qualifying record. “They are both very fast, super qualifiers,” says Gill. This year, the complexities of covid-19 too played a role in the choice of drivers. Since both Sims and Lynn are based in the UK, they could spend more time in the simulator and work with the team at its base in Banbury, Oxfordshire.
Formula E is not the only motor sport that has taken a hit during the pandemic. A Reuters report earlier this month said F1 saw a 4.5% drop in its average race television audience last year and a drop in overall viewing figures. While the average TV audience per race was 87.4 million, compared to 87 million in 2016, 2017 and 2018, the cumulative television audience was 1.5 billion, compared to 1.9 billion in 2019, the report notes. A shorter season, with 17 races rather than 21, was a big factor.
The continued presence of F1 drivers has helped Formula E and Gill hopes that as a team, Mahindra Racing can drive the competition's popularity in India. He uses the example of the Force India F1 team, which was rebranded as Racing Point and now Aston Martin. “I really admire what Force India did. They always punched above their weight,” says Gill. “I think we have become the authentic Indian motor sport team… a home-bred team. We have never shied away from our Indian identity.”
With big names such as Porsche and Mercedes entering Formula E recently, Gill admits the stakes are higher. Season 7 offers Mahindra Racing a chance at a fresh start but the margin for error is small. As Gill says: “I think we are in a position where I don’t call ourselves an underdog. There were a lot of learnings from season 6 and the slate is kind of wiped clean now. But we have to take the reset button very seriously.”
The 2021 Diriyah E-Prix, the first race of Formula E season 7, takes place on 26-27 February.