FIA Formula E: Mahindra Racings on the move
Mahindra Racing's first ever season in the FIA Formula E championship was one of great disappointment. But perhaps more importantly, it was one of great learning. As a team, they were definitely unhappy with their performance during Season 1. For starters, they'd initially said that they didn't just want to make up the numbers on the grid. However, when the season ended and they finished eighth out of ten teams, it became evident that they hadn't been able to avoid this ignominious fate. It would thus have to be back to the drawing board for Mahindra Racing. And it was a task that they attacked with gusto.
Ahead of Season 2, changes were made, drivers were culled, technical partners were switched, and resources were reallocated. The results? Well, so far, they've been encouraging.
When the team ended the 2016 championship, with eleven races completed, they'd managed to rack up 58 points. This time around, with six rounds completed, they've already surpassed last year's total, and have headed to this weekend's Paris round with 61 points. Sixty-one hard-earned points too, that have come via one podium at Beijing and four subsequent races where both cars were able to finish in the top ten. It's a marked change from the first season where not once did they manage to bring home both the cars in the points. It's a change that Team Principal Dilbagh Gill is pleased with.
"We knew we had to maximise the beginning of the championship, because through testing we realised that our car is really reliable, our car is running well, and our technology worked better," Gill says. And given that the season began with some teams unable to get their cars through homologation, which meant that they needed to use their cars from season one for the initial races (and with Jarno Trulli's Trulli Formula E Team dropping out of the championship after the second race leaving just nine teams on the grid) the advantage that they'd believed they had after the pre-season tests needed to be converted into on-track results.
Helping them along to these results was driver Nick Heidfeld. With years of experience racing single seaters, and with a decent enough first season in the Formula E championship, he was the person Mahindra turned to for reliability. "He's an amazing guy, just amazing. You know German attention to detail," Gill says of Heidfeld's contribution thus far. In fact, it's this attention to detail that's likely helped Heidfeld to 39 of the 61 points that they've earned so far. This, despite the fact that he's done one race less than his team-mate, having had to sit out the Punta del Este ePrix with an injured wrist. "Nick is experienced and a solid driver. The way he drove in the last three laps of Beijing, to keep cars of higher energy behind him (he gave the team their first podium there), he's still got stuff in him. I think he's brought a lot of positive change to the team. He's also pushed Bruno to improve," Gill continues.
There's still that question of whether Bruno Senna, the team's other driver, is doing enough to earn his keep. While Gill won't comment on Senna's future in the team, perhaps the inconsistent results speak for themselves. If Senna is to continue to drive for Mahindra Racing, he's going to have to win the last few races of the championship. Something that is more than unlikely. It seems like less of a question mark when it comes to Quick Nick. "Nick brings in about eight points per race and sixth place is his average. He's what I call the 100 point guy. He's good for these precise tracks. For him, Paris, the new Berlin track, will suit him. He was the key to the podium in Moscow," says Gill.
The addition of Nick 'Quick' Heidfeld has contributed to more consistent results for Mahindra Racing
Aside from the drivers, the other changes have helped the team in a big way. To begin with, the departure from Carlin and the switch to Campos has helped immensely. "Carlin was right for last year because we needed someone to get us up and running, so I don't regret the decision. I also think we made the correct decision of moving out from Carlin to Campos. Campos has a really different work ethos, they know electrics better than Carlin. So that's why Campos helps us a lot more," Gill tells us.
The technical changes for season two also extend to the motor, that's been brought in by McLaren, with a gearbox by Hewland, and it's a synergy that seems to work well for Mahindra Racing for Season 2. Although whether any of these tie-ups will continue into the future, we aren't told.
Perhaps one of the big changes that has also helped, however, is the fact that Mahindra Racing as a whole has learned a lot after a season-and-a-half in the sport. "We have a core group of around six people from Mahindra and the rest are from Campos, so the team size has also increased between Mahindra and Campos. So the chief engineer is from Mahindra, the chief designer is Mahindra, the software guys are Mahindra, the chief of mechanics is Mahindra, so all the heads of departments are put together, and then we have our service providers below. Also, our service provider is a good team, last year they've won the driver's championship," Gill says.
It's these factors that have ensured that Mahindra is currently fifth in the championship standings out of nine teams. Whether they'll be able to bridge the gap to the teams at the top, perhaps aim for third overall, is something that's yet to be seen. Although Gill seems to have his sights set on more realistic and achievable targets. "I think the gap to the third-best team has increased a lot. I think right now we're fifth, so I would like to get to fourth. First step let us try and beat Virgin, they're 16 points ahead of us. So if Nick and Bruno can contribute about 16 to 18 points in the next race then we might catch up. Dragon is too far ahead, if we push that hard we'll end up breaking the car, so for now I'd rather keep it steady and maintain a fifth to eighth position consistently."
There's a reason for being so conservative during Season 2 though. And that's because Mahindra Racing has already got their eyes fixed rather firmly on Season 3, reiterating their commitment to Formula E. "I'm pretty confident of our next year's car. We have one of the chief designers from an ex-F1 team who's designed our car for next year. We started our season 3 car before we started our season 2 car, so there's a lot of effort that has gone into it. So I think we'll be stronger next year," Gill says.
Team Principal Dilbagh Gill says the team is confident of their car for Season 3 of the FIA Formula E Championship
And what is their target for Season 3 then, with this stronger car that he speaks of? The answer comes back fairly confidently. "We want to be a top-three team," says Gill. "Our first two years were an evolution, now we're doing a revolution. So we're trying to close the gap, even though there will be a few guys ahead. With strong driver pairing and a solid car, we should be up there," he continues.
Of course, every team that starts out in a championship wants to someday win the title. Being an also-ran is not an option. But Gill is aware that it's small steps that will take them forward. "We're trying to see how we do in Season 4. Season 4 is the final season of the current Formula E. Season 5 is a completely different animal with a single car, and totally different technology to understand. So for us, Season 3 and 4 are very important. Also for us, the way we've looked at Formula E as an investment - Season 1 to 2 the rules were reasonably stable was an evolution, Season 2 to 3 was a revolution, Season 3 to 4 when the rules are again stable we aim for evolution. So it's an evolution-revolution-evolution cycle. So we've trying to pair it as a two-year development cycle."
Mahindra's focus, then, is on how much efficiency they can extract from the system. Since there's only so much power that can be drawn from the battery, the aim is to try and get to a stage where they can draw 100 per cent of energy from the battery. "My main calculation is if I can draw 100 per cent from the battery, how much can I put to the tyre? How much is the efficiency of the system? Right now Mahindra is running around 86 per cent efficient, and by simulations we expect it to go up, so we know the theoretical maximum of our efficiency. Around 92 to 93 per cent. So unlike F1 where Mercedes is 60 horsepower above the rest, everyone is at 200KW in qualifying and 170KW in the race. So how much of the 170KW am I losing in the motor, in the gearbox? So that's what we're trying to minimise."
But this process of calculating and learning and implementing changes for each year and each season, is something that is constant. That never-ending cycle of learning in motorsport. For Gill the biggest learning, however, is that there are no breaks. "You can't shut your eyes for even a day. We spend 250 days are on the road and we need every single day. And it's serious work. Formula E is no longer a championship where we race for a weekend and then pack our cars until we get to the next location. Every single day there is work going on."
And it seems like this work is starting to pay off, and will likely even pay off in the future. After all, there's that age old correlation between hard work and success.