Formula E Berlin 2019: Dispatches from Tempelhof
I'm in the Mahindra Racing garage at the Berlin ePrix, waiting to interview Dilbagh Gill, the team principal and CEO of the first Indian team in the electric racing world. The entire time that I'm waiting (approximately two hours) Gill is a blur, rushing from one end of the garage to the other, dealing with team guests, partners, drivers, and engineers. But I have a feeling that if I leave, I'll miss the chance to talk to him, so I stand my ground. The lurking pays off for two reasons. First, Gill is kind enough to ensure that I get a headset and am able to listen in on the communication between the team and drivers, Pascal Wehrlein and Jerome D'Ambrosio during the second practice session. There's also the obvious pay-off of actually getting the interview that I've been waiting for.
Berlin ePrix 2019: Mahindra Racing's Jerome d'Ambrosio at the Tempelhof Circuit
When Gill is finally free, we sit down in the new hospitality area within the Mahindra garage. The entire set-up is a massive upgrade compared to the earlier version of the pit garages that I've encountered at this very spot in Tempelhof in the years gone by. It's not just the cars on track that appear to be Gen 2 versions, but Formula E as a series itself. However, despite so many changes in the championship, I am reassured to find that the one thing that seems to remain constant is Gill's memory. I've learnt over the years that Dilbagh Gill rarely forgets. A fact that is reaffirmed in the early portion of our conversation, which he peppers full of dates, facts and figures. He throws in the date on which Mahindra Racing announced their intention to compete in the FIA Formula E Championship, officially becoming the first OEM to commit to the all-electric racing series. He manages to recall exactly when our first interview took place all those many years ago in Bombay, and he quotes, almost verbatim, the questions I'd asked him back then, and answers that he'd given me - for historical accuracy, no doubt.
Dilbagh Gill, Mahindra Racing's team principal and CEO
In fact it's this ability to recall tiny little details that Gill believes serves him best during a race weekend. In addition to his duties as team principal and CEO of Mahindra Racing, Gill replays races in his mind and uses these memories to help warn the team of what might happen, based on their experiences in previous races. "I can remember every race that has happened, through to every lap," he says. "And I am able to sort of give a warning on certain areas, to my team and say, 'This potentially is what's going to happen, because in the past '" he trails off midway through a mock warning.
The rest of his role, he sums up in one word: "Resources". He goes on to elaborate, "I can divide that word into three parts. It's human resources - find the right people. Financial resources - get the right budget. Technical resources - find the right partnerships. Those are the three areas where I feel I am largely responsible, and I can contribute. Because I really can't set up a car, nor can I do anything out here," he says waving in the general area of the garage. It's similar to the answer that he'd given me back in 2014, five months ahead of the first-ever Formula E race, explaining what his role within the team was going to be. The fact that he didn't come from a hardcore motorsport background didn't intimidate him, and he'd stated rather matter of factly, "I don't know what I don't know. At the same time, I feel I have enough knowledge to put together a team. I'm not driving the car, thankfully," he chuckled, "but putting together a team that will optimally and efficiently work."
Jérôme d'Ambrosio (BEL), Mahindra Racing, celebrates on the podium after winning the race during the Marrakesh E-prix at Circuit International Automobile Moulay El Hassan in January 2019
Both Gill, and the Mahindra Racing team, have evolved considerably since then. From finishing eighth in the championship in its first year, to becoming serious championship contenders in their third season - there's been plenty of progress. In fact it was at this very ePrix, two years ago, that Mahindra Racing managed to get their first-ever Formula E victory, courtesy Felix Rosenqvist. It was also the team's most successful season in the sport thus far, with ten podiums in 12 races, and a third-place finish in the championship." I think Season 3 was a dream," Gill says. "Literally every weekend we were up there. It was the first time we broke through and had double-podiums, etc. So I think Season 3 was really strong. That was when we changed the car totally. We went and built our first car - and to come out so strong off the blocks was really amazing in Season 3."
It's been two years since then, and sustaining that high hasn't been easy. The team ended Season 4, fourth in the championship, and with three races left in Season 5, are currently fifth in the championship. What's changed since that champagne-soaked weekend in Berlin two years ago, though? "That time I think we could make incremental changes," Gill says. "It was still the second year of powertrain development, and we could strike and make a big change. Today the grid is compact, because for the fifth time we've started to do our own powertrain. So there's not that many different secrets left available in the market," he says. But he doesn't shy away from the fact that despite being the motorsport arm of an automobile manufacturer, Mahindra Racing doesn't have the same resources allocated to them, when compared to some of the other teams on the grid. "Our resources are limited compared to the others. We have to outwork the others. We do have to work harder than a lot of other people in the paddock, and that takes a toll on all of us," Gill declares.
Pascal Wehrlein (DEU), Mahindra Racing, talks to the press during the Berlin E-prix at Berlin Tempelhof Airport on May 24, 2019
But he's quick to point out that one of Mahindra Racing's biggest strengths lies in the carefully selected individuals who are part of their team. Gill tells me that at any given point in time, he has a spreadsheet that tracks the progress of 20 drivers, in various disciplines of motorsport across various continents, in order to be able to, should the team need it, replace a driver at short notice. Of course, the careful selection goes beyond just the drivers - to mechanics and engineers too, all of whom bring with them what Gill describes as "accumulated experience." And it's experience that Gill believes is a vital component in order to win, something that he's learnt over the years, in the various roles he's held in his professional career. "Life is not about best practices, life is about best experiences," he says. "Someone can come straight out of school, with the best of knowledge and practices, but it doesn't translate into experience. Today sitting here, in the 55th race, I think I know a lot more. And where I can contribute is just because of experience and not because of practice. That's really important," he says.
Then, there's the fact that over the last few years, Mahindra Racing has been able to achieve consistency in terms of their team. "Pick up a team picture of us winning when we came here (in 2017) and take a picture of us now - I think 85 per cent of our team will be the same. So that's, I think, been our strength. I think our strength has been being together," Gill says. He's quick to point out that there has been some attrition, too, but attrition that was usually deliberate, and needed in order for the team to constantly improve and move forward.
Felix Rosenqvist celebrating Mahindra Racing's first ever win in Formula E at Tempelhof, Berlin in 2017
Despite all the knowledge, learning, growth, and experience gained over the past five seasons in the sport, Gill is careful not to use the word success when it comes to the Mahindra Racing outfit. "When we win the championship, when we win the team's championship, that's success," he says emphatically. Something that is still mathematically possible in Season 5 - "We need two really big days to make it happen," Gill says, despite the lack of results in Berlin.
But there have been other ways to measure the team's progress. Mahindra Racing is a vital part of Mahindra & Mahindra's electric car ambitions, not just in the commuter space, but also in the luxury space. "We started Formula E five years ago. We bought Pininfarina two-and-a-half years ago. We announced Automobili Pininfarina just over a year ago, and there's a damn car out there, which is the world standard in electric mobility. And that just shows what has been done and what has been transferred from this organisation, and when I say this organisation, I mean the whole Mahindra ethos," he says of the Automobili Pininfarina Battista.
Dilbagh Gill, CEO and Team Principal, Mahindra Racing, on the podium during the Marrakesh E-prix
In motorsport, one cannot have highs without the lows. Over time, Gill says that he's managed to learn to bounce back quicker after the lows. "With more experience, I am able to reset quicker now. So I am able to take more of the lows. But in Season 2 and Season 3, some of the lows were very difficult to take. I still remember Mexico in Season 3, that was very, very painful to take, because we should have finished the championship in second if we had just finished the race. That keeps me awake at night," he says. It's not the first time that I've heard Gill saying something to this effect. At our interview ahead of the first season of Formula E, he had said, "Anand Mahindra asked me a question at the Auto Expo this year. He asked me if I wake up at night, worried. And I said, 'Yes, I do'." Five years on, Gill might not be worried any longer, but he's still driven.
So what is it that drives Dilbagh Gill? The response I receive is prompt, "I want to hear the national anthem," he says. "I love the sound - those 52 seconds are amazing." Now, to wait until that very sound rings out over another Formula E paddock, in another part of the world.
Before Mahindra Racing
Dilbagh Gill might not have worked in motorsport at world-championship level in the past, however, he has always had a proclivity for racing. A self-confessed life-long motorsport fan, Gill competed in his first rally at the age of "seventeen-and-a-half" he says precisely. He then competed in rallies semi-professionally for a while, before realising, as he says, that his enthusiasm was far ahead of his abilities. He served as the chief mechanic for JA Motorsport (run by legendary Indian car tuner, J Anand) and prepared the Team MRF cars for the Indian National Rally Championship, and for racing at the Sriperumbudur Track in India.
Dilbagh Gill's motorsport experience goes back to the time he rallied Esteems in the Indian National Rally Championship
After a while, he also helped set up the Team Kadur rally outfit in Bangalore. Since then, Gill's career diverged from hardcore motorsport. He spent time in the turbine industry, set up his own business manufacturing shoes, set up a tea retailing business, worked in software providing IT services to large events like the A1 Grand Prix and the FIFA World Cup. Eventually, when the company he was working for - Satyem - was bought over by Mahindra & Mahindra, he became part of the Mahindra family. And when the Mahindra Racing project was taking shape, he volunteered to be part of the team. The rest, as they say, is history.