Winners in each of the past three seasons, Mahindra Racing have for some time now cemented their position as Formula E’s perennial overachievers.
Compared with the resource-rich German manufacturers, or the agile DS partnership, Mahindra’s resources are somewhat modest. Pound for pound though, they’ve been one of the most efficient outfits on the grid in recent years, so what’s gone wrong?
Prior to its curtailment, the 2019-20 season has, so far, proved to be a bit of a wake up call for Mahindra. A disappointing tally of just 17 points represents their worst ever start to a Formula E season.
Jerome d’Ambrosio, who led the championship at the midway point last season, has just three points to his name while the highly rated Pascal Werhelin left the team last month and won’t race again.
All doom and gloom then you might think? Not so in Dilbagh Gill’s opinion. The eccentric team boss has plenty of reasons to feel encouraged about the future, and in an exclusive interview with Inside Electric, he states his confidence that the team will return in much better shape when Formula E ends its hiatus in Berlin next month.
“I’m not trying to in any way trivialise the situation with COVID, but if I look at it in terms of a pure break, it was really useful for us,” says Gill.
“Obviously, we’re not satisfied with where we are. It’s been a bit of a challenge because the car has been fast in qualifying [but] our race pace hasn’t been very good. I think we’ve been able to identify the problem during this COVID period so we’re pretty confident that when we get back to Berlin, we should be pretty strong.”
A well timed break then it would seem, but what realistically can this Mahindra team do to salvage their season when they’ve not turned a wheel in anger for the past four months?
“[The break] worked out quite well for us,” Gill explains. “We had people working on a few different solutions and people were able to chase down these ideas. So a lot of stuff that was on the backburner, came to the front.
“Some of them were great ideas, some of them we were able to eliminate and say ‘ok, this is not something that’s going to work’ but one way of improving is either finding what works or finding what doesn’t work then closing down those routes. We were able to close down some stuff and find some areas where we were able to improve, and at the same time, one of our problems was correlation in the simulator so that’s improved considerably.”
A lot’s changed at Mahindra over the past 12 months. At the end of last season, Mahindra opted to end its relationship with service provider team Campos Racing who, since 2015, had been contracted to run its race operations.
At the time, Gill commented that the move would help to cure Mahindra’s “consistently inconsistent” form, and despite that not proving to be the case so far this season, he’s confident it will prove to be the right decision in the long term.
“Season six has been a year of transition for us, but this was part of a planned transition…”Dilbagh Gill
“Season six has been a year of transition for us, but this was part of a planned transition. We started with a model, when we started in Formula E long ago, with a 100% outsourced model with Carlin initially and now we’ve reached a stage where we feel we’re ready to run a team by ourselves, and that’s what we started in season six,” explains Gill.
“During the COVID-19 period, we also moved to a new permanent facility. So, for the first time ever, our entire team is under one roof, figuratively. Unfortunately, with COVID some are still working from home but once things get back to normal, it’s the first time everything will come together in one place where we have design, simulation, the garage etc and I think that’s going to help us a long way going forward.”
When the season resumes, perhaps the most visible change at Mahindra will be in the cockpit. Star driver Wehrlein announced his exit from the team via an Instagram post last month and is widely expected to join German giants Porsche.
Gill reveals that the decision to part ways came in May after he and Wehrlein reached “a mutual agreement” but the Mahindra boss maintains there are no hard feelings about his exit despite describing the former F1 driver as a “phenomenal”.
“[After the Race at Home Challenge] we decided it would be best for us to move in different directions. We wanted to look at where our long term is going to be and Pascal also [needed to] decide where he wanted to be on a long-term basis, and we realised ‘OK, maybe we don’t find alignment there’.
“There was a desire for us to work together for a longer period of time when he started the project at the beginning of season five, so yeah I think to a certain extent, unfortunately, there’s some unfinished business but I wish him all the best,” says Gill.
Kiwi Nick Cassidy came close to joining the team as Wehrlein’s replacement for Berlin, but the logistics of getting him back and forth between Mahindra’s UK base and Cassidy’s home in Tokyo proved tricky given Japan’s quarantine restrictions.
Needing to act quickly, Mahindra announced the signing of former Virgin and Jaguar driver Alex Lynn just two weeks later. With a seat up for grabs next season, Gill says it was important to sign a driver who could deliver for the team in Berlin but who could also potentially be a longer-term option for the team should they prove to be a good fit.
“The fundamental question for myself was ‘should we look at someone new, and give these races to embed someone’ because at Mahindra, I don’t want to use the word ‘risk’ but we have taken new talent into the team that have been successful – look at Rosenqvist, Wehrlein, etc. So one of the options was to go find the next young guy and then give him six races to sort of embed himself so he’s ready for season seven, that was an option,” Gill says.
“The other [option] was, we know new people do struggle when they come in, whatever is the quality of their talent, it takes them some time to be successful in Formula E. So that’s when I lean towards a bit of experience, but when you look at people with some experience, to be honest the pool wasn’t very big.
“Alex [Lynn] sort of stands out in that pool of talent and he’s raced twice in Berlin, he’s outqualified his team-mate both times and both are highly rated; Mitch Evans and Sam Bird. Alex has the quality and he’s also shown his hunger.
“I don’t want to say it in a negative way, but we took the safe route of having a driver who’s still young, who potentially can be on a longer term basis with us, and has experience because there’s really not much time to learn.”
With Lynn having already impressed the team with his commitment and enthusiasm since joining a few weeks ago, Gill says the 26-year-old is a strong contender for a full-time drive. The identity of his team-mate however – were Lynn to be offered a deal for next season – remains unclear.
34-year-old d’Ambrosio is out of contract following the conclusion of the Berlin races and Gill confirms that no extension to that has been signed just yet. Gill does, however, have a formula for choosing drivers and he’s keen to stick to it if possible.
“From my perspective, I think I would like to continue with that same model of having someone with experience at least in one seat, and the other one, for want of a better word, take a chance on who we think is a talent,” says Gill.
“Jerome’s been a pretty integral part of this team for the past two years. We will sit down and have a chat about what we intend [to do] going forward, but Jerome definitely will be in consideration… if he’s still keen on Mahindra.
“For season seven, we have not confirmed anything at this point of time. There’s a lot to gain so let’s not jump the gun at this point in time. A lot will also depend on how Mahindra transforms itself in Berlin.
“For us, typically, I would like to continue with the formula of one experienced driver and one younger driver. Someone like Alex [Lynn] I would look at him as a younger driver, and then if I can pair with someone else who’s got experience, I think that would be pretty good because Alex ticks all the boxes of a younger driver, what we would typically look at.
“The thing is also, the break between seasons has already happened because as soon as we finish Berlin, we’re going to start season seven testing so it’s going to be pretty quick that we have to start preparation.”
With one eye already on next season, Gill maintains that Mahindra can still finish season six – or season 6.5 as he calls it – with a flourish despite their lowly 10th place in the teams’ standings – and having won in Berlin as recently as 2018, the team have good memories of the Templehof Circuit.
“For us, [the Berlin races are] basically a new season and we feel we’re going to be pretty strong and I’m sure a lot of us are expecting decent results from what we’ve done in terms of improvements,” Gill says. “Berlin’s been a good track for us so [hopefully] we’re able to pick up a little bit where we left off a couple of years ago.”