The buzz in India ahead of its first Formula One Grand Prix in October 2011 was something. Everyone in India seemed to want to make the journey to the Buddh International Circuit in Noida and interest in F1 peaked. However, in 2014, the event was suspended and subsequently cancelled due to a tax dispute with the Uttar Pradesh government.
Yes, there was Force India but it never really felt like an Indian operation and the lack of Indian drivers on the grid (Narain Karthikeyan was done by 2012 and Karun Chandok last had a proper go in 2010) meant that there was a certain disconnect with the sport.
Then, Formula E came along in 2014. Initially, people weren’t quite sure of what to make of it. It just seemed like an experiment – the concept was great, the cars were cool, the drivers were good but could electric cars really do this? It was a wave of the future no doubt but did it have a place in the present?
But they got the ball rolling, did the hard yards, roped in enough manufacturers, scheduled races in three continents and all of that led to Formula E gaining World Championship status to become the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship ahead of the 2020-’21 season. It is great news from the Indian perspective too. Mahindra Racing have competed in the competition since Season 1 and are now truly starting to get a hang of things.
In the 2020-’21 season, they finished ninth with 132 points but they did enough to make everyone watching realise that they are in with a proper chance on their day.
The team scored its breakthrough win in the 2016-’17 campaign and in 2017-’18, went on to score two further victories. There was a win in the 2020-’21 campaign too and with the official status adding more heft to the event, one can be sure they will now put their all behind it.
Mahindra Racing driver Alexander Sims has been with the team since the 2019-’20 season and he feels that becoming official adds a bit more clout to the competition.
“From my side, it has added a bit more clout,” said Sims. “It is now one of the two single-seater World Championships along with F1. I would say that brings it to its rightful place within global motorsport. The level of competition on the grid is right up there with the most competitive series in the world. I would say it is the most competitive. It is nice to be a part of it but honestly, from a day-to-day point of view, the status doesn’t change a lot other than the FIA seemingly coming in and taking an even closer look with tighter regulations and things like that.”
Formula E is set up in such a way that every team on the grid has a chance. The street circuits add to the closeness of the races too. And that is why teams like Mahindra Racing have a good chance if they can optimise the package well.
“Within Formula E, every team’s chassis is the same,” said Sims. “The chassis, the spec battery and the power that you pull from the battery is the same for everyone. The areas where the manufacturers can develop parts is just on the powertrain and the rear suspension. So, the scope for difference is smaller than say Formula 1 but an electric motor in itself is inherently efficient. So when you make improvements to an already efficient package the performance differences are relatively smaller.”
Sims added: “The chance for a team with a relatively lower budget to be competitive, if they optimise their package, is there in Formula E. And that is simply not possible in Formula 1 and other development categories where more money and more man-hours means that the performance difference is greater than can be seemingly achieved in Formal E. It all comes together to be a pretty open category where lots of drivers can get good results.”
For the coming season, Mahindra Racing have roped in Oliver Rowland. He spent three seasons with Nissan and his experience should serve to help the team climb higher up the ranks.
For Rowland, the biggest challenge in Formula E is the amount of information you have to take in and relay back to the engineers while the car is being driven at high speeds.
“In terms of pushing the car to its limit without any energy management, things are pretty similar to driving a regular car,” said Rowland. “Obviously, you do have more torque and less noise but I would say that in terms of pushing the actual car, the way it is set up now with the brake balance and other stuff. The big challenge in Formula E comes when you have to manage the energy, manage five different things in the steering wheel, give your engineer all the information, manage the tyres and race with 20 other guys on the track on a very short street circuit... I think that is where the challenge really comes.”
Rowland added: “You really have to be able to use your full capacity to focus on all those other things and the driving almost has to become second nature. It is one thing being quick and it is quite another to manage all the systems and all the other things that go on during a race. I remember my first few races, there was just way too much going on for me to follow and the more experienced you get, the more you gain from it. That is why you see guys who start off successfully, stay here in Formula E. It is actually quite hard for rookies to jump in and do well.”
For motorsport fans, F1 has been a regular staple over the years and for many, Formula E still hasn’t quite registered. So how does one sell the new kid on the block to the die-hard F1 fans? It might seem a pretty complex thing but Rowland believes the answer is a simple one.
“I would just say you should watch a race without saying too much,” said Rowland. “I mean for me, five times out of 10, when I switch on an F1 race, it is quite positional and you know who is going to win out of the top three or usually the top two. In Formula E, anybody can win.”
Rowland added: “The races are usually wide open. We are millimetres from crashing everywhere. We don’t have miles of runoff where we can risk as much as we want and just run a bit wide if we risk too much. In Formula E, if you risk too much, you might end up in the wall. Because of the energy management and the closeness of the package, anybody can win and for me, that is why you should just switch on and watch. If you don’t have any preconceived ideas, I am sure you are going to enjoy the race.”
Indeed, come along for the novelty but stay for the racing.