Dilbagh Gill: Charging forward with Mahindra

Dilbagh Gill, photo by FIA Formula E

By Alex Goldschmidt | Indian racing outfit Mahindra have been active in the world of motorsport since 2011, having taken the decision to race in the FIM Moto3 Championship. This has seen them become a factory works outfit as of this year, along with well-recognised four-time champion Jorge Martinez “Aspar” helping their efforts with the team. A new frontier was on the horizon as Mahindra Racing decided to also move into the four-wheeled arena, as the inaugural FIA Formula E championship saw them compete against the likes of Venturi, Andretti Autosport, Amlin Aguri and Virgin Racing. I was able to speak to Team Principal Dilbagh Gill about the new season.

It was a difficult first season for the team and drivers Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna, the series was full of unknowns on a technology platform that looked to revolutionise racing for the masses.

A new alliance was formed with Campos Racing for a renewed attack on the championship for season two, along with former Venturi driver Nick Heidfeld replacing Chandhok, who had decided to move on from the series.

Dilbagh, with Mahindra still being the only Indian team to race in Formula E, which now hit its second season, what has changed, in terms of the general team infrastructure?

Last season, we found that we had so much to learn. We didn’t know what to really expect at that point in time. We know a lot more now, and are more prepared for season two.

We have invested heavily in resources, technology, equipment and people. The infrastructure we have been developing is one, which we feel is going to be sustainable for the next few years.

The first season was about getting ourselves up and running, but today we are seeking permanency in how we operate.

The new M2Electro runs a unique single-motor powertrain, showing that technical beauty is more than just skin deep in Formula E. How much input has Mahindra Reva had in the program?

Mahindra Reva has been involved right from day one, having a lot of input. Conceptually, we are “incubating” this baby for them. They are the ones we’re building the team for.

They’ve been involved in every step that we have taken, from setting the specification, as well as designing and manufacturing the components.

Right now, Mahindra Reva are heavily investing their focus into seasons three and four, identifying the technologies and measuring their sustainability.

Over and above that, their involvement is mainly through the “Race-To-Road” programme. This means that they are learning a lot of lessons out on track through our efforts, and see what is transferrable to the road for the general public.

It’s great to have a partner like Michelin – their team takes every single debrief with our drivers after every race very seriously. They are in constant touch during race weekends and between races.

In terms of cost application to run the new powertrain on four cars for this season, how has it increased the budgets for the team?

It’s clear that our budget would increase in part, due to running our own technology and own race cars. However, from an operational perspective, the costs, in general, have remained very similar to last year, especially as the team is the same size.

We decided to enter Formula E with our eyes wide open, so we are comfortable as long as the level of investment remains sustainable.

Our approach to this season was two-pronged. We first will strive to make sure that the M2Electro is completely reliable, before concentrating on performance.

Performance was an area that we couldn’t really concentrate on, as it was still unclear in the amended regulations as to whether we would be running at 150kW or 170kW during the races.

We therefore put our efforts into getting the new powertrain running at its optimum. During this season, we will concentrate on performance levels as we progress.

We are feeling confident in where we are at the moment, with what we have learned in testing and simulation studies. There’s a lot more to come from the M2Electro.

How has simulation work helped the team towards the development of not just the new car, but also the work towards better performances during the forthcoming season?

This was the first simulation session, so when we went to Beijing, we found ourselves to be better prepared. After last year, we had collected a lot more data through the 15 days of approved testing and the official pre-season test days, so gaining more mileage helped us a great deal.

The help that we have had from the two strong simulation engineers has been invaluable, as they have been working non-stop since pre-season testing.

So how was the team feeling ahead of the first round in China?

Ahead of Beijing, we were feeling optimistic, having made the right decisions towards the M2Electro’s development, as well as the preparations for season two. Having spent a lot of time working together over the last three months, the team has really gelled well together.

Despite there always being unknowns ahead, we are really excited about racing in a new 170kW domain. This will invariably make teams concentrate on strategies, with many trying different approaches along the way. The racing in Formula E will become more of a thinking man’s game, rather than going flat out.

With new tracks coming onto the calendar for this season, has this meant a further cost in terms of team operations?

Despite there possibly being an increase in the number of races, we at Mahindra, have a higher number of full-time staff, which is more efficient when it comes to cost.

Since we are doing something pioneering, and are advocates of Formula E itself, we want to help bring races to as many cities as possible. This is as well as bringing the show and this technology to as many places as possible in the future.

Michelin has increased its commitment with Formula E until the end of the 2018/2019 season, which provides great continuity for the series. What, in terms of feedback, are Nick and Bruno able to provide to both the race engineers and Michelin themselves?

It’s great to have a partner like Michelin – their team takes every single debrief with our drivers after every race very seriously. They are in constant touch during race weekends and between races.

They have their finger on the pulse, and at the same time, they are helping to promote the series in the right way, showing the durability of their product and what we in Formula E are trying to offer.

Being a part of something new and exciting like Formula E really provides the fans and the media with an avenue to still enjoy motorsport. With what Alejandro Agag has achieved so far, how bright do you personally see the future of the series?

This is a fairly new series, having exceeded every expectation and benchmark that has been set so far. I don’t see any reason why they are not going to be surpassed once again this year, as the bar is constantly being raised.

The investment that is moving towards Formula E is not just monetary, but also that of the time that people dedicate. More OEMs are also looking at the feasibility of joining the championship.

The main item of interest, which will keep this series growing, is the relevancy the series has towards daily use and daily life in general. The trend of electric cars being used is on the increase, so what we are trying to do is to show the general public, that the technology is currently being used in Formula E, will in many ways, be applicable to the next generation of mobility.

Social media is a great tool to advertise and promote, so with concepts such as FanBoost, how does that factor into the return on investment that Mahindra has made on this program?

The return on investment for Mahindra is calculated via multiple pillars. The biggest area that we are looking at, is the incremental increase in how fast research and development progresses.

Mahindra prides itself as one of the world’s longest-established electric car manufacturers, having developed EVs for over 18 years. So how can we make the transition from just making electric cars for commuters to making them more exciting?

It’s not just about what happens with Mahindra Racing out on the track, but there is also what happens in our showrooms. Along with this, we have been able to captivate an audience, that is a much younger demographic than many other businesses out there. This is really important for Mahindra in general.

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