Dilbagh Gill column: No longer a toddler, Formula E ready to come of age
Formula E’s upcoming season 5 promises to mark a watershed moment for all of us in the world’s first all-electric motor-racing series, as the championship gets set to welcome new big-name manufacturers and up the ante with cars that are faster and will last an entire race distance.
After four years of laying the groundwork, winning over the sceptics and carving a place for itself as a proper motorsport championship, the technological leap that Formula E is set to make this year as well as the growing manufacturer interest prove that the sport is now ready to come of age.
To put it simply, today Formula E is no longer a toddler – it has grown to stand on its own legs.
The biggest change will be in terms of the cars. The Gen 2 car, as its known, was unveiled to much fanfare last year and grabbed eyeballs with its aggressive, sleek lines.
Likened to the Batmobile, it doesn’t just look fast, it goes fast too.
Boasting 250 kW of power, the new car will be able to go accelerate from standstill to 100 km/h in just 2.8 seconds.
Typically, where electric cars are concerned, one would expect that the more powerful the car, the shorter the distance it will travel. It’s commonly referred to as ‘range anxiety’ and has been one of the major drawbacks to greater EV adoption.
But on the contrary, the Gen2 car is not only faster but will last the entire race distance, eliminating the mid-race car swaps that became such a feature of the championship over the first four seasons.
I think this is proof of the old adage that nothing develops technology like war and motorsport and shows how quickly technology advances amid the cut and thrust of competitive racing.
Dilbagh Gill, CEO, Team Principal, Mahindra Racing, on the podium
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images
I remember how much scepticism Formula E faced when the cars lined up for that first race at Beijing in 2014. I’m sure there were many people who didn’t expect the cars to even make it off the line let alone race.
And even though the series quickly proved the sceptics wrong, I don’t think anybody expected it to be where it is at this point of time – having doubled energy capacity, increased power and demonstrated new charging techniques.
From a technology demonstration it’s a pretty serious level higher than where Formula E was earlier. But at the same time, the championship will also provide some very exciting racing.
At the end of the day, this is motorsport. It isn’t simply an exercise in science. It has to be good racing. That’s something which is really important for Formula E. I think this year will serve up even better racing in than in the years past.
It’s certainly going to be a lot more strategic. The mid-race car swaps are gone. But drivers will now have two power modes available to them – the race mode and the more powerful attack mode, which will give them access to 225 kW of power that they can deploy through pre-defined activation zones. The governing FIA will decide how many times and for how long a driver can use this attack mode but it will be up to the driver when he wants to use it.
Between these two power modes there’s going to be chasing and hunting. That’s going to make it really exciting, with people coming up with various strategies which will open up a lot of options for people mid-pack and below to potentially make up ground, depending on how they’ve managed their energy, how they’ve managed their strategy, their tyres and so on.
The tyres, especially, will see a lot more degradation this year which will make them an important factor and throw even more variability into the mix.
Jérôme d'Ambrosio, Mahindra Racing
Photo by: Malcolm Griffiths / LAT Images
The races will also now be time-based rather than distance-based. Earlier, there were a set number of laps we would have to complete. Now, the race will run for 45 minutes plus one lap. This also adds a whole new element to the competition on track.
When we as teams start the race, we really won’t know what the distance of the race will be. It will depend on if there are red flags, full-course yellows, safety cars. So the distance of the race could get altered considerably. Once the distance is altered considerably, the amount of energy is also altered considerably. So there’s going to be a lot of variability.
In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the changes for season 5 have the potential to hit the reset button on the competitive order.
We at Mahindra Racing see this as an opportunity. We have been investing heavily in our simulation and strategy capabilities and that has started paying dividends for us. Knowledge acquisition always helps and what we’ve learned in the last 45 races over the last four years is going to help us going forward.
But at the same time the competition also has stepped up to another level and will only continue to get stiffer as the global auto giants start flooding in. BMW will be entering the championship with a works effort this season. Formula One champions Mercedes and Porsche will make their Formula E debuts in season 6.
So we will have to raise our game and ensure we are developing throughout the year. It’s one of the issues we’ve had this season. We started out fighting for the championship. But our development over the course of the year from race to race has to improve if we are to sustain that challenge over the course of the full season.
We are still a new team to motorsport and over our four seasons we have learned how to win races. But there’s a lot of difference between winning races and trying to win a championship and now we need to start understanding how to win championships.
So, yes, season 5 will be a very important year, not just for Mahindra Racing but also for Formula E. I think it marks a statement - Formula E is here to stay.
by Dilbagh Gill
Jérôme d'Ambrosio, Mahindra Racing, M5 Electro
Photo by: Alastair Staley / LAT Images