The streets of Hong Kong make for an unusual spectacle. Instead of the cacophony of everyday traffic, the only sound audible is the swishing made by a cluster of ultra-fast, single-seater racing cars. Flanking the tightly woven, U-turn-infested city circuit are some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, including the one Batman jumped off. Instead of bringing the audience to the race, Formula Electric is bringing the race directly to the audience.
Hong Kong is the first among multiple metropolitan venues across the globe that adorn the FIA-backed sport’s racing calendar. Apart from being an avant-garde form of motorsport, what’s noteworthy about this all-electric racing series is that it allows new manufacturers to get a foothold in the world of electric cars, which, in the coming decade, will become the dominant form of road transport. It’s why manufacturers like Mahindra have been involved with Formula E since its debut in 2012. The idea here, much like with any form of racing, is that the technology developed and tested on the racetracks will eventually trickle down to the brand’s passenger cars, aiding Mahindra’s plans of becoming a world leader in electric mobility.
With the more conventional forms of motorsport encountering a lull in viewership lately, Formula E is perfectly poised to capture the audience’s imagination. Despite the piercing silence of the cars on the track, the atmosphere is still intense. Races are designed to be strategy-heavy, with narrow tracks and plenty of room for unpredictability. Given how angular and narrow the circuit is, there’s a pretty negligible margin for error. Brake too early and you risk losing pace, but brake even a second late and you could be heading nose-first into the barrier. For the moment, most of the technological componentry supplied is uniform for all manufacturers, putting everyone in Formula E on a more levelled playing field and ensuring that the more cashed-up teams don’t have a significant technological advantage. Teams are even supplied with the same battery, in order to keep the cost of participation low – although this will change in the next two years. For Mahindra Racing, then, it’s the powertrain and ECU, developed in-house, that make all the difference.
For a company that doesn’t come with a lot of prior motorsport experience, Mahindra Racing are doing spectacularly well in Formula E, having secured 10 podiums last year. And they don’t intend to break that streak this year.
They’ve already won podiums in the first two races of the season: Felix Rosenqvist won the final races in Hong Kong and in Marrakech, while Nick Heidfeld bagged a podium in the former.
Unlike Formula One, the pit stops are not for a quick tyre swap. Instead, the drivers swap their cars out for fully charged ones, ideally depleting the battery of its juices by the time they get to the finish line. According to Mahindra Racing Team Principal Dilbagh Gill, it’s not the fastest driver that wins but the most efficient one. It’s the driver’s judgment, and his judicious use of limited power, that make Formula E races so interesting to watch. Use too much at the start and you risk losing pace towards the end of the race; too little, and you’re likely to fall behind.
While Mahindra Racing’s technological investment isn’t as heavy as that of Audi’s or Jaguar Land Rover’s – two automotive heavyweights whose recent entry into the sport has paved the way for other top-shelf brands to participate – they come with four years of experience, and a team headed by Gill. They also have two ferociously quick drivers (Rosenqvist once moved up from 13th position to 2nd in the duration of a single race). Despite their backgrounds in conventional forms of racing, both Heidfeld and Rosenqvist have adapted to the nuances of driving a single-gear electric race car rather well.
Given that Mahindra Racing’s FE car deals with power levels that are nearly ten times that of their passenger cars, there isn’t going to be any immediate transfer of technology. According to Dr Pawan Goenka, the brand’s Managing Director, both Mahindra Racing and Mahindra Electric interact closely in order to “understand the nuances of high-voltage powertrains and what we need to do to develop them for commercial use”. There isn’t currently any direct transfer of components, although Mahindra is in the process of producing a 380-volt passenger car, aimed at both domestic and global markets, with some of the racing technology.
Formula Electric might be a few years away from becoming the sponsor magnet that its more popular counterpart, Formula One, is today. Until it opens itself up for individual component development, it’s not going to become an apex form of racing. But the fact that big car brands are lining up to join the series in the coming years is indicative of how fast Formula E will move up the motorsport hierarchy. And take into account that Mahindra Racing have been involved since the very beginning, and the brand’s silent but surefooted march towards electric car dominance is also well under way.