until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

The peaks, troughs and future of Formula E’s quirky underdog

by Sam Smith
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Mahindra head to its first-ever home E-Prix in Hyderabad this weekend with the hopes of a burgeoning Indian Formula E fanbase fanned out across its collective shoulders.

The team’s history in Formula E has been mixed, to say the least:

The Peak – and how not to ride it

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Five years ago, Mahindra was flying.

Felix Rosenqvist had just won back-to-back E-Prixs in Hong Kong and Marrakesh and looked to be about to stake a title challenge claim.

Then came Mexico City.

The momentum was his. He took pole by a staggering half a second (in the final season of Gen1 remember) and waltzed off into what appeared to be an unassailable lead.

Just as he was eyeing the points lead he ground to a halt exiting the final corner and tumbled down the order.

From that point on the energy and thrust left Mahindra, as did Rosenqvist a few months later as he began his ongoing IndyCar adventure.

At that time Mahindra felt like a team that was massively on the up and one that could humble the bigger opponents and potentially build for the time when Porsche, Mercedes and Nissan fully came into the championship and be ready to properly take them on.

Back then the grandee manufacturers were just months away, yet in the time that Mercedes came and went from Formula E, Mahindra won just one race, the second 2021 London E-Prix via Alex Lynn.

Despite that odd peak, and not forgetting Jerome d’Ambrosio’s early Marrakesh victory in Gen2 (pictured below), Mahindra has never shown anything like the promise that Rosenqvist’s time brought forth.

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Such was the fluctuation in plans from when it stopped using the QEV technical stable in 2019 – which itself came after an initial start to the journey with Carlin in 2014/15 – that Mahindra became something of an enigmatic presence.

Mahindra’s Formula E rise and fall (and rise?)

2014-15: 8th in the points (0 podiums)
2015-16: 5th in the points (2 podiums)
2016-17: 3rd in the points (1 win, 10 podiums)
4th in the points (2 wins, 3 podiums) 
6th in the points (1 win, 3 podiums) 
9th in the points (0 podiums)
9th in the points (1 win, 4 podiums) 
8th in the points (1 podium)
2023 (after three rounds):
6th in the points (1 podium)

It was one that went hand-in-hand with its driving force Dilbagh Gill. His time at the team that he’d set up back in 2014, came to a surprising end last autumn.

The highlights have been considerable but they were too infrequent. The lows were just as intense, witness Lynn’s and fellow Brit Alexander Sims’ departures in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

For all the stability in how the team was presented, in its playful fan engagement and its instantly recognisable dayglo livery, Mahindra actually was and maybe still is something of a shape-shifter from an internal standpoint.

That’s surprising because there is plenty of key staff there that have stuck with the team for years. Technical leads Angus Lyon and Lewis Butler and team manager Paul Willett, for instance.

Mahindra has also had a partnership with ZF Group since 2020 but at no stage has it reprised the feel-good factor of early 2018.

The Trough – and how to get out of it

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The way out of the trough will be tough but now it has a new pathfinder the journey to its exit seems clearer.

The early signs of new boss Frederic Bertrand’s tenure at Mahindra appear positive. Word from the team is that he is a strong motivator and a positive presence.

The tell-tale sign was there from the very start at Mexico City.

Instead of looking for the TV cameras during the race, Bertrand was down watching it with the mechanics, and when Lucas di Grassi pulled off another miracle in Mexico with a hard-fought podium finish, Bertrand embraced them first.

He’s got some big decisions to make in the coming months about how he can shape his and Mahindra’s vision for the team in harmony. Consistency is something that he is majoring on achieving, which in the context of Mahindra’s first three races – zero points outside of di Grassi’s Mexico City pole and podium – is much needed.

“Consistency will probably come from two aspects,” Bertrand told The Race in Riyadh last month.

“The first one is making sure that we keep that philosophy of getting the best from what we have and make sure that even if we don’t have something that is fully ready, 100% of what we have is exploited.

“The second part is to make sure we recover where we are late. We are late on some topics, and those topics we need to make sure that in the shortest possible time, we recover and we come back.

“So, if I make a rough analysis, I will say the car is 80% ready, but still has 20% margin on the development.”

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That isn’t dissimilar to Mahindra’s rivals just now but Bertrand will be leading a major push to find and stabilise the Mahindra M9Electro’s strong points. Clearly, as Mexico City showed, it has some.

Yet the nagging question right now is if Mahindra’s 2023 peak has already passed, and due to a combination of qualifying fortune and a track tough to overtake on combined with di Grassi’s brilliance, hasn’t it just entered a bit of a false dawn by starting with that Mexico result?

Opinion is still divided. If the expected tough weekends start to ratchet up then the early positivity of Bertrand will have to be upped so his team can feed off it.

“Another big aspect is to make sure the team spirit grows,” says Bertrand.

“What I mean here is that the team got used to being a participant of the championship but lost the taste of champagne more or less.

“What was good in Mexico was that the taste of champagne came back very quickly and they got it again. I would like to keep growing and they are slowly getting into that mood.

“It is not a miracle, as Lucas said, it is not necessarily a miracle, it is 50-50 between optimisation and a bit of luck in a way. But I always say if you don’t have luck in those kinds of jobs it’s a professional mistake.

“Make sure the team spirit progresses in a way that we slowly get from participant to competition again, and competition to winning, and podium and winning.

“So that’s where we are, and at the moment we are between participant and competition. We are not yet at the competitive spirit I would like to have, but we are on the track to getting there.”

The Future – and how to capitalise on it

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Hyderabad this weekend is huge for Mahindra.

Bertrand and company will be pulled apart by local media, dignitaries and well-wishers.

Mahindra will carry a heavy burden of anticipation and however unfair that might be right now, it will be exciting and taxing in equal measure.

Whatever the performance might bring it won’t define the team’s season at all. But what it will do is test Bertrand’s early philosophy and whether it can be maintained.

Mahindra’s big season will be 2024. That is when the development loop will almost be completed and when its relationship with ZF Group should have completely matured and adapted to Gen3.

It will also be a time that di Grassi, knocking on the door of 40, might have a last competitive hurrah – even if his Mexico City heroics prove he shows no signs of slowing down.

Ex-Force India and Red Bull Formula 1 protege Jehan Daruvala is waiting in the wings and keen to become an Indian hero in an Indian team, something that could send international motorsport through the roof.

Mahindra’s Banbury base is huge and not far off F1 spec in size at least. It is a sound home for the Gen3 period but it surely has to be added to in terms of personnel.

The bodies in that HQ are good and the working atmosphere appears better than ever. There is a lot that Mahindra has going for it now but at the same time, it perhaps could do with looking back as much as it is looking forward.

To take on manufacturers such as Jaguar, Nissan and Stellantis is a major ask. Yet with some finetuning and extra investment, there is absolutely no reason why the bronze-tipped cars can’t aspire to return to silver and then gold in terms of rewards in the next few seasons.

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