Formula E Berlin: A look back at Mahindra Racing's race-winning weekend
There is laughter and cheering around me. Confetti still floats down from the skies and falls to the ground. There's the smell of champagne in the air. And there are a bunch of people, all clad in red, who are quite emotional moist eyed, but happy faced. At that precise moment, there is something almost magical in the air at Tempelhof. After all, just a few moments ago, the Indian national anthem played for Mahindra Racing's first race win in the Formula E Championship. It's given me goosebumps. Honestly, there isn't a dry eye in the house. Standing on top of the podium, looking proud and humbled all at once, is Mahindra Racing's team principal, Dilbagh Gill. It's been a journey that has involved immense amounts of hard work and a huge amount of learning to get the team to where it is today. And Gill has been an instrumental part of that journey. The success at the first race of the Berlin ePrix, with Felix Rosenqvist winning and Nick Heidfeld finishing third, has been a long time coming. But just ahead of the race weekend, Gill was already sure that the elusive first place that the team had been hunting for would soon be theirs.
Here Rosenqvist sprays champagne on his cheering team as they celebrate Mahindra Racing's first-ever Formula E win
"We are ready to win," Gill had said to me the previous day, sitting outside the Mahindra Racing team garage. "On merit alone, we can win any race from now, including this weekend," he'd said. "Things have fallen into place we have the processes, the drivers, etc. We need to start learning to win races before we win championships, and that was one of our biggest learnings this year," he continued. He'd cited the example of Marrakesh, where Rosenqvist had claimed pole position and led 27 of 33 laps. "We did not know how to lead a race," Gill had said. The team was used to chasing the cars in front of them, managing their energy efficiently along the way, and essentially playing catch up. What they weren't used to, Gill had said, was leading from the front and setting the pace for the race. Managing their energy in a situation like this had been tricky, which eventually led to Rosenqvist having to drive more conservatively towards the end of the race since he'd pitted a lap earlier than his nearest rival Sebastien Buemi. Eventually, Buemi and Sam Bird would get the better of the Mahindra driver, and Rosenqvist would have to settle for third place.
The problem was clear, then. And to remedy it, Gill had immediately invested in simulation software that would help the team understand exactly how they could manage their energy over the course of a race, when they were in the lead. It paid off. The disastrous results they had at Mexico were now a thing of the past. And by the time they came to Berlin, they were, as he said, ready for a race win. When Rosenqvist and Heidfeld locked out the second row of the grid, it became evident that the team certainly could challenge for a podium. Rosenqvist had only narrowly missed out on pole, after a small mistake left him with the third-fastest time. But the race turned out well. He slotted into second position early on, and then made a pass for the race lead, overtaking Lucas di Grassi. He came into the pits, went back out in the lead, and won the race.
Saturday motivation! And it worked for Mahindra Racing with Felix Rosenqvist winning Race 1 at Tempelhof
After the race is over, and when the team and drivers are back in the garage, Dilbagh is kind enough to let me into the engineer's room, where, despite the two bottles of open champagne (a lot of which has already been sprayed on the podium, or downed with gusto during the post-race celebration) the engineers are focussed. There's still work aplenty to be done, since it's a double header, they've got to come back to the Tempelhof track in the morning and do this all over again. Dilbagh points to the whiteboard that has pinned to it the schedule for the week-end, amongst other things. But right on top, it says "Thought of the day" and next to it are the words "We will win!" "I wrote this in the morning," he says smiling. You can tell that it's still not sunk in - this feeling of victory for the team, and the man who leads it.
The following day, there's a positive feeling in the team garage. Rosenqvist has managed to secure pole. But the other side of the garage is a little more sober. The fact that Heidfeld has had a sensor issue that led to him having to start the race dead last means that it is very likely to be a race of contrasts for the team. And how contrasting the world of motorsport can be in the span of one day, and in a space as tiny as one garage, I realise during that second race at Tempelhof. Felix's brief is simple, to win from pole. For Heidfeld, master of the first corner overtake, it's going to be a little more tricky. He's got to work his way up the order from the very back of the pack, and it's not the easiest of things to do. "The quality of the drivers in the championship is quite high," Gill had said. And he's right too. There's a host of former F1 drivers, current GT car racing drivers, and endurance racing drivers, making it an interesting mix of age, experience and speed. It's in evidence within the Mahindra garage too. Heidfeld, the old hand, has had to up his game with the arrival of a younger, faster team-mate. "Felix feeds off Nick's experience, and Nick feeds off Felix's speed," Gill had said, telling me that the combination certainly worked.
Dilbagh Gill said "repeat" and the team certainly did cross the finish line first in Race 2 as well, though the penalty meant they were classified second
The incident that saw it all unravel during Race 2
The engineers back at work ignoring the tempting bottles of champagne
But there are highs and lows in motorsport, and sometimes they arrive all at the same time. And so it turned out that while Rosenqvist was running away at the head of the field, it was Heidfeld who had to make his way up the order, something he did quite a fine job of, too. When it was time for the pit stop, Rosenqvist came into the garage, swapped cars quite quickly, and was ready to head out. Heidfeld happened to be coming into the garage for his car change himself at that precise moment. It was something of a grey area, not entirely clear even to the team. But Felix headed out straight into the path of Heidfeld, who did a good job in taking avoiding action. There was contact between the two, not enough to cause damage to either car but enough to slow things down a little. There were two causes for worry after that. The first was whether or not Rosenqvist would still be out in front of Buemi. The second, whether or not the team would be slapped with some sort of penalty. It was the latter that happened.
So it transpired that Heidfeld recovered enough to claim one point in the championship with a tenth-place finish. While Rosenqvist crossed the chequered flag first on track, he had 10 seconds added to his time, which classified him second behind Sebastien Buemi, and ahead of Lucas Di Grassi. There had been a couple of angry kicks to the wall, a few swear words (I imagine they were swear words tossed about since they were said angrily, but in a language that I could not understand) when the incident had occurred. And to see their driver having to settle for second place had put a dampener on the mood in the garage.
They say that you can tell the true character of a leader not when things are going right, but when things are going wrong. And it was in this situation that Dilbagh Gill showed us just what he was made of. He clapped his hands together, calling the team to attention. Told them that he had no problem with the result that they'd got that day, said it was important that they all first show up at the podium to support Felix for his second-place finish, after which he said the crew in charge of Heidfeld would need to go see to the proceedings in the stewards room, because the German driver was still being investigated. He roused the team out of their slightly glum mood, and off the lot of them went in order to celebrate their second place. It really was heartening to see how they cheered for Rosenqvist as he climbed onto the top step of the podium, shrugged his shoulders, and then hopped to the second step. First, second and third, in the span of one weekend, certainly wasn't a bad result for the team.
The whiteboard in the engineer's room that day read, "Thought of the day: repeat!" The truth is that that is exactly what they had managed to do. It was Rosenqvist who had crossed the finish line first. Gill seemed to agree with this, happy that they had proved that they were capable of winning.
Plenty of team spirit on display from the Mahindra Racing crew
Mahindra Racing's made huge amounts of progress, now only the second team in the history of motorsport to receive an FIA recognition for sustainability
"We are a technology company on steroids," Gill had told me before the race weekend. He'd spoken of how valuable the team was to Mahindra Electric and Mahindra Research Valley too. And how they were able to share data with the company and help them in specific areas, like switching from low-voltage systems to high-voltage systems. Vivek Nayer, Mahindra Group Brand's chief marketing officer had also said that one of the reasons that Mahindra wanted to be in the sport was to show the world that they were an international brand, that they were an innovative brand that were at the forefront of the latest technology, but also that they were an environmentally conscious brand. But R&D applications, and promotion of the brand aside, it was heartening to see that winning was definitely their goal.
Four years ago, Gill had told me that he was clear that the team wasn't just there to make up the numbers. There was a definite plan in place in order for them to start winning. That plan seems to be working. Four years ago, Gill had also been mildly bothered by a question I'd asked him about why he was the right man for the job. He'd told me then that he believed he could do it because, while he didn't know what he didn't know, he'd learn things along the way. He's never let me forget the question, and ribs me about it every time he sees me, saying that I'd asked him to "justify his existence". Well, even if that wasn't my intention, he's certainly justified his existence at Mahindra Racing, and how!
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