Mahindra Racing's chief engineer Vinit Patel reflects on a fruitful first two races of the Formula E season as the Indian outfit sits third in the championship.
Race engineer to Karun Chandhok in the first season, Patel oversees the engineering and technical direction and development of the M2Electro in season two.
In a Motorsport.com exclusive debrief, the Indian engineer looks back at the Beijing ePrix and the Putrajaya ePrix ahead of the Punta ePrix.
1) Talking about Beijing, how surprised or relieved were you or the team to get the maiden podium? Of course, you aim for the best but was podium the target for Beijing?
Vinit PATEL: Relief doesn’t come into it because we were optimistic going to Beijing as testing was very positive for us. We completed all our allocated pre-season test days plus the official tests at Donington without any significant issues and the M2Electro quickly proved to be a reliable package. Both Nick and Bruno were happy at the way we developed setup and energy strategies in testing.
We expected that reliability would be an ace up the sleeve in the early races as so many technical solutions were being tested quite late into pre-season whilst not being very mature in their development stages, but it was impossible to truly know the pecking order in terms of outright pace or performance until the first race.
To be competing at the front right out of the box certainly met what we felt the potential of the car was and we were thrilled to convert that into a podium straight away. We had issues in Bruno’s pit stop which meant he dropped out of the points, but we left China feeling that the car was reaching the high aspirations we had and the focus going forward had to be on our own setup development and race preparation.
2) Staying on it, what led to it in terms of the data you saw? Bit of luck and performance, would you say because you needed the pace to stay with Renault and Abt as well as Dragon in the end?
VP: Luck wasn’t a big factor – Nick qualified in superpole, made fewer mistakes than others around him and jumped a car at the start – we plan to do this each and every time and not luck into it. It was clear in testing that a couple of teams were ahead in terms of outright pace, but we learned in Beijing and Putrajaya that the gap to some of these teams was less than expected.
All these teams are high level, professional outfits and we aim to be at least equal whilst trying to push that level higher and higher and get in front of them. The data simply gives us a tool to measure ourselves quickly during the day and quickly identify key areas to instantly improve.
It is different to how data is used in the rest of motorsport as we don’t have the track time to test and tinker with things much. We were successful in Beijing and recovered well during the Malaysia. No knee-jerk reactions. We remain calm, cool and collected – both drivers are a key part of this philosophy. Together everyone achieves more.
3) Moving to Putrajaya, both drivers faced issues during the race and a lot of teams faced numerous other problems - what were the issues Mahindra faced and the reasons for it? Plus, how much did the track surface and weather affected the cars?
VP: The race was compromised by racing incidents for both drivers in the first stint. Nick was spun off at turn 1 and immediately dropped back. Bruno had a technical glitch just after the safety car which temporarily switched his car to false neutral. He had to stop the car and ‘reboot’ the software. This happened to a number of teams, he managed to minimize the loss quite well all things considered.
The team was quick to adjust strategy the moment these setbacks occurred and the priority shifted. We needed to pit both drivers later than those around them to gain track position and so they would have more energy to push and race harder in the second stint.
The second stint went in the direction as desired and despite some issues we made up places compared to those struggling with thermal battery management. Nick had no radio at all in his second car and had to manage energy and battery temperatures without the input of the team which severely compromised his last two laps. Nick had FanBoost but we had no way of telling him when to use it!
Bruno worked with his engineers via radio to manage energy and temperature to make his way through the pack thanks to his adopted strategy. As planned, he had more energy remaining in the final laps than those around him and he was able to capitalize on the issues others had with some excellent racecraft.
A key takeaway for our team is that had it not been for a failure in communication in the pitstop that led to a driver through penalty, Nick had the chance to be on the podium again. Bruno did too, had it not been necessary to reboot the car as mentioned. We need to take these issues away, ensure that within the team’s remit of control they cannot re-occur and deliver better results.
Weather & surface
Both drivers reported that the surface was breaking up in places from around half way through the race. When you look back at the race footage, what sometimes looks like rubber laid down is, in fact, the breaking surface along the racing line.
Nick, in particular, noticed this in his “moment” at turn 11. He did well to recover grip and only have the smallest contact with the wall. We have a great thermal model to simulate what would happen in these temperatures; all the teams will have something similar.
We tuned our cars in the free practice session and anticipated the situation that unfolded really well in terms of battery temperature whereas it seemed other teams were caught out by it. This worked in our favour especially so in our modified longer first stint.
4) Has the team been able to sort those problems?
VP: Within two hours of the race, all the engineering staff and management meet to pick apart every detail of the event, again hand in hand with our drivers. This ensures we record all the things that did not work out, things that failed, and things that might cause issues going forward.
This all gets addressed and rectified by our staff; everyone has tasks to take away and work on, with solutions ready for Punta del Este. Hand in hand with this, we’ll be continuing and adding to our development program, with new ideas and features to implement for the third race or test on the following day – it's our last proper test day that we know about for the rest of the second season.
5) After two races, where would you put Mahindra in terms of pace and reliability? Are Renault still far ahead, what about the likes of Abt, Dragon, Team Aguri and Andretti?
VP: I believe that third in the team championship is representative of the performance of the M2Electro at present, but we must not leave points on the table as we did in the first two races.
Some manufacturers were always going to walk before they ran as they got to grips with their different technical solutions so our priority has been to get into regular points scoring positions and take advantage of the reliability of the car, which we have done.
As other teams find their performance level, we are focused on refining our setup, adding features through software and learning from the first two races.
As for teams using the season one powertrain, their disadvantage is not so great in the unique space of single day race events with extremely limited track time. If we were doing a back to back test of S2 vs S1 cars, every season two manufacturer solution should be approx. 0.5-1s faster, at least.
But testing isn’t racing. They know their packages much more than the manufacturers know theirs, in my opinion, because they raced them for an entire year already. They should have greater reliability. If they perform to the top of their abilities as a technical package along with high-level drivers, they can start to level the playing field even if the manufacturers all have efficiency and weight advantages.
The strength of Formula E as a competition means they can still fight at the front. Formula E and the FIA has done well in terms of regulations both sporting and technical to allow driver talent to still shine through.
Over the course of the season, the manufacturers will eke out more performance, so these guys need to get busy stealing away points in this early phase of the season.