Driving a Mahindra Racing Formula E car
There's no noise. Obviously there’s no noise, after all this is a completely electric race car – no fuel exploding inside cylinders, no pistons pounding away 15,000 times a minute. Inside the helmet, Nick Heidfeld’s helmet with the padding removed to go down my fat head, it is deathly quiet. I’ve seen this Mahindra Racing Formula E car race the previous weekend, I’ve seen Nick pile on in test miles at this remote circuit on the Mediterranean coast and I’ve driven enough electric cars for this lack of noise issue to be a non-issue. But what I’m struggling to wrap my head round to are the lack of vibrations. Race cars throb, pulse, shudder and shiver underneath you. At idle they’re angry, unfed beasts shackled in the bowels of the Colosseum, desperate to be set free. The phrase chilled-out has never been used to describe a bull in the ring. Nor a race car.
But the M4Electro is chilled out. Its batteries have been chilling under dry ice for the past hour. I flick the switch on the left to make it go ‘live’ and… there’s nothing, none of the traditional signs of a car coming to life. The mechanics peel away, Garth Harradine, Mahindra Racing’s chief mechanic, waves me on and with a Back To The Future whine, we’re off. No complicated launch sequence, no aggressive bite point on the clutch, no fear of stalling it and the mechanics having a good ol’ laugh. Accelerate and go. Like an e2o.
It sets the tone for what is a rather easy race car to drive. The car I’m strapped into has M4Electro emblazoned on its nose cone, the test mule for development parts for Mahindra’s 2017-18 Formula E car. In reality though it is closer to this season’s M3 and this test session is to test new code in the software and also improve on its already fantastic race starts.
Before we get out of the pits let me run you through the Formula E car and one of the most sensible things the series organisers have done – focused research and money on what matters. All the teams run the same Dallara chassis with the same aerodynamic package so teams don’t spend millions of dollars in the wind tunnel, honing the aero – an area that has little relevance to road cars you and I drive. The tyres are supplied by Michelin, 17-inch low-profile rubber that resembles road tyres and comfortably last the duration of the race so no headaches on that front. The front suspension is common to all teams. The battery pack, a huge 320kg box behind the driver’s back is made by Williams and is common to all the teams. Behind the batteries is the free zone – teams develop their own electric motor, gearbox, rear suspension pick-up points and of course the software to control the entire shebang. With total power available to the teams also being identical, the R&D money goes into one thing – efficiency. Reduce losses, get more range and deploy the available juice in the batteries more efficiently. Mahindra Racing are already at 91 per cent efficiency, next year the target is 93 per cent. It’s that fractionally better efficiency that determines your grid position.
This being only the third season of Formula E, there’s a terrific variety in the powertrains across the grid. Mahindra have opted for a 6-phase axial flux motor which is made by their technical partners Magneti Marelli in Italy, the latter’s biggest motorsport sponsorship deal outside of Ferrari in Formula 1. This is Mahindra’s motor and the IP (intellectual property rights) of the motor rest with them. To the motor is mated a two-speed fully automatic gearbox, but next year the team is moving to a single-speed gearbox like the championship leading Renault team, mated to a higher-torque, higher-rev motor.
Out of the pit-lane, Hairpin onto the main straight and I’m surprised by just how much steering lock there is. Formula E races on tight and narrow street circuits and the cars have been designed to be extremely manoeuvrable. I remember Garth telling me to be careful the first time round, that the electric motors have terrific torque and because all the torque is nearly instant, initial acceleration is quite strong. With the full 200kW of power in qualifying (around 270bhp), she can do 0-100kmph in 3 seconds; currently it is dialled down to 170kW, which is what the drivers run in race trim. I floor it and it lights up the rear tyres in a dramatic bonfire. Oooh… I do it again just to make sure the photographer gets it on camera. First impressions of the M4Electro is it is quick – okay, not shockingly OMG quick – but quick nevertheless. What’s different from other race cars I’ve driven is the response; the instant response. There really is no delay between what you ask the throttle to do and what happens at the rear tyres. For want of a better word the responses are electric.
While it accelerates quickly the M4Electro also reaches a plateau quite quickly. I find this out on my first lap when I skip a chicane and keep the accelerator pegged for the length of the straight, half-way through you’ve stopped accelerating. The deal is these cars are setup for street circuits and unless you’re racing on an expressway you’re not going to find a straight longer than a kilometre. The cars are thus designed to be point and squirt – rapid acceleration out of tight corners followed by heavy braking for the next corner and more rapid acceleration relying on that instant torque. In fact the Calafat circuit that Mahindra Racing use for all their development has been redesigned with chicanes on both the straights to simulate a tight and squiggly street circuit.
With a dozen corners, Calafat is an easy circuit to memorise but to hasten the learning Mahindra stuck me in their simulator two days ago at Campos Racing, the team that run their race operations. And I almost threw up.
Simulators are an essential tool for any driver to learn tracks and hone their driving and both Nick Heidfeld and Felix Rosenqvist spend a lot of time on the simulator in Barcelona getting race ready. It is like a video game: you’re sitting in a proper cockpit, the screens wrap around you and the steering shudders in your hand when you hit a kerb, but look at the hardware powering the sim and you know it is no videogame. It’s a crucial tool that the team uses extensively to develop race strategy, apart from making the drivers race sharp, and after eight laps I jumped out rather than soil a very expensive piece of equipment. Well, small consolation, I’m told everybody gets sick the first time in the simulator.
Campos is actually Mahindra Racing’s second home. In Season 1 it was Carlin Motorsport in the UK, an important consideration being Trevor Carlin had worked with both the Indian drivers with Formula 1 experience, Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok. In fact Mahindra were keen to get Narain to drive for them but Tata, to whom Narain is contracted to, said no. And so it came to be that 2010 HRT F1 teammates Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok drove for Mahindra in Season 1.
The other unique things about street circuits are the manhole covers, bumpy tarmac and the kerbs to mark out artificial chicanes. To soak it all in, the cars run a very high ride height (by single-seater standards) and soft suspension to keep the power on the ground. And behind the wheel you notice the compliance when the car doesn’t get thrown in the air when I fail to shed enough speed and hit the kerb at a speed far higher than prudent. Hmm, maybe I was being a sissy. Next lap I hit the kerb hard and the car doesn’t get unsettled.
Like all carbon brakes these too need heat in them to work optimally but the other thing is there’s no engine braking so when you get off the throttle, the car coasts into the corner, it is not slowed down by the engine. That’s something that takes getting used to. Drivers also have a brake energy regeneration paddle on the steering wheel that when pulled simulates engine braking and sends the energy back to the motor. It only works on the rear wheels and the driver uses it, sort of, like a handbrake or torque vectoring to get the tail out and slightly oversteering so the car turns in better for the really tight corners. But I don’t have enough laps to try that out today.
Mahindra Racing’s base is still in the heart of UK’s motorsport valley at Oxford where, as of May this year, they moved out of the conference room in the Heathrow Airport Crowne Plaza and into their own offices – after two years and two months! The cars are based in Barcelona, at Campos Racing, where the simulator is just one of the major investments Mahindra Racing have made. On the shop floor there’s a brand new dyno to test electric motors, benches to work on the motors, batteries and controllers, design offices and a redundant piece of equipment on the wall – a ear plug dispenser. It’s the first race shop I’ve been to where you don’t have to shut your ears!
Out in the cockpit all I can hear is the wind whooshing. And then tyres squealing. Post 100kmph, which comes up very quickly, the whine from the motor and gearbox is completely drowned out by the rush of wind. I remember my first reaction to watching the pre-qualifying practice at the Paris race – it was the first race I’ve attended that you hear not the engine but the tyres; you hear the tyres locking up and squealing through the corner and then the cars come into view. By the tyre noise you know how hard drivers are pushing and also how well the power is being put down. It’s like road cars whose tyres squeal and screech at the limit to warn you – and in the short time frame I had in the cockpit my personal target was to get the tyres to squeal in at least one corner.
I pick a tight left. There’s enough run-off for when things can go wrong and I leave my braking late, pile in steering lock and step on it. The tail suggests it wants to come out but the corner increases in radius and I dial out steering lock before it does anything funny. I can feel the soft suspension leaning on the outside and as the speeds build I can hear the front right and then the rear right squeal. Not as much as Nick was making them work for their supper but enough for my personal satisfaction, to know that I pushed a Formula E car to somewhere close to its limit (in one corner).
In terms of sheer performance the Formula E car is on par with the MRF F2000 single-seater I drove some time ago, and I suspect it is the noise that makes the latter feel quicker and more alive. The FE car is actually quite easy to drive as long as you remember the heavy battery pack behind you that can cause the car to rotate quickly if you get the tail out too much. And I had to be careful not to get into a knot because I was sitting on the floor. The mechanics couldn’t move the pedal box and with Nick being half a foot shorter than me there was no way of getting into the cockpit even with Karun’s old (and wider) seat. So out went the seat and I was strapped in to the carbon tub with pieces of sponge shoved down the sides and my elbows banging against the knees forcing me to steer, in the corners, with one hand. This is not so easy because this car doesn’t have power steering but I would have driven with one hand outside the cockpit. After all it’s not every day you get to drive a race car, particularly one that portends the future, however silent that future might be.