The future, today: In conversation with Gul Panag

The future, today: In conversation with Gul Panag

An auto enthusiast to the core, Gul Panag has also been one of the earliest adopters and votaries of electric mobility, having put her money where her mouth is and using an e2o and now the e2o Plus as a regular in-city commuter. That passion for electric cars resulted in a call from Mahindra Racing to test the Formula E racecar, the M4Electro.

She recounts her experience here:

“This is not something you have to ask. I’ve been a Mahindra Racing fan for two reasons: one it’s a matter of pride that an Indian team is at the cutting edge of racing technology. Secondly as somebody who is a user and a very, very, very passionate advocate of electric mobility, I think it’s amazing that the cutting edge development that is happening on the track will soon find its way into street electric cars like mine and hopefully yours. Sometime ago, team principal Dilbagh Gill called me and asked if I’d be interested in driving the M4Electro. As an auto enthusiast how do you refuse something like that?

I spent a day on the simulator, did some ground work with Felix Rosenqvist, who is one of the two Mahindra Racing drivers and he walked me through the basics. I have already been in Formula cars before, I have driven the Renault Formula 1 car many years ago so that lying down coffin-like position – the thing that takes the most getting used to – I fortunately was comfortable with. And the next day I got to drive at the second testing day for the M4Electro.

Imagine the potential in a decade. Mahindra Racing engages a track on the outskirts of Barcelona which is in the middle of nowhere and is a very, very scaled down version of a regular track. The first lap was a bit scary because there is so much power and it goes really quickly: 0-100kmph in about three seconds, which is an immense amount of acceleration for a person who has not experienced this as a race driver. I did not want to, you know, end up in a bad situation. So, after the first two laps I began to get a little more comfortable and then of course you realise that each lap that you go by, you become more confident, you corner faster, you brake later and all of that. This was, I think for me, the singular takeaway – where electric technology has reached. 0-100kmph in 3 seconds is slower than say a Formula 1 car but if you see, Formula 1 cars have had decades of R&D and billions of dollars invested in them whereas Formula E is in its third season, and they have already accomplished so much with a fraction of the spends. Imagine the potential in a decade.

It’s something like the movie Total Recall; with the sound like electric cars on Mars. Who knew one day we would be actually driving and racing cars like that and for a child who grew up in the 80s and 90s, that vision of the future is a lot closer, at least on the electric front.

I do miss the sound to be honest, I really do. The racing cockpit does not allow an amateur like me the bandwidth to take my eyes off the track and look at the speed. But when you don’t have the sound telling you what’s happening, the sensory overload is less. So theoretically you are actually able to absorb more. There is no sound to tell you how to shift and it only has two gears so in fact I didn’t even have to think of the second gear to be honest.

It’s easier to drive than an F1 car. The power allocation is less than what is required to complete the race. The driver is expected to manage power, if he uses all his power on an aggressive flat manoeuvre, let’s say on a straight stretch, he won’t finish the race. So here it’s a lot about retaining, the only time you can afford to go flat out is in the qualifying. I think it’s easier to drive (than an F1 car). It was more forgiving. It does not stall. This is an automatic. There’s no clutch to play with. So it’s exactly like driving my little Mahindra e2o, on hyper steroids. Hyper, hyper, hyper steroids.

Power management is something we have to do. Traditional drivers are going to soon have to adapt because electric mobility will come and dissolve their world. So quickly. The big boys who drive for the rich teams, they are used to doing all kinds of things because their budgets enable them to. Secondly, they also look for gaps that aren’t there, and use aggressive manoeuvres because they know they have the team backing. Here you have 8-10 per cent less power that’s required to finish the race (on full power). So if you pull off some insane manoeuvres you might end up not completing the race. So first you’ve got to complete the race with the available power and you have to retain the heat as well. So it actually becomes a ‘thinking’ kind of race. It’s not raw speed and raw money.

It’s different (from normal racing) for sure. Today you and I have to constantly manage power on a mobile phone. We’re turning off data when battery is low and there’s no charger. A question I’m asked everyday is when I’m driving the e2O, what do you do when the car runs out of power? I’m like, does your cell phone run randomly out of power? No, right? I see how much battery I have when I go somewhere. I charge it regularly. There are days when you forget to charge the car. But there are also days when you plug in the cell phone but don’t put it on. And then wake up in the morning in horror to know that the battery is at 2 per cent, because you didn’t switch it on. I think the fundamental reality is that power management is something we have to do, it is here to stay. So there’s no getting away from it. I think that is the reason that power management has been introduced in the first place in Formula E.

It’s probably the most amazing thing I have been a part of. Formula E is super exciting. I don’t know how to put it in words. The beauty is the cities, the races are in the heart of the city. And to see Indian companies out there doing all this stuff, that is something really amazing. Each time I see the Indian flag, there’s a lump in my throat – on the car, in the garage – it’s quite amazing.”

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