FIA Formula E: Anand Mahindra interview

As Mahindra Racing have chance to look back on the first ever FIA Formula E race, we speak with Anand Mahindra, Chairman and Managing Director of Mahindra & Mahindra. Mr Mahindra, who was on site in Beijing to witness the world’s first fully electric racing event and see Mahindra Racing’s Karun Chandhok take the team’s first points – speaks here about the synergy between Mahindra and Formula E and the importance of electric vehicles for the future………..

What prompted Mahindra’s involvement as a team in the FIA Formula E Championship?

We come into this primarily from the point of view of a manufacturer. We made a major bet on electric vehicles; we invested in a company called Reva - which was a pioneer in electric vehicle technology not just in India but in the world. We have a strong visceral feeling that electric cars have to take off, and at some point they will.

Tesla have shown that there is not only potential for electric cars but also great value in it. Renault believes in this too and we have seen them become popular in Europe. So the writing is on the wall. The only thing holding it back really is the perception that electric cars are only for the greens of the world, the environmental enthusiasts. That they’re not fun to drive, there’s no glamour or legend to them, as gas powered cars have accumulated legends and stories over the years.

Frankly we think Formula E could be a tipping point; motor racing brings that glamour, that speed and action, that excitement and essentially the sexiness to the business that was lacking. Maybe we’re wrong, but that’s why we’re here. We’re placing our hopes on this. It may take some time, but the calendar that Formula E have created is a glamorous one, including some of the most exciting cities in the world. Also they’ve attracted people and companies that are not lightweights in the world of automobiles and racing. Formula E has the right mixture of things. Hopefully people will look back on the history of the electric car and Formula E will have a major chapter in it.

How does Formula E fit in with the ethos of the Mahindra Group of companies?

Interestingly, Formula E aligns with almost the snugness of Lego with the ethos of Mahindra. If you look at Mahindra and our history of SUVs and utility vehicles and ask anyone who knows the brand they will tell you it stands for ruggedness and a machismo. This is also something that racing brings.

In recent years we have tried to build onto our brand a kind of future outlook. We do not want to be seen as just macho gas guzzlers. We want to be seen as a company that produces vehicles that retain all the old excitement and DNA of ruggedness but also bring in the fact that we are very up on telematics and technology and can be aligned with the green world – hence the investment in Reva. An interesting reconstitution of the brand is taking place; adding on this new age feel to the Mahindra brand.

 oday, sustainability is in the middle of everyone and anyone’s Corporate Social Responsibility agenda. We like to call it Shared Value as opposed to Corporate Social Responsibility, which to my mind is where you tick boxes and say I’ve done X,Y,Z. We say we’re going to do good and we’re going to do business well at the same time. Not just that you do well and then write a cheque to do good afterwards. That your business itself incorporates both elements. Electric Vehicles to my mind are the epitome of that kind of philosophy. So Formula E allows us to combine that ruggedness of racing with new age technology and I can’t think of a better vehicle to project what Mahindra, and the future Mahindra brand is going to be.

How important is it do you think that electric vehicles and on a wider level sustainability really take off in India?

It’s critical. It’s absolutely critical. If you look at the other technologies and environmental fuels that exist, hydrogen is a long way off, and hybrids are something that will be explored seriously – in fact we were among the first non-Japanese Asian companies to introduce a concept hybrid, so we’re up on that as well. But we think that plug in electrics have a very important role in the new eco system. If we just add that little touch of excitement which all vehicles purchases need to have, that emotion, that missing ingredient, I think we could be on the threshold of a real boom in electric cars.

Is Mahindra’s aim in Formula E just to change and promote the image of electric vehicles or is there a competitive edge to it as well?

Any successful corporation in a competitive marketplace doesn’t like to lose. Winning is an integral part of succeeding in business, so we’re here to win. Obviously if we want to maximise and leverage the potential of Formula E will certainly don’t want to be laggards in the race. Having said that, we’ve been in sport for a long time; we have been a part of India’s corporate sporting history for many years, we’ve run a soccer team, a hockey team and so on, so we understand sport and its vagaries, we certainly understand there is no algorithm for victory. The ambition is to win though.

Formula E is a very new concept – there’s no noise, drivers manage battery levels and change cars - do you think it’s a concept that will take off around the world but particularly in India?

You know, no-one knows at this point, which is exciting. My particular mental makeup is such that unpredictability excites me. I think I find complete predictability boring, it doesn’t leave much discretion for excitement and discovery. So who knows, but let me put it this way. I was talking with our drivers recently and beginning to understand how cerebral the job of a Formula E driver is. It’s a very different order, which is not to say of course that Formula 1 doesn’t involve strategy, but here, I was joking that you almost have to be a part geek to be a successful driver in Formula E.

Let’s take away the pejorative term geek, and let’s just say that there is a tech expert needed in every driver. And I think this will appeal to people in general. What goes into a successful race, and what I find intriguing is how the whole game is to maximise efficiency. Those drivers who can eke out the most performance for a given battery life - those are the victors. And in way it is a metaphor for what we need to do with energy in the world, a metaphor for how we can better manage energy. So there’s a wonderful metaphorical congruence, between what a driver has to do and what the world has to do; to manage its resources better. That concept will appeal in my mind to a very large section of the population that is not only green but is obsessed by technology. So is India a country that is obsessed by technology? Of course. There will be no shortage of people who will love the idea of being pundits and being able to translate the details of these races to the uninitiated.

The Formula E paddock is made up of large companies, manufacturers and established race teams. What expertise exist within Mahindra to make Mahindra Racing a real contender in Formula E?

We have accumulated in the last few years, thanks to our involvement in Moto3 some good knowledge of motorsport. We’ve learnt a great deal. We had a great year to start with, then a dip in form, then we had a terrific year beyond that. So we’ve almost had enough cycles in that to understand what makes things work and doesn’t work. Of course there’s no one-to-one correspondence between Moto3 and Formula E. But to the extent of knowing how to manage teams and how to manage drivers and riders, and the consistency it takes to success in a motorsport environment, we have some good experience.

Also with our experience as an electric vehicle manufacturer, I think there will be a good two way benefit. This year is one where everyone has been given the same car and therefor there is less room for input from Mahindra Reva. However the data that has been gathered should be extremely valuable for a manufacturer I should imagine. And then using Mahindra Reva’s own expertise, I think there is a tremendous opportunity for the race team to benefit once the teams get a greater degree of freedom in conceptualising their own vehicles, that is the point in time when Mahindra Reva will have to weigh in and provide a kind of advantage that will only accrue to teams that are backed by manufacturers like us.

Finally, what has been your first impression of the Formula E cars and a Formula E race event?

It’s been very positive. The atmosphere in Beijing was incredible, it was great to see so many people supporting a new type of motorsport. The excitement and buzz on the grid and at the start of the race was tangible. The cars looked quick around the street circuit and there was overtaking every lap. It demonstrates that you can still create an exciting motorsport event whilst using and developing green technology. Based on this I see Formula E generating a strong fan base as it travels around the world.

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