The 2024 Formula E season gets underway this weekend in Mexico City and Mahindra Racing team boss Frederic Bertrand will be happy to see the cars in racing action perhaps more than most. After dealing with the fallout of a garage battery fire in pre-season testing that put the team on the back foot, the Indian manufacturer was at the centre of a PR campaign gone awry earlier this week. 

This was after it announced it had, using artificial intelligence, created an influencer named Ava, which was designed to “showcase the team's journey in the FIA Formula E World Championship, and towards a more sustainable future for our planet”.

No sooner had the news broken on social media, revealing the face of said AI character, a barrage of negative comments came flooding in, with some more critical than others. Before long the mob momentum that at times is both a blessing and a curse on platforms such as Instagram and X (formerly Twitter) meant the team was left in an untenable position.

The decision was taken just 24 hours later to scrap the campaign, with the main criticism being on why the ‘position’ had been filled by an AI rather than a human. 

“For us, it was just to add one tool to our toolbox for communication and to have one additional possibility for people to ask questions and get answers. A bit like when you rent a car and then you have an AI talk to you,” says Bertrand on the origins of the concept, with the team intending to run it alongside its existing influencer campaigns. 

“The idea was to create something which is more interactive, more fun. We probably didn’t explain that enough and that’s where we have failed. I still believe that the idea of having that type of input and support to the fans is something that can come as an addition to what we are doing and then it’s not replacing anyone.” 

The concept had been running as early as 8 December with 11 Instagram posts published from that date until the account was removed on Thursday, having described itself as a "Sustainable Tech Queen & Racing Rebel Robot", with its goal of "fuelling inclusion through AI innovation".

Frederic Bertrand, CEO, Mahindra Racing

While the social media backlash was around the use of AI, a grey area in a plethora of industries as society at large questions the potential harm and good that it has to offer, there were also queries about the use of a female in the role. 

At a time when there are rightly growing calls for more inclusion in motorsport for women and minority groups, the response was perhaps predictable. But would the volume of negative comments have been as great had the AI been that of an animal instead of a woman, for example?  

For Bertrand, any accusations that Mahindra is not an inclusive environment and hiring based on gender rather than ability is a hurtful one he claims, having advocated for women in his role with the FIA prior to joining Mahindra in November 2022. 

“That hurts I would say double for me personally because in my time at the FIA, I’m the first one to have Girls on Track integrated into Formula E,” adds the father of two daughters.

“The second is the fact if you look at the last 12 months, we [Mahindra] have hired probably 35 people and more than 30% of those people are girls and this is in all types of jobs. I have promoted also internally, you have the head of performance, you have the team manager. We have women in marketing, HR, and the head of hospitality. We have very strong jobs in the structure, it’s not fake jobs I would say.” 

This weekend in Mexico the team is working with female influencers present during the event, something planned weeks ago and not as a result of the last few days, with Bertrand admitting that the team perhaps needs to acknowledge the work it is already doing alongside women more. 

That Mahindra pulled the campaign so quickly has saved some of the team’s blushes, especially as the only other option was to push on through, which would only have amplified the situation. At a time when motorsport teams are looking for an edge and to stand above the crowd by creating their own unique identities, this latest campaign serves as an example of the ideas that might seem good in principle, but which can very easily fall to the opinion of the mob in this social media age.

“When it starts bad like this, then you have the two options,” says Bertrand. “Either you stay stubborn, and you try to make it at any price or you simply just review and say ‘okay we had a wrong start in this project’, better to stop it now [rather than] going further and carrying on being stupid for more time.  

“What is difficult for us is that we look stupid on something where we thought we would maybe look smart, so it’s a bit frustrating.”