From petrol head to electric head - interview with Sylvain Filippi

After a successful debut session, Formula-E is set to become a regular on the motorsport calendar after providing close wheel to wheel racing in city centres around the world. It gave fans a unique spectacle for a number of reasons though there is no getting away from the fact that many initially watched for one reason alone – the cars are powered by electricity alone.

However, as the season progressed it seems motorsport fans are attracted by more than just the novelty of it all, with genuine interest in the cars and technology behind this pioneering race series. So to better understand the transformation from petrol head to electric head, who better to talk to than the chief technical officer of the DS Virgin Racing Formula E Team.

Sylvain Filippi has all the credentials to be in motorsport; he himself had a stint as a racing driver, and he has worked throughout Europe for names including BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Things changed, however, when in 2007 he came to the UK to work for Frost and Sullivan as a consultant.

“I was working exclusively on electric cars for three and a half years, and I just became fascinated and obsessed with them,” he said. “I got a chance to drive a Tesla Roadster in 2008 on the track and realised what these things could be do. So that’s when I basically switched from being a petrol head to an electric head.”

In many respects Filippi is a pioneer of electric motorsport. It was around this time that he put his own plans in place to develop an electric racing series and he began developing an electric touring car.

“I thought of something called the EV Cup, which was an electric touring car series,” he said. “I started to develop some prototype cars, and that’s where I started to play with batteries, invertors and all these things.”

However, he was beat to the checked flag. In 2011 the FIA announced its intention to launch the Formula E championship. However, given his experience he had a significant impact in shaping the Formula E regulations. But ultimately, it wasn’t where he wanted to be.

“I knew all the technology and developments would be with teams and not with the promoter,” he said. “I got interest from Virgin, who had the brand, but they didn't have anyone or anything that touched the tyres, so to speak. So we decided to do it, and here it is two years later.”

Unlike the UK’s strangle hold on Formula One, Virgin Racing is the only UK constructor. And after a session of highs and lows the Virgin Racing team won two of the eleven races with UK driver Sam Bird, and finishing fifth out of ten in the constructors championship.

While the teams had the ability to tweak torque maps and alter the regenerative braking maps, essentially the first season saw all the teams using identical cars on new tracks. This threw up a number of surprises for fans and teams alike. However, with regulations opening up for season 2, Virgin Racing has much higher expectations.

“We want to win this championship,” he said. “We know we have improved our pace, we just don't know by how much compared to the other guys.

“In season two, the battery has the same dimensions, same weight, and the same cells, but it allows us to increase the power. While the energy is the same, which means we're still restricted to 28kWh per car, the raised peak power is going up from 150 to 170 kW. So, we have completely redesigned the rear end of the car including the motors, the inverters, the gearbox, differential, rear suspension... basically everything is new.”

Many pundits have labelled Formula E as ‘the future’ with claims it could overtake Formula One as motor racing’s most elite category in the next five years. While in pure race pace this remains doubtful, one thing is for sure, the series is aligning itself heavily with electric road car technology development.

“Almost all series, especially Formula One, have extremely restrictive regulations to slow the cars down,” he said. “For us, it's the other way round. We are restricted by the technology. At the moment, we don't know how to put more energy in the battery pack, given the weight and the tight space constraints. If tomorrow we could have 40 kWh in these cars in the same amount of space, we would do it.

“So for me, the key difference is that Formula E is here to really push innovation because we are restricted by regulations. These cars will go quicker and quicker, year on year, and that is genuine technology progress, not just, for example, opening up the regulations.”

Technology transfer is certainly an area where Formula E is set to improve upon the current remit of Formula One. But it is also having a unique pull on those wanting to become electric heads, and attracting engineers.

“I believe that people are mostly here because of the innovation possible in the electric car,” he said. “At the start of season four, I think you will have pretty much every major car factory in this championship. They have to be because all car manufacturers will have to develop electric cars to meet emissions and engine targets. And in order to do that, they will need to develop electric cars.”

The future of the championship is likely to see cars developed that will become quicker over the course of lap. But, given the fact that tracks are always tight street circuits, this is likely to only go so far.

The real challenge for Formula E is the same as it is for manufacturers, range. At the moment with races seeing drivers pit to swap entire cars, rather than tyres, and still lasting only 45mins, it is an area everyone is keen to improve upon.

“This is where there is real and direct relevance to the real world, answering what people want from electric cars,” he said. “I believe this kind of technology is the best way to move people around on the ground. So my motivation is to promote electric cars and my way of doing it is to develop the technology within the Formula E series and the Virgin Race Team.”