With new powertrains, new personnel and a new driver pairing, DS Virgin Racing expects consistent podium finishes in season two, tech boss Sylvain Filippi tells Current E.
The partnership between Citroen’s DS brand and the Virgin Racing Formula E team has introduced the sport’s second direct manufacturer input, following Renault’s increased involvement with e.dams. It’s a significant move, both for the series and for the team. Virgin, already a race winner in season one thanks to two victories snatched by Sam Bird, is set for bigger and better things, believes the team’s technical chief Sylvain Filippi.
“I am a lot happier with where we are this year,” Filippi tells Current E. “We’ve had a year to build a team. Don’t forget we were one of the few teams to start from scratch. We had an idea of a partnership with Lotus F1 but it didn’t really transpire. We realised early on that if we wanted to be competitive, we needed people at the races who are part of our staff, who can get into the habit of Formula E. We now have a full team of people who are on board full-time. We have improved massively in terms of talent and set up.”
Despite the revised recruitment policy, DS will have little trackside input throughout season two, Filippi says. “Virgin Racing is the team going to races,” he explains. “That doesn’t really change at all compared to last year. DS has no input on that and they have not much desire to do that.”
That doesn’t mean that DS isn’t working furiously on the Formula E race programme behind the scenes however. “Once the team is up and running, I’ll spend more and more time working with DS on future cars,” Filippi says. “That’s where DS is proving to be a huge resource – facilities, equipment, anything you can think of. We are doing simulation work for season three.”
While there’s some uncertainty about the sport’s technical roadmap, the French manufacturer has its eyes set firmly on engineering a complete powertrain. Originally, battery design was to open up in the sport’s third season but that looks increasingly likely to be postponed until season five. “I am interested in all aspects of the car and so is DS,” says Filippi. “We are very dependent on the FIA roadmap and that’s changing. We’ve only just defined the power output for season two. The key thing is to focus on system efficiency, from the battery to the wheels. They do that elsewhere but in Formula E it’s even more important because we’re restricted in the energy we can use. The battery is a big one. We all want to develop batteries but it takes a lot of time and a lot of budget. Season five can seem a long way away but it’s not in terms of development cycle.”
Blonde Frenchman Filippi speaks like a machine gun, running through options and plans faster than a supercomputer crunching chess moves. When it comes to the team’s second season powertrain, however, he is firmly devoid of detail. “We haven’t confirmed anything, which might be why there is some confusion in the media about it,” he says simply, when asked about motors and gearing. We believe the team is running twin motors, with either a single or twin speed transmission. He goes on: “We have designed our powertrain to be able to do 170kW day and night without any cooling issues. Our system can do it. For drivers, going from 150kW to 170kW does make a significant difference. How the batteries will perform, I don’t really know.”
Managing thermal and energy issues proved the undoing of many throughout season two. Virgin Racing wasn’t immune. After a bright start, with a podium for Bird at the first race and a win at the second, the team hit something of a trough, with a succession of set up issues and errors by both drivers and the team to blame. “Season one was a mixed bag of emotions,” Filippi admits. After winning the second round, the team had to wait until the last race of the season for another victory. “We had a bit of a slump mid-season. It was a huge learning curve. We were very happy with the final race however. It gave us momentum for the summer.”
The summer brought news that, as well as a French car maker, the team had gained a French driver. Jean-Eric Vergne, formerly of the Andretti team, had been a giant of qualifying in season one but struggled with managing the delicate powertrain during the race. The signing is quite some coup, although our sources indicate the team had also been in talks with champion Nelson Piquet and Andretti’s new signing Robin Frijns to replace Jaime Alguersuari, who bowed out of the series before the London races due to health concerns.
“We never wanted to compromise on drivers,” Filippi explains. “I am quite bullish. We have good cars, good powertrains and good drivers.”
Filippi thinks the on-track competition will remain tight in season two despite an array of different technologies on display. “It’s all about efficiency,” he explains. “If you can make gains, you can go further or faster and that gives you more strategy options in the race. You’re not going to see cars lapping each other, I don’t think. It’s not a question of who has improved – it’s who has improved the most.”
With that in mind, Filippi echoes the thoughts of the rest of the Formula E paddock when he says that who’s got it right in powertrain design will only become apparent once the races begin. “Donington didn’t really tell us anything,” he says of preseason testing. “For other teams, it was a reliability exercise. We didn’t feel the need to run much. We knew reliability would be good. In terms of performance and set up, there’s not much we could do because the track is unrepresentative. For us, as soon as we finished factory testing in June, for us the next step was Beijing.”
Filippi is convinced that the sport is going to grow significantly in the next few years. “You will see more manufacturers coming into Formula E,” he says. “I’m certain of it. Every manufacturer will get something from Formula E and I’m not even talking about the marketing platform. It throws up different challenges. I don’t think any manufacturer can afford not to explore high performance electric technology.”
Filippi also suggests some changes in sporting regulations might help encourage OEMs. “You could imagine in the future leaving it to manufacturers to run at their own power but within the same energy,” he says.
With DS on board, Virgin Racing is positioned well to amp up its competitive position, Filippi concludes: “They have a talented team at DS performance. We don’t know everything and we don’t know what we don’t know. We’ll keep our eyes on the prize – season five. When we get there and we put that car next to a season one car, you’ll be able to see just how far we’ve come. In the meantime, we definitely want to be in the top three consistently in season two. Anything below that will not be acceptable.”