How Formula E's nearly-boss Sylvain Filippi went from championship executive to becoming Envision's kingmaker
After a turbulent 2023 Formula E season, Sylvain Filippi has finally arrived at his destination: The French team boss has won a world championship title in the electric racing series for the first time with his Envision team. As a passionate e-mobilist and motorsport visionary, Filippi is held in high regard by many in the paddock: Not least because he has been part of the paddock from the beginning. Once, he even almost ran the series himself.
It took nine years before Sylvain Filippi was able to climb the summit of electric motorsports. As team boss of Envision Racing, the Frenchman experienced many ups and downs in his racing career. Filippi sat on the pit wall when Sam Bird took the team's first Formula E victory in 2014. As head of engineering under Alex Tai, he witnessed Jean-Eric Vergne and the racing team part ways in bad terms. And he helped negotiate the team's powertrain partnerships: first as a DS factory team, then as a customer of Audi, and finally of Jaguar.
Filippi's meandering Formula E biography, however, takes its beginnings even before the fateful Beijing E-Prix kicked off in the fall of 2014. "When I finished business school in 2003, I had a master's degree in automotive consulting," he recalls of his time at the ESSCA school in France. He then worked for BMW and Daimler-Chrysler before emigrating to the United Kingdom. "There I came into contact with electric mobility," says Filippi, who despite calling himself "actually a petrolhead" even bought himself an early 2008 Tesla Roadster, gripped by e-fever.
Filippi loeses championship bid to Agag
The story that follows sounds a lot like the founding myth of today's Formula E: together with a friend, Filippi decided to found an electric racing series. The "EV Cup" was to be about the environment, technology, efficiency and zero emissions, with cars from British manufacturer Westfield and a support series for electric road cars. That was in October 2009. Two years later, delays in vehicle production ensured that the series' ambitions came to nothing.
"We didn't have problems getting funding for it. There was a lot of PR at the time, until 2012 when the FIA launched a 'call for expressions of interest' to run Formula E," Filippi says, citing another reason for the EV Cup's demise. "There's no point having two (electric) racing championships at the same time. So my group got involved with that. But ultimately, Alejandro (Agag) and his team won."
The fact that Agag is good friends with then-FIA president Jean Todt may certainly have helped the Spaniard in the promoter race. But Filippi does not mourn the "lost" bid. On the contrary: "Once Formula E was going, they needed ten teams. I jumped on the opportunity immediately - and the rest is history. I feel connected to the series because I'm acutely aware that my team can only thrive if the sport does well, too. We want Formula E to get better every year; Not only because that's what we want the sport to be, but also because it benefits our team."
From engineering to team leader
At Envision, Filippi found his permanent place in the category. In the early years, the team raced in Formula E as "Virgin Racing" thanks to the financial backing of billionaire Sir Richard Branson, and was even enrolled as a manufacturer. Today, Filippi is responsible for all technological and administrative matters of the racing team.
The dual role as CTO and "anaging Director makes him the number one decision-maker at Envision. And yet the father of two is modest. "I'm just a support function here," he laughs. "In my job, I make sure we have the best drivers, best cars, best team, best eqipument, best budget, and all the things you need as a foundation for a winning team."
In the 2023 season, Filippi's team broke the record for the most points of any racing team in Formula E history, winning races in Monaco, Berlin and London and putting itself in the realistic position of finishing first overall for the first time - ultimately succeeding. "I have seen lots of ups and downs," the boss reflects on the year. "The fact that we've managed it now, ten years after we first started, is great. Especially, as I said, for the team. I built it piece by piece and love them (the employees) with all my heart. Their resilience is unparalleled. I'm so happy for them!"
Envison too "greedy" in season finale - title win thanks to team spirit
The final in London, like phases of the season, resembled a "roller coaster" ride, Filippi said. Only in the last race the decision was made, after Nick Cassidy and Sebastien Buemi had collided the day before. "Something like that hurts especially when the car is fast. We got greedy and made the wrong strategy calls. In hindsight, you're always wiser. My job the night (before the final) was to get everyone back together," analyzes team boss and "supporter" Filippi. "And of course they did. Because they're just a great team."
Now, nine years after his first Formula E race and 20 after earning his master's degree in France, Filippi has arrived at the pinnacle of electric motorsports. In 2023, he became Envision's "kingmaker" and made the racing team the world champion in Formula E for the first time. When he sits down on the pit wall again next year, he'll be hoping to experience a few less sporting ups and downs.