The Formula E customer overshadowing its supplier’s swansong - The Race
Formula E

The Formula E customer overshadowing its supplier’s swansong

Aug 2 2021
By Sam Smith

Formula E championship leader Envision Virgin Racing is in a prime position to upstage its supplier Audi before the German manufacturer departs the championship at the end of the year.

Tight, nimble and expertly managed, the team has a practical belief and impressive strike rate of success among its ranks that consistently embarrasses some of its competitors that work to a more bloated and thus less efficient way of going racing.

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In Robin Frijns – fresh from signing a new one-year deal with the team – Envision Virgin has a talented and dynamic bedrock just like any good underdog team. And it also has an emerging talent who has quickly found his feet in the series in Nick Cassidy.

The management is rock solid with Sylvain Filippi offering technical nous and a level head.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been averse to some mysterious internal politics in its ranks as evidenced at Berlin in 2018 when its former team principal Alex Tai disappeared from the team without any real explanation.

But there’s always been an air of refreshingly down to earth nature within the team, as witnessed last August in Berlin.

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That was when the team upheld a long-standing motorsport tradition of ‘delivering’ an outgoing driver – this time the unfortunate Sam Bird – to his new team by means of restraining him in whatever was at hand and then wheeling the startled Brit to Jaguar by means of a sack barrow.

That joie de vivre breeds a comfort in its own competitive skin and sparks an extra confidence that is rarely squandered in the highly pressured environment of manic and time-compressed Formula E race days.

Its present drivers have delivered seven points finishes out of a possible 10 in the last five races and the team holds a seven point advantage over Mercedes at the top of the teams’ championship.

Envision is also 31 points clear of its supplier Audi, whose powertrains it will still use next year even when the factory team departs.

With Frijns second and Cassidy seventh in the drivers’ standings, the tag of title favourites is being whispered in some parts of the paddock right now.

Team boss Filippi will predictably dislike that term publicly but there will be elements of pride too deeper below the surface.

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This is because he knows as well as anyone that given the nature of this season – just like the high peaks and chasm-like troughed 2018/19 campaign – many twists and turns will play out before the end of the final race at Tempelhof on August 15.

Yet also in the forefront of Filippi’s mind right now is where Envision Virgin’s future is heading.

One of the manufacturers that Filippi is speaking to is Mercedes. But the elephant in that particular meeting-room is obvious. Will the three-pointed star still be around in 2023?

The withdrawal of Audi from Formula E last November was a cold shower of a shock to the team. But it came to terms with the news quickly and it was softened a little by guarantees that its agreement to run the Audi e-tron FE06 car would continue for the final Gen2 season as planned.

This was largely influenced by the homologation tweaks in the regulations that last summer dictated a moratorium on powertrains for the final two seasons of Gen2.

Filippi pulls no punches when he recalls the call he got from Allan McNish shortly before the announcement came at the pre-season Valencia test last November.

“Audi leaving now was very inconvenient and very sudden but really we were saved by the fact that no one can develop the car,” he tells The Race.

“The car will be the same and we will carry on getting support from Audi. It’s in their interest that we do well.

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“They don’t want to see an Audi car doing badly. It’s very simple, we have our own DiL [driver-in-loop] simulator, so it’s just a question of making sure the software works.

“I don’t believe anyone’s going to make huge strides forward anyway. There’ll be a lot of software updates and the usual stuff, but nothing we haven’t seen before.”

So, 2022 is covered off but what about the following season when Gen3 kicks in?

It’s essentially a blank canvas for EVR to fill and the option pools for its structure are many.

Become a customer with another manufacturer and mirror its set-up or forge an alliance with a new manufacturer in a manner similar to how it worked with DS between 2015 and 2018.

“We are having multiple discussions and then we will see what’s best for us,” says a slightly coy Filippi.

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“That’s the beauty of not being a works team. You don’t have as much testing, but we are lucky to be small and nimble with very good backing from investors [sustainable energy giant Envision].

“I think we’re lucky to have a very good base to build the team on. And the cost cap is really, in theory if it all works well, good for us.”

This is because the cost-saving measures will largely be moulded around just the kind of team, budget and size that EVR currently represents.

That cost cap figure is known to be around the £11-13million mark but will have some particulars, probably driver retainers, sitting outside it.

One of the manufacturers that Filippi is speaking to is Mercedes. But the elephant in that particular meeting-room is obvious. Will the three-pointed star still be around in 2023?

“For obvious reasons, we’re not going to work with someone who’s not going to be there,” Filippi deadpans.

“If they are not staying, then then it’s not open us, but we have plenty of options.

“I really hope that they stay because it’s a great brand, and we want to be competing with the best in the world.

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“I really hope they believe in the future of Formula E and see the benefits of it.

“Each company is different; they will have their own reasons to do things and whatever. So I can’t comment on what they do. But I hope I hope they stay of course.”

Whatever Envision Virgin Racing does in 2023 it hopes to be doing it with both Frijns and Cassidy.

The Race understands that Cassidy will join Frijns in announcing a new deal for next season shortly. But longer-term it is less clear. However, with the development of the Gen3 cars getting going next spring and summer the emphasis will surely be on multi-year agreements.

“We are close to it but nothing final just yet,” is all Filippi cares to say on that particular matter.

Envision Virgin is more than just breaching the more established top-liners in the championship, and it’s delivering on its carefully nurtured structure to exude an emphasis on simply getting the job done with the minimum of fuss – something it plans to do long after Audi departs.

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