Having had some small part in Brawn’s 2009 Formula 1 success via his Honda test role the year before, it’s not entirely surprising that Luca Filippi has always been under demand for his car development skills.
The Italian never made it to F1 as a driver, the Honda deal being the closest he got, and became a near-permanent presence in primary support series GP2 with 110 starts. In fact, he’s still driving there today in its current Formula 2 form.
That may come as a surprise seeing as he hasn’t been on the grid since 2012, but Filippi has a lot of testing miles under his belt and is solely responsible for the track testing of the 18-inch wheels to be used next year.
“I consider myself a good development driver,” Filippi says to Formula Scout.
“I?ve done that for Honda, I?ve done that for Pirelli tyres for quite a long time. I did for them all the GP2 development after 2011, plus all the 18-inches development. It was done 100% through me. Plus other projects that we had.
“Development has been something that I?ve always focused a lot on. I also did some development work for Ferrari’s GT cars in the past. It?s something that I actually enjoy and like very much.”
Having been clocking up laps using the radical new wheels for a year, what does Filippi think should be expected from their 2020 introduction?
“It?s not going to be different at all. The main factor is that the 15″ is too much related to the old vision of a Formula 1 car. On our road cars we now have 18″-plus, so even 17″ now is basically the basic diameter. It?s more of a way to make the car look like a supercar that you can buy, and also because if you can transfer a little bit of technology from F1 to other categories, it makes sense to have at least a similar diameter.”
There’s obvious research and development benefits for not only F1, which will use the wheels from 2021 onward, but the automotive partners of Pirelli. It’s the impact on racing, rather than the performance of future supercars, that Formula Scout is most interested in.
“To make a comparison, the tyres will be heavier because the wheels and rims are bigger. The diameter of the total wheel, with the tyre, is a bit higher. Visibility is going to be a bit less, you wouldn?t see the kerb at the apex as much as you normally see.
“It?s not going to change so much, because first of all it?s the same for everybody, and second thing is that you get used to it, like you get used to the halo.”
Larger wheels surely mean drives can attack kerbs more without a huge loss of drive, just like modern F1 cars.
“If you think about F1, it?s going to be more contact patch, because the tyre is taller. But on the other hand you have a totally different flexibility of the construction of the tyre. It?s not only the starting contact patch the tyre has on the surface, but is also the way the tyres flex and works [chemically bonds] on the surface.
“At the end of the day it’s going to be very similar. If you can get a little bit more grip from the tyre, maybe yes. But the weight is going to increase and compensate it. The aim is to be as fast [as current F2].
“In theory, you could get much bigger brakes. That’s not going to happen in F1 for the moment, so F2 will stick with small brakes. But if you make the most out of it, which is going to be bigger brakes, aerodynamic panels in order to change the fluxes behind the wheels, then you can make it faster.”
After winning the 2005 Auto GP title, Filippi started his six-year racing stint in GP2, peaking with second in the 2011 standings. He split that season between the Super Nova and Scuderia Coloni teams, and also drove for the former in Auto GP, where missing a round denied him a second title.
These two teams were pretty much a constant from the start of Filippi’s career, as well as Vincenzo Sospiri’s Euronova outfit.
“Sospri was my former manager and mentor. He?s the guy that taught me most of the things that I know today, so we are and we have been so close that we were always taking decisions together. Even at the time – when it was the right time to be in his car and when it was the right time to be in somebody else?s car. It was always an easy decision to sit down together and see where teams were moving.
“In those years specifically, it was a very difficult time because I had a Honda Formula 1 contract, but unfortunately Honda F1 folded apart and my contract became toilet paper. I was a successful GP2 driver, lets say ‘a name’, but not established enough to sell myself to another F1 team or manufacturer.
“I wasn?t the new guy ?let?s give him a chance?, but I wasn?t an established F1 driver as well. So I had to prove myself again, but I didn?t have the budget and the resources to choose where I wanted to go. So I just had to wait and take the opportunities that came along. And those years it was Super Nova 2009 [GP2], Meritus for GP2 Asia in 2010, which we finished runner-up in. And after that it was between Auto GP and GP2.
“I was just open to opportunities. The philosophy was ?for the moment I don?t have the resources and budget to decide what I want to do, but when opportunities came I was just open to do basically anything. If I stay at home on the sofa and decide what I want to do and what I don?t, this is not going to take me anywhere?.
“The chances were coming sometimes in a bit of a… it looked like inconsistent or it looked strange… but at that time they were different reasons. First time I went back to Super Nova was because Josef Kral was injured and had insurance that was covering the races. That allowed David Sears of Super Nova to choose the guy he wanted – and it was me.
“With David Sears and Super Nova we always had a fantastic relationship, I had basically three full years with them. One I finished third, one I finished fifth, and one was a partial season, but it was second in Auto GP. So we always had very good and productive relationship. We won races and we?re still friends.”
After five rounds of the 2011 GP2 season, Filippi was 13th in the standings. He switched to Scuderia Coloni for the Nurburgring round, winning straight away and starting an unlikely charge to second in the standings.
“To give credit to Super Nova, 13th wasn?t our real level. We had bad luck, and some mistakes from my side as well, which led to not scoring the points we deserved. In Turkey we were in podium position before hitting trouble with lapped cars, and scored nothing. We had a fantastic podium in Monaco, Silverstone was a strange weekend, and Barcelona we got hit at Turn 1 in Race 1 so the weekend was rubbish. But besides that, the performances were good.
“With Coloni, it’s true that the chemistry was fantastic from lap one of free practice. It?s something that sometimes does happen.
“It looks more evident than the reality, compared to Super Nova that year, but still it was definitely a nice surprise. The chemistry was not only from the driving and set-up point of view, but also from the motivation. I was in a difficult time, but I was probably at the top of my shape – and for Coloni it was similar as they weren?t recognised to be as good as they were.
“Coloni had a very good engineering department, and Paolo is a very very clever strategist. Everything together just worked perfectly.
“I was on the top of my shape and I wanted to win races badly. What I liked from that year was the rivalry with [title-winner] Romain Grosjean.?
“At the beginning we didn?t like each other so much, which is natural in racing, but race-by-race we started to respect each other – and if we look at the points I scored with Coloni since I joined, it was very even [Filippi outscored Grosjean 45 to 42].
“The rivalry pushed us in a nice way. There was also Jules Bianchi, we basically fought until the last lap of the last race to finish runner-up. By taking the fastest lap of the race with two laps to go, I did it. It was very close.”
The length of Filippi’s GP2 career meant he raced many of the leading drivers in professional motorsport today. Despite a self-admittedly poor season, Filippi finished fourth in 2009, and his second season two years prior left him joint on points with third in the standings and earned him his Honda contract.
“In GP2 it?s not so important only to win [the title], it?s good to impress. What I did [in ’07]?was enough to impress. After that it was a bit of being in the right place at the wrong.”
Filippi’s solo approach thereon meant he couldn’t capitalise from his strong showing in 2011.
“At that time I focused so much on myself – becoming a better driver and being successful – that I didn’t think about everything else that?s behind – i.e getting the contacts with F1 or IndyCar teams.”
Alongside his F1 dream sat a deep-rooted ambition to race in IndyCar, and Filippi’s delayed focus for 2012 denied him a potential full-time drive in America.
A deal with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing fell apart, and it wasn’t until 2013 that Filippi got to try an IndyCar with Bryan Herta Autosport. That deal came about after Filippi’s made one last GP2 return in 2012.
“Driving [an Indycar] was like feeling at home. It was super intense in 2011, and in the moment I told myself: ?you have done what you?re capable of, and this is all you can do. You’ve done what you need to do to prove yourself. Stay focused, stay in shape, and opportunities sooner or later will come?.
“And they didn?t, unfortunately, for almost one year. Then Coloni needed a driver for the Monza GP2 round. I came there, one year away from single-seaters, and I won the easiest race of my life. It felt like going on vacation.
“I don?t want to say something too superlative, but it?s the reality. I just came there, and I was so relaxed and sure of my capability that the only result possible was victory. As I said, in GP2 it?s not important to win the title, but to impress. Monza impressed some people in America, especially Bryan Herta.?
“That same day he called me, it was probably midnight. He told me: ‘I?ve been a racing driver; I know what it?s like to come back after a long stop and get in a car and win. What you did today is something a little special. If one day I have an opportunity [for you], then you will have your chance. No promises, but maybe one day our paths can connect.’
Filippi followed up his starring Monza turn by staying at Coloni for the Singapore season finale as a favour to Paolo Coloni, who was intending to sell his team to MP Motorsport. To get the sale through, Filippi needed to demonstrate the strength of the outfit and he did so again by taking a remarkable pole. A poor start and crash ended his weekend pretty quickly after, but the deal was done.
“In my life I have heard so many things like [Herta’s call], that it was a little bit… it was fantastic to hear but difficult to believe,” remembers Filippi. “Then 10 months later, the call came for real. Within 10 days of that I was in my first IndyCar race.”
In free practice at Mid-Ohio, his first ever day in the car, Filippi was fifth fastest. He finished 16th in the race, and returned for two more rounds before the end of the season.
At Houston, Filippi was set for a podium before a badly timed yellow flag. He was strong again in the second race of the weekend too until he crashed in the wet.
“It was my third IndyCar race, and I remember sending an email to everybody in the team saying ?I promise in Houston we?re going to have a podium?. This was on the Wednesday before the race.
“It was so heartbreaking when I saw that it wasn?t going to happen. But it was in our hands. I was still proud of myself and my guys for what we had done, but it was heartbreaking how it just went.”
Filippi enjoyed IndyCar’s spec approach, where it was ‘down to the drivers and engineers’.
“You go there and every weekend you can finish first or last, and it?s up to you,” he describes it as to Formula Scout.
The downforce-laden Chevrolet and Honda aerokits were introduced in 2014 and made overtaking more difficult, to Filippi’s dismay. His first podium did come in 2015, when he followed Josef Newgarden in a CFH Racing one-two at Toronto. It was a race Filippi believed he should have won against the future IndyCar champion.
“I had a strong Friday and strong qualifying. In the race, I had the best pace of anyone. Josef, who is a fantastic friend of mine, he has won many races well-deserved, but the only race he didn?t deserve – it was that one.
“Josef was running P11, P12, and he had a decent pace, but a decent pace for top 10, not more.?He pitted just in time – he was in the pitlane for his last stop when the yellow flag came.
“The win in his hands, and he even had a cushion of slow drivers between himself and me and Helio [Castroneves]. We were the fastest.
“I still had a chance to get him, I sort of tried. I was on the outside for one corner, and I would?ve been inside for the next one. I wanted to stick my car in there, but technically he was still in the hunt for the title. I?ve always been a good team player, and Carpenter gave me a very good opportunity. I would?ve tried to win, but I will never try to ruin such a good team result.
“If it was anybody else but Josef that day, I would?ve won. Sometimes I think that it could?ve been my only chance to win a IndyCar race, so it would?ve been to stick on the trotter [an Italian idiom]. But the way I am, it?s just not that way, so I just did what I felt was right, and it probably was right.”
Filippi started a few races in 2016 with Dale Coyne Racing before embarking on his most challenging development role yet: Formula E.
NIO valued Filippi’s input and handed him a race seat for the 2017-18 season, the last using the Gen1 car. Up against drivers in their fourth season, Filippi struggled to 21st in the standings and just one point. At the same time he was developing the struggling team’s powertrain for the current season, and right now is working on the Chinese team’s 2019-20 equipment.
“Formula E is so different – it?s still motorsport but it?s basically another discipline. You really have to get on top of it.”
Multitasking in such a high-level series was “not productive for both parties” according to Filippi.
“I would?ve felt much more confident in the Gen2 car because I tested the car from the very beginning of development. I got into the mentality and philosophy of the car. To jump in to the Gen1 car in year four of development, against 17 drivers that have known it from day one, that’s so difficult.”
Right now, Filippi races with longtime partner BRC Racing in TCR Europe, but his single-seater passion continues beyond his test work with F2. This has included F1 cars, and the 33-year-old is convinced he’s still a competitive prospect.
“The nice thing about IndyCar is you can always have a second and third chance, because you?re never too old, and it?s never too late. It?s something that I always have in the back of my mind. A [single-seater] return is something I’m working on.”