Phil Charles is reflecting on the significance of walking the Circuito Hermanos Rodriguez pit lane and realizing he has worked with approximately one third of the current ABB FIA Formula E Championship grid.
Apart from his current charges at Panasonic Jaguar Racing, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Mitch Evans, he has also worked directly or indirectly with Jose Maria Lopez, Lucas di Grassi, Jerome d’Ambrosio and Jean-Eric Vergne.
It was largely in his stints as a race engineer at the Renault and Toro Rosso Formula 1 teams that Charles was able to get an early appreciation of a good chunk of the current Formula E grid.
“It is rather surreal to be coming to Formula E as it is like a full cycle in a strange kind of a way. I am seeing some of the drivers second time around, so it is nice from that viewpoint,” Charles told e-racing365.
“With Nelson (Piquet Jr.) it is nice to rekindle that relationship which began quite a few years ago now. He has changed, he has matured a huge amount and is quite a different animal.
“He is now, is in a different phase of his career to when we first met. He is different to the way he was as a young driver. You can see how maturity has changed his approach.”
Charles joined Jaguar last summer and serves a dual role in the team.
To some extent he has replaced former team manager Tim Newton, yet his remit is wider with more overall ‘bigger picture’ engineering responsibility than his predecessor.
“I’m a technical advisor, but in reality, it is more of a fusion of a team manager role and chief race engineer,” said Charles.
“I actually do more of the performance work generally and for example the simulator work is something I also do here, which is a similar sort of thing to what I have done before. I am lucky that we have a strong engineering group at the team.
“The drivers work very well with their groups, the engineers work well with the simulators and at the track, so I am giving steering nudges in different directions.
Up and down the Formula E pit lane it is said that teams value driver intellect almost as much as practical talent when it comes to the burgeoning all-electric discipline.
A quick brain, analytical approach and an instinct for extreme multi-tasking are vital pre-requisites for succeeding in racing’s fastest growing championship.
“The drivers who have a good percentage of their brain left to compute, as well as drive, really thrive in this game,” explained Charles.
“This is something that Nelson has always had, whereas there are some drivers who are at 100 percent capacity [on the driving alone].
“You see it in the simulator. I spent a lot of time with the Red Bull young drivers and one of the things that you evaluate is that if you try to talk to them, adding in layers of difficulty whilst they are driving, can they respond?
“Are they able to think as well, or are they affected by these [distractions]?
“With Nelson, right from when I first met him, he demonstrated the ability to think on top of driving because he has that certain amount of brain power left.”
When it comes to drivers and driving, Charles knows of what he speaks.
A former highly talented and decorated kart racer, Charles mixed in with the likes of Gary Paffett on his way to being crowned the 1996 Super 1 National TKM Kart champion.
Progress beyond karting was, as is so often the case, stymied by a lack of cash to progress, so Charles carved out a career within the sport as an engineer.
“I was a bit of a champion by default really as people like [Jenson] Button, [Dan] Wheldon and [Anthony] Davidson had moved to European Championships,” he said modestly.
After studying Automotive Engineering at Loughborough University and subsequently achieving a Master First, Charles became an R&D engineer at Renault in 2004 before moving on to vehicle performance and trackside engineering jobs at Enstone.
His first year as a race engineer came in 2007 and he remained in the role until 2010. This was when he had a few years away from racing to set up a family-run business called Formula Fast Karting.
A return to F1 came in 2013 as race engineer and then chief race engineer at Toro Rosso, before his move to Jaguar last summer.
Part of the attraction of moving into Formula E, says Charles, is the directness of the drivers contribution to being successful in the races and the multi-faceted disciplines within it.
“I would say that it is rewarding for the drivers because they feel like they are such a big part of their own performance,” he believes.
“They are not just a puppet that the engineers are driving. So for them I imagine it is a really exciting thing when they perform as they know that they have done the job and they have delivered.
“It is not just the fact that we have got a better aero group, or we have spent more time in the sim on this event. It is because, whilst we may have done these things, they have brought that extra ten percent for sure.”
Comparisons, however futile, are often discussed between Formula E and Formula 1. Charles is ideally placed to offer his opinions on the two.
“I think as a championship, they get a lot of things right in Formula E,” he said.
“The balance in F1 is tricky nowadays and the racing is exciting here. You have some good drivers and a good engineering challenge.
“You are definitely at the sharp end in Formula 1 with a much bigger budget and some fantastic engineering toys shall we say, but I wouldn’t look back now and say that one is better than the other, they are just different, but I really like Formula E.
“Sometimes I think that your average Formula 1 engineer wouldn’t make a good Formula E engineer and visa versa, you need to consider them as different animals.”
For Charles, that animal is now a Jaguar, and one that is becoming an increasingly dangerous stalking predator to its rivals.