until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

How Penske pulled off Formula E's Adrian Newey signing

by Sam Smith
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

One of Formula E’s most coveted technical leaders, and a key architect in Jaguar’s emergence as 2024 title favourite, will be publicly unveiled as a DS Penske signing next month.

As revealed by The Race in December, former Jaguar FE team technical manager Phil Charles has joined DS Penske on a long-term contract and will attend his first race in the role in Sao Paulo in mid-March. He's already started work at the team and attended the Formula E Teams and Manufacturers' Association meeting in Munich last week.

It’s one of the most fascinating team signings in Formula E’s decade-long history, and the closest the series has come so far to its equivalent of a technical genius transfer on a par with Adrian Newey’s Williams to McLaren and McLaren to Red Bull Formula 1 moves.

Charles’ arrival at DS Penske will be watched with great interest, not least by his former colleagues at Jaguar who were left dumbfounded by his decision to leave last autumn.

That included the drivers, especially Mitch Evans, who told The Race last November that Charles was “controlling pretty much every aspect of the team: from race team to powertrain to future developments to R&D. It was all under Phil’s watch so it’s definitely left a big hole, for sure”.

Jaguar appears to have responded well and has an early lead the teams’ championship to savour after a win for Nick Cassidy in Diriyah last month allied to his brace of third places and Evans’s own contribution of 21 points.

But not only was Charles fundamental to the technical and operational structure at Jaguar he is also a self-confessed instigator and operator in building teams as well.

When, sometime last year he was approached by Jay Penske, two things appeared to be triggered within Charles.

The first was probably being made aware that a reshuffle was imminent at DS Penske. This involved Stellantis Formula E director Thomas Chevaucher joining his former DS Performance boss Xavier Mestelen-Pinon at the FIA. His place would be filled by DS Penske racing director Leo Thomas, who had been integral to the Techeetah and DS Techeetah success in the Gen1 and Gen2 eras.

The second crucial element of Charles’ decision is believed to have been the influence of an old colleague, one who had benefitted from Charles’ skills much earlier in his career: Jean-Eric Vergne.

It is Vergne who is said to have approached Penske last year with details on how effective Charles could be after the two worked together in Formula 1 at Toro Rosso in 2013.

Vergne performed impressively in the 2023 season, finishing fifth in the drivers’ championship despite the DS package being technically inferior to the Jaguars and Porsches that filled eight places on the grid.

But this is clearly not enough for Vergne, who wants a third title to stretch out ahead of his rivals statistically as Formula E’s most successful driver.

He also needs to have a fuller understanding of the Gen3 car. Like many drivers, he’s struggled to adapt to it in both technical terms and in a broader sporting sense with the way the intricate energy management races are run.

So it was that Charles was approached and received what many believe to be the biggest transfer offer for a team member since Formula E began.

How Penske Got Charles and What to Expect

Whether Charles has a legitimate claim to be an equivalent technical driving force of a Newey in Formula E is up for debate.

But he does carry professional kudos and will turn many heads when he clicks through the security turnstile in the black and gold of DS Penske in Sao Paulo. 

His perusal by Jay Penske had a feeling of the headhunting that became famous when Newey himself was being targeted by several F1 teams in the 1990s and early 2000s, with an emphasis on getting an individual who could bring new ideas and colossal success.

Once the offer to Charles was made - and it must have been a good one because he had been central to building up Jaguar, which is now a favourite for delivering the titles that has so far eluded it - acceptance came swiftly.

Yet you could also question Charles’ move in terms of long-term stability because Stellantis’ future in Formula E looks not quite as solid as Jaguar’s does right now.

Right now it’s represented by both DS and Maserati. But the prospect of having two brands again in Gen4 is rumoured to be unlikely and a reshuffle over who might represent the automotive giant further down the line is up for debate. 

DS Automobiles performance director Eugenio Franzetti told The Race in Diriyah last month “in this moment we are here, we are happy to be here and we have a contract, so we want to stay here in the championship”.

But he also addressed the upcoming commitment to Gen4 in this way: “It is too early to know but for the moment, each brand [Maserati and DS] has a long contract, so we will stay on it.

“Then for both the brands, this is the moment to stay because electrification is now for both.”

Whether Stellantis is represented at all in Gen4 will definitely have been a factor in Charles’ thinking.

The Race understands that his deal is not with DS Penske but with the Jay Penske side of the operation itself. That could work out to be a shrewd move because Penske has invested too much into Formula E to walk away anytime soon even if DS does.

Therefore, should the situation arise and the time come, life after Stellantis could just be another hurdle for he and current executive vice-president and chief technical officer Nicolas Mauduit to clear if they have to pursue another manufacturer.

For Charles, the focus will be on adding what he can to the Gen3Evo era, testing for which will begin this summer. He will bring a depth of commitment that will resonate with many already at the team.

But perhaps more than that, he will share an added and burning desire for improvement that Vergne and team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne know is needed to challenge Jaguar and Porsche powered rivals today and tomorrow.

What he brings is multi-faceted. On one level he has been described to The Race by several drivers as ‘one of the ultimate drivers’ engineers’. The fact that Charles was a gifted karter who raced at a decent level only adds to his empathy for and understanding of racing drivers.

Giving the driver so much more confidence, belief in the machine they and the team have given them, cannot be underestimated because making a driver believe in themselves more is one of the more obvious traits in a successful manager.

A driver’s ego and self-worth can be fickle things, though. Charles helped Vergne in this department when he was a youngster over a decade ago, and while it won’t be needed to the same extent now, as Vergne has matured into a champion, it’s a handy skill to have for others in the team too.

Managing to get drivers and engineers fired up,  even for a typical and mundane mid-week session on the simulator, is another of Charles’ major strengths.

Several conversations from his time at Jaguar stand out but this one seems particularly pertinent and is a good example of the drive Charles has. It comes from his observations of Jaguar’s main rival Porsche at a low-key test in the autumn of 2022. 

“There's something that makes me chuckle in a lot of respects when we went and shared the Calafat test track with them, I think it was September or October,” Charles told The Race last year.

“It was an eye-opener and a massive motivator for us as a team because we saw on those couple of days how far they were up the curve and if anything, it motivated us. It certainly motivated me.

“I went back to the factory and I was quite grumpy.

“But it focused us on some areas that we saw in their development. You could just see in their development, they were going bang, bang, bang and they understood the next steps, particularly the energy management side, and it helped us to go back and work harder. It helped us to be focused and it really pushed us on.”

Charles is all about pushing on. Yes, he may have to swallow some bittersweet pills should Jaguar win titles this season, but if he can have the same remit at DS Penske and ‘push on’ quickly then the gold in that team’s colour palette should start to sparkle once again.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks