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Formula E

What convinced Formula E's statement hire to swap Jaguar for Penske

by Sam Smith
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

In the wake of near-blanket success for Porsche and Jaguar power in the Gen3 era so far, it's easy to forget just how successful the various parts of the DS Penske team have been in Formula E's short history overall.

Just because 2023 was, by the team's own lofty estimations, a relatively insipid first campaign for the three-pronged supergroup of DS Automobiles, Dragon Penske and the remnants of the old Techeetah team, doesn’t mean that they are any less potent.

And now they've recruited one of the star technical and strategic forces in the championship. Is that the final piece of a winning puzzle?

In his first interview since his shock switch from Jaguar to DS Penske, Phil Charles has outlined the reasons he made the decision to move teams last summer.

There were a few offers on the table last year but listening to a combination of Jay Penske’s long-held desire for success and Jean-Eric Vergne’s lust for more silverware after relatively scant results over the last few seasons attracted Charles instantly.

It dawned on Charles quickly that Penske was in Formula E for no other reason than to win. There was, in Charles’ words, something in Penske’s ambition to “just do his passion”.

Jay Penske, Jean-Eric Vergne

“He doesn't have to do this,” Charles, speaking to The Race in his first interview since being officially unveiled in his new senior role last week, says of Penske. “He's got a very successful set of businesses and he's in a great place in his life.

“Jay does this because he wants to come and win and probably people don't necessarily see that because also he's not doing it to sell a car or sell a drink or something like that, so he doesn't need to push himself out there.

“He's quietly doing this because he wants to do it, which is a really interesting scenario.

“When I spoke to him last year I was really kind of taken aback; this guy stands for everything that I want to do, which is just go out there, develop a team, get better and win races, championships and take excitement, enjoyment out of doing that.”

Jean-Eric Vergne, DS Penske, Formula E

After the reflex double-takes from the paddock when he walked into the Sao Paulo paddock in his new role earlier this week, Charles set to work on adapting to a new working culture while at the same time seeing how he could improve the small but significant aspects that help reap success.

His innate enthusiasm for Formula E is unconfined and it shows when he speaks about it. In the nicest possible way, he can go on a bit on any given subject regarding its challenges.

Charles loves pure competition and confesses that when he was forced to watch the opening three races during his period of gardening leave earlier this year, he “ranted and shouted at the TV” and “felt helpless” as the strategies played out in front of him without him being able to affect anything for the first time in six years.

Phil Charles, Jean-Eric Vergne

One person not surprised by his instant impact on DS Penske is Vergne, who was engineered by Charles (above left) at Toro Rosso in Formula 1 in 2013.

“All I can say is that the atmosphere in the team is better than ever and we are all very pumped up,” Vergne tells The Race.

Vergne was coy about his influence on getting Charles to join DS Penske but it certainly helped that he had a high opinion of his time working with Charles and that he would have had a certain degree of lobbying influence on owner Penske.

“I'm not the one making decisions,” says Vergne. “I can only ask for certain things in the team but I don't have the power Jay has. I think he's doing all the right things to put us on track of winning races and the championship.

“It's refreshing also to have new people in the team, it's the same when you're a driver and you have the same team-mate for a long time, then you have a new team-mate that comes that is better than you, it kind of wakes you up.

“It works the same way with everyone in the team; the driver and the engineers and everybody.”

Win-win if Jaguar triumphs

Nick Cassidy, Jaguar, Formula E

Whether Charles can bring an extra boost for DS Penske in the short-term is up for debate right now.

Vergne and, even more so, team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne - who has played himself in at the team since joining as reigning champion - ultimately had middling 2023 campaigns.

This season looks a little brighter already, with some strong showings in Mexico and Riyadh, but neither has looked like a potential race winner so far.

Charles will aim to improve that outlook. But with a set homologation for the current season his hands are tied to a great extent.

Nick Cassidy, Jaguar, Formula E

One of the pacesetters DS Penske is targeting is, of course, Jaguar. Thanks to a significant role in the Gen3 Jaguar’s genesis and evolution, Charles will to some extent be like an estranged father watching his kid succeeding this season should Jaguar's favourites tag stick.

That might give some a melancholic feeling, but Charles sees it very differently.

“I'm in a win-win situation because I've left a car [the Jaguar] and I've helped grow a team that went from last in the championship to six years later to being in a really, really strong position,” says Charles.

“So, whatever happens now, I look at that car with absolute pride and, over the first few races, it made me feel good, that something I'd been a huge part of is delivering.

“I'm proud of the people there because they are really amazing and it’s a fantastic group and if you look over those years, we got better and better to the point where they are the pacesetters now.

“I can't really lose in that respect; if they deliver a really good year I'll feel very proud of what's been achieved there.”

Jean-Eric Vergne, DS Penske, Formula E

But an intense competitor like Charles will take more joy, in the purest sense, from cutting his old team down, too. It’s natural for that to be the case.

“Of course, now I've got a different shirt on and I've got a huge aim to chase them down,” he adds.

The longer-term impact

DS Penske, Formula E

A big part of Charles’s remit will be to nurture the Gen3 Evo car for 2025 and 2026 before the Gen4 ruleset kicks in for the season after.

Despite a great deal of the Gen3 Evo package having already been effectively signed off, Charles will still be able to influence things, predominantly on vehicle dynamics and evaluating and exploiting the new aero package.

“I can't impact as much at this stage now as I can in the future,” he says.

“I'm normally working quite a way in advance, so we can optimise what we've got and hopefully my experience can help and we'll chase them down as hard as we can.

“I can make that promise but whether we can deliver that quickly or if it will take time, I actually can't tell you. But I know where we need to get to.

“I've got a smile on my face because I'm looking forward to that challenge and it's a good group of people here. We're going to really go for it.”

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