The Making of a Formula 1 Driver: A Formula 1 Engineer’s view
Phil Charles (Interview – Mike Hayden, September 2015)
The brief on an article such as this can have many differing points of view, but what could be more defining than the views of someone with inside knowledge? Not just because of experience as a past karting champion in an earlier life, but also as a major player in the Formula 1 circus?
Phil Charles, quite often seen on the eloquently termed ‘prat perch’ in televised pit scenes from this year’s 2015 World Championship Formula 1 season, is Toro Rosso’s Chief Race Engineer. In the last three years he has worked with established ‘stars’, including Daniel Ricciardo, Jean-Eric Vergne, Danill Kvyat, and more recently, the young Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jnr. So with that in mind he ought to know a little bit about what it takes to find young kart drivers, who just might have the talent to make it through to F1.
Phil Charles’ racing career came to an end in 2000, and after what had been a strong pedigree up until that point. Sadly it came at a time when he experienced a rather unsuccessful year whilst racing for PF International’s, Paul Fletcher. Before that final year though he enjoyed some significant highlights. He won the Senior TKM British Championship in 1996, at a time when TKM was the most popular class in the UK. The following year in 1997 he was runner up to one of the current IndyCar driver’s, Jay Howard, and took a well-deserved 8th place in his first season in the UK’s premier Formula ‘A’ class in 1998.
Earlier still in his junior career, a 4th place in the Cadet British Championships in 1992, and a 3rd place in the Junior TKM championship in 1994, had all been added to his new CV. This was done whilst trading side-pod marks against a grid full of young racers featuring the likes of several future stars, such as World Endurance Champion Anthony Davidson and Formula 1 World Champion Jenson Button, whilst not forgetting the late and sadly missed Indy Champ Dan Wheldon, and former McLaren F1 reserve Gary Paffett, to name just a few.
Maybe just as importantly though, whilst ascending the junior ranks of UK karting, Phil was also quietly covering his options and pushing equally as hard with his school work. The result was all ‘A’ grades at GCSE, and A level, before going to Loughborough University to study a Masters in Automotive Engineering. Perhaps not too surprisingly he graduated with First Class Honours, and the award for best Project while working on a rig to develop adaptive suspension.
So on understanding he has been working with some pretty impressive and talented F1 pilots recently, our first question for Phil has to be what makes a really good Formula 1 driver?
“Well, to help answer that question I can actually use my own career as a bit of a reference. Let me explain a bit better before you tune out, thinking I have a big head, and believing this actually all about me!”
“I know I had some speed, but I actually don’t think I was a natural with enough speed and adaptability. There were a number of clues along the way, but I really realised this more towards the end of my career. One example of this comes when you get to a certain level and you get invited to test junior formulae racing cars alongside other top kart racers. At this point you realise that some of your fellow competitors, who try to win the ‘free’ drive, also have rich fathers, so they have already tested in similar cars the week before. This is probably one of the first times you properly get to measure yourself. This happens in the same machinery, in an environment requiring fast learning, and being able to adapt (new track, driving a car instead of a kart, new people, new processes, high pressure to perform in a short time frame, and so on). In these situations I wasn’t bad, although I was surprised by the speed some of the others learnt the tracks, or got comfortable with the car.”
“The second best reference for a measure of my own natural ability was actually my last year in karting. We had been struggling along, trying to compete financially for a long time, and I was running a lot of junior karters (in my own team), at the same time as my own racing to help pay for it all. Paul Fletcher (the owner of the UK’s leading kart track, PF International) has always done a fantastic thing by putting a huge amount of his own money into karting, and I was lucky enough to get to drive for Paul Fletcher in 2000, just at a point when we (as a family) had finally run out of money.”
“The first test I did was on my own with Paul at his track, and it had gone well, but when I went to the first race with him, I was blown away by the sheer speed of my team mate straight out of the box. Please bear in mind I had won a lot of races before, had quite a few high profile team mates, and had been a British Champion! So this caught me a bit unaware at the time. His name was Mark Litchfield and I believe a slightly older version of him still races nowadays!” Clearly the latter was said with a wry touch of humour. As an International professional kart racer, Mark Litchfield was always a force to be reckoned with.”
“Looking back all was still not lost if I could have changed the environment around me, to make better use of my ‘skills toolbox’, but we will come that shortly. Ultimately it was the right thing – wrong timing, but I made some big mistakes too, and in retrospect my character probably wasn’t right to get to the top. I took on too much with it being my first year at University, and at the same time I wasn’t physically right (or well trained?) at that point either. I should have taken a year out from my studies and done it properly. I also should have kicked harder to make some changes which would have suited me more.”
What was evident by this point was the degree of honesty Phil was prepared to admit to, at a time when other drivers would frequently try to cover up recognised and identified short-comings. It made for a very refreshing change to understand how deeply the former British Champion had analysed his own performances before retiring.
“Anyway, now to explain my positive bits! My racing career prior to this had flourished when I worked with a chap called Neil Hann, the then owner of the Super One Championship, who also ran a team.”
“Now Neil is quite a character, and probably, if you only know him from afar, you wouldn’t really appreciate what he is all about. He had worked with the likes of Jason Plato and Jenson Button before me (and made British champions of them both), but at that time the fashion in karting was for big teams, who were starting to buy expensive ex-F1 transporters and massive shiny awnings.”
“Now Neil did not prioritise any of that at all. In fact I remember he was pretty much forced into up-scaling his ‘outfit’ by some of the fathers of my team-mates. His solution was to go and buy an old ex-military bus for a bargain price at an auction, and get it painted his distinctive black, green, and yellow team colours.”
“What I learnt quickly with Neil was that you could go racing using your brain. We applied creative thinking and had a methodology to testing away from a racing weekend. We built up an understanding of our ‘package’ and tested many weird and wonderful ideas. Then at the race weekends we focused on scanning the most important track and condition-specific parameters. There were many comments that we always looked off-the-pace during the test sessions and people had written us off. We then we surprised them in qualifying and on race day.”
“In fact I remember the year we won the championship, one of my competitors came to me. He asked if it was true we had bought 20 engines and one of them had been outstanding. I laughed at the time because we had no money and it couldn’t have been further from the truth. The reality was that we applied the same methodology across different years and classes and so the (alleged) ‘special’ engine was not the clue (to our success).”
“What we were doing was building a matrix of as many test items as we could without being scared of going slower. Some of our test directions other people would have considered were ‘mistakes’. However, we put together the pieces of the puzzle only in the last few test sessions. The creative testing approach also meant we had the understanding to do the fine tuning quickly, once the big track or condition specific parameters were set, because we knew if we had x balance issue we could fix it with a ‘y’ set-up change, or if we needed the kart to come on more quickly we would change ‘z’ to work the tyres harder.”
“This testing and race methodology also worked well with our association with Wright Karts. Simon (Wright) invested in us by supporting the feedback Neil gave him, with a quick response with chassis development, and this pushed us forward at an advanced rate. It also meant that the characteristics of the kart quickly developed around what I needed to be quick.”
“So that explained a little bit about what we did, but what made me achieve results where others in the same team didn’t? While I now know I possibly didn’t have the last tenth required to be F1-driver-fast, I did have some spare capacity to think while driving. Now this sounds quite straight forward thing to do but it isn’t! I have been lucky enough to have worked on Formula 1 simulators a fair amount in my career. I have seen a lot of young drivers jump in a simulator and go blindingly quick – perhaps as quick as the current F1 driver what was doing the same track with the same car model the day before.”
“However, quite a few of those young drivers drove only with their ‘bums’ – what I mean by this is that millions of laps, excellent reactions, and good muscle memory can take you a long way. Unfortunately some of those drivers weren’t able to analyse what they were doing while they were doing it, let alone feel what the car was doing. People talk about this as drivers having a good ‘feel’ of what the car is doing, or having good ‘feedback’.”
“In my experience most drivers have a good ‘feeling’, it is just they could not think in detail about it while driving. The ‘good feedback’ comes when an intelligent driver can recall and vocalise what they were feeling during that run, and help put the feelings they have in priority order.”
“This is the bit I could do and so with Neil’s approach, and my ‘feedback’, we could make sense of our racing and ended up optimising a lot of parameters through a race weekend, and through a year. It was another reason why my performance through the weekend improved as we ‘engineered’ the kart.”
So to come back to your question – what makes a good Formula 1 driver?
1) “First and foremost a driver really does need to have talent.”
In my case I probably didn’t have the last 0.1 seconds of pure lap time, but this is not the only thing when I talk about talent. Formula 1 drivers need to have fast adaptability and I certainly put this under the talent column. You might think my reference for this is related to learning tracks fast, particularly for the young drivers I have worked with recently, but it is actually more than that. The reality is that across an F1 race weekend we really don’t get that much running. Conditions are always changing and there is often quite a big differences across the tyre compounds. So the drivers need to significantly change their approach regularly, and even more sp as the tyres wear or change behaviour with temperature.”
2) “A big brain capacity and some intelligence.”
This one is closely related to the next point as well (mental approach). We have also touched on it a bit already. Spare brain capacity while driving means the driver can think about his/her interaction with the car and the track. In its most basic form this means asking yourself, do I need to try a different line in this corner because I always get a snap on exit? However, the more capable driver will use the lap time delta before and after that corner to assess the different line(s) tried. The driver might tell the engineers live on the simulator how they will try different lines for the next five laps – ‘be careful of the lap times for now and please check and give me some feedback later’. They will also test the lines with a sensible approach – A-B-A for example, or may come back with a further adjustment – with this line I had to wait for the car to rotate mid corner so I will try a C option, which uses line B, but a differential adjustment in just that corner to change the car balance. In a nutshell, this spare brain capacity helps the driver optimise the set-up around their approach, and so the driver’s natural speed is enhanced by a car, which compliments their approach. Concise and useful feedback to the engineers is the key to this. An ability to adapt to changes in conditions, tyre behaviour, or around a new uncomfortable, but fast setup-direction, ultimately will give better results as well.”
3) “The next one is Mental Approach.”
“Again this one probably takes some explaining. Being an F1 driver comes with a large amount of pressure. It is no longer you racing for yourself. The driver is the final link in a chain involving several hundreds of people in a factory half way around the world. If you have a team boss telling you that the big sponsor for next year is visiting this week, and you can’t afford a ‘f%ck up’ like you did at Race 5 when they last came. Or you have a team mate who is also an ex-champion in Junior Formulae like you, and don’t tell anyone, but up to this point you just have not been to go as fast as him in Turn 7 no matter how hard you try.”
“Pressure also comes from the fact that despite only being in your teens, the driver is still wanting to chase girls every spare two minutes they get. Except there is a five metre high picture of your face in the hospitality unit, where you have to go almost every moment you are not in the car, to do interviews in front of people ready to jump on you if you say something you shouldn’t.”
“And finally? You have retired twice in the last two races, at a time when your team mate has scored good points. Then you are told that Redbull are interested in signing one of you for next year. So do you have the mental steel to deliver a near perfect lap on that one new tyre set of tyres you have to use in Q2, with all this mounting pressure on you?”
“That said I consider the mental approach to be a bit more than just dealing with pressure, as drivers have hundreds of decisions to make through a weekend. It is very easy to try too hard on the first run in Qualifying 1 on prime tyres and lock up a front tyre, and then not get your references right for the rest of qualifying for example. So it is not just that one performance test in a super high pressure situation, but also you have to make intelligent decisions at critical times throughout your career.”
4) “Work ethic is the next most important one.”
Highly talented drivers can often get to Formula 1 by simply being faster than the other drivers on the way up the ladder. They can afford to make mistakes, not be 100% as fit as they could be, or not do their homework because they have got some speed in their pocket to beat their competitors with. When a driver gets to F1, pretty much the whole grid is highly talented! So you now need a bit more, so to be better the modern, successful driver definitely has to do some homework. Fail to do that homework, maybe like someone did at school, and you probably won’t be much good here.”
“Let me give you an example. It is very easy for the drivers to not ‘put in a shift’ in the simulator sessions before each race, or not try as hard on the correlation exercises, saving energy for the interesting bits. However, ultimately the drivers that succeed, take something out of every moment in a car, or simulator, or training session. They probably watched on-board videos from last years race before they got to the simulator, and they also do their homework with the engineers before and after each session, to work out what made them (or the car) quicker or slower. Where possible they also listen intently to the debrief of the other driver, as there is often something in there that can make you faster, or help you avoid a mistake.”
5) “Physical ability and fitness.”
This is something which has improved immeasurably during the last 10 years. You simply cannot get to Formula 1 anymore without considering yourself an athlete, by getting help with conditioning, and nutrition. A little bit like the previous point, you simply can’t afford to be unfit anymore, or you will be beaten by another driver, or (worse?) your team mate in a race.”
“At Formula 1 level the travel is pretty gruelling. There are plentiful races nowadays and when the drivers aren’t at a race, they are either at a simulator session, catching up with engineers in the factory, or at a PR event for a sponsor. If they are not super fit they will run out of steam pretty quickly in the season. Good decision making also drops off very quickly with fatigue, so it doesn’t help you tick one of the previous boxes if you don’t have enough fitness.”
“At this point I will share one of my favourite examples, which I now tell all the junior drivers I start working with. It is a good example of sheer dogged work ethic and physical ability. Through my time at the track in Formula 1 I have now counted four rookie drivers that I have worked with, who have made virtually the same comment at some point in their first season. ‘This is the first time I have been on track near Fernando (Alonso) in a race and I just couldn’t believe it – he was absolutely on a qualifying lap every lap of the race.’”
“In recent times this has often also been qualified by ‘I thought I was tyre saving correctly, but when I followed Fernando I realised he was tyre saving in the one specific corner you had told me about, but then he was absolutely 110% for the rest of the lap for 70 laps in a row.’ It sounds silly and probably you are all thinking – well yeah it is Formula 1 – what did they expect(!), but this comment repeatedly comes out of the cream of our young talent. Clearly there must be a reason why Fernando gets paid so much.”
6) “I could make my list of what is needed to make a Formula 1 driver pretty long, but I will finish this short version with one more slightly different one; an ability to speak a multiple of languages.”
“The language of Formula 1 is English, but two of the teams are based in Italy, with one in Switzerland, and the engine manufacturers are scattered across Europe and Japan. So while English alone will get you through, it can be useful to speak to your front end mechanic in his mother tongue, when he is diving into your ‘particulars’ every day, belting you in, or to describe your driveability problem to your engine engineer in a language he understands perfectly so you can be sure to get across to him exactly what you need. However, well before that point, being able to talk in a multiple of languages has probably helped you get to Formula 1: Ultimately we are all paid by marketing… Engineers and Driver’s salaries. Formula 1 is marketed internationally and so an extra language or two might have helped you land that that big foreign sponsor on your way up the ladder that another driver couldn’t communicate with.”
So the next question has to be how do you view karting now?
“I simply love karting. It is the purest and best form of motor-sport in my eyes. While my career has been based on data analysis I love the fact that you can see most driving line and hand/foot movements from the side of the track without the need for your laptop. It means you can very easily coach a young driver to be quicker. I also love fact that there are a huge number of parameters you can change on a kart that all change the torsional stiffness / inside wheel lift compromise. This teaches young drivers early on that they have to get involved with setup and engineering their own performance.”
“In terms of the sport in general, I firmly believe in keeping drivers in karts for as long as possible as there is no better way to build race craft than in karting where overtaking is so frequent. In fact, Formula 1 might be wise to take another look at the mechanical-only basis of karting to help bolster our ability to overtake, before committing to the some of the big rule changes in the near future. There is also more track running and more races in a season of top line karting than you get in some seasons of the lower junior formulae so staying in karting longer offers more opportunity to master mental approach and decision-making in pressure situations than going to cars early.”
“On the negative side? Formula 1 has grown exponentially in my time – the teams are much larger, we operate now more as businesses than simply race teams and the budgets are huge and there is a lot more at stake on every decision we make. Karting has grown at an event faster rate. It is much more professional than it was when I started. I think this is a semi-good thing: It means at the top level we are preparing our drivers for what they might experience later in cars but we need to be really careful as compared to when I started, it looks like it has become much more difficult for your average ‘Dad and Lad’ with a car on the roof rack of a Sierra estate to win a club championship. This is a shame as it means we are excluding a lot of young drivers at the grass roots. The countries in the future, which manage to make grass roots and national level racing much less expensive, but then fund their champions to more expensive European success, will breed more of the future F1 Champions.”
Phil Charles (Interview – Mike Hayden, September 2015)