Charlotte Phelps: Behind the scenes with an F1 engineer

Deciding what career path to take can be tricky, especially when there are so many roles out there to choose from. At Females in Motorsport, we’ve decided to showcase as many different careers as possible, to help you decide where you want to go in the future.

For this feature, we spoke to Charlotte Phelps, a graduate Electronic Engineer with Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains. Charlotte is the first female ever employed by Mercedes HPP in her department, but that doesn’t stop her from thriving!

Can you describe your role?

Charlotte: I’m a graduate Electronic Engineer with Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains, working on the design, manufacture and test of the Mercedes F1 Hybrid System. As part of their graduate programme I will rotate through the various departments in the company, getting to experience every aspect of the engineering product chain – from design through to testing, as well as working with colleagues to solve any problems encountered trackside. This rotation enables me to find the place in the company most suited to my skill set, as well as where I most enjoy working. This gives me the chance to experience areas of engineering that I may not have had chance to experience as part of my university degree, but may excel at and enjoy.

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Charlotte at a BWRDC event

What was the path you took to get you where you are?

Initially, I never wanted to be an engineer. Coming from a family of engineers, I decided that I didn’t want to be like my parents and wanted to do something different. I hated maths at the age of 14, and vowed that I would never carry it on past GCSE. But with encouragement from both my mother and my teachers at school, I learned to love it, and found that actually it was a strength of mine. At A level I did Maths, Further Maths and Physics, leading me to conclude that engineering was probably the only realistic path.  This led me to York University, the only university in the country to offer and Electronic Engineering degree with Music Technology.

Once there I discovered an interest in the application of musical theories to other industries, resulting in me carrying out an industrial placement year here at Mercedes AMG HPP, in the hope of one day applying that interest to my other passion, motorsport. As a Speed Racer myself and, having helped to both build and prepare previous race cars with my father and brother, this seemed like an ideal solution. Once I completed my year in industry I was lucky enough to be offered a place on their graduate program upon my graduation.

Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time? Is this your dream job?

I am still very early in my career, with much to learn and experience. In 10 years, I would hope to still be working in motorsport, and as an engineer, but in what capacity I could not say. I’ve only really been in the real world for 6 months, and that seems far too soon to tie myself down to something specific, in a vast industry with so much to offer, much of which has not even been thought of yet!

Have you always had a passion for motorsport? Where did your love for it come from?

I have always had an interest in cars and motorsport, growing up with a father and brother like mine. When I was nine years old, the first kit car chassis appeared in the garage, ready to be built into a full car. When I was around 14, my brother and father began competing in speed events. At that age I was an avid dancer, attending theatre school every Saturday, but would still go to events with them whenever I could. When I was 17, I joined them on the race track, starting in a Fiat 500, and winning my first championship at the age of 18.

At 19 I stepped up to a Aries Locost, winning two more consecutive championships, before proceeding to a bike engined Westfield Megabusa for the 2016 season. This Westfield is the car that I continue to compete in, having just had a new, more powerful engine for the 2018 season! Maintaining and preparing these cars is a family affair, and motorsport is very much the main focus of my life.

In 2016 I became a member of the British Women Racing Drivers Club (BWRDC), and in 2017 joined their committee. This club aims to promote and encourage all women currently involved in motorsport, as well as provide role models for women and girls looking to enter the sport. This has fuelled my passion for motorsport even more, as a way of empowering young people and providing a place for them to share their passions with like-minded souls.

How many girls are in your department, what about on your uni course?

I was the first woman to be employed in the Electronic Engineering team at Mercedes AMG HPP, and the only female graduate from this year’s intake and in total less than 10% of the workforce is female.  

My university course was a little unique when it comes to women in engineering, as the music technology side of the course perhaps provided a little more appeal to the girls. There were, I think, around 30 girls who started with me, out of a cohort of around 200, and about half of those were on the Music Technology stream. This is still a depressingly small number of female students in a relatively large cohort, around 15%.

Is that number increasing?

When I discuss these numbers with my mother, who is an electronic engineer herself, we realise that actually these figures have changed very little in the last 30 years. However, there is much more being done in recent years to try and encourage girls and young women into this industry. For example the growth of the STEM ambassadors group, as well as the creation of Dare to be Different and the development of science fairs and shows such as ‘The Big Bang Fair’. Hopefully in the years to come we will see girls more confident to enter the world of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, without the constraint of societal norms.

Do your female colleagues know of organisations and groups they can join such as those you are a part of?

I think most women are aware of the professional institutions, such as the IET and the IMechE, with most engineers being a member of the appropriate institution. But there are other organisations, such as Women’s Engineering Society and STEM Ambassadors that some people may not be aware of. These societies work to both support the female engineers in industry, and encourage and inspire the next generation of engineers.
How has being a part of these groups helped you?

I do feel these organisations could be doing more to support women in a male dominated industry, and help them to maintain their self-confidence in an environment which is often tough and disparaging for women in its current state. The Women’s Engineering Society aims to help in this, but if the environment is to change, the men need to change more than the women do!

STEM ambassadors aim to go into schools and promote science and engineering to young children, but I think more needs to be done by society in general to remove the attitude that female engineers are special or different, and should instead promote the idea of anyone carrying out whatever occupation they wish.

I think groups, such as the BWRDC, are doing a lot to change people’s perception of women in motorsport, by showing that we’re not special or different; we are simply doing what we enjoy the same as any man would, and competing on an equal footing both in work and in racing.

What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

I would say don’t worry so much about what people think of you. If you are doing what makes you happy, then you will find friends who share your passions and who you can enjoy those passions with. People who do not allow you to be happy doing what you love, are not worth your time.

 

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