ANALYSIS: Why Williams made Mercedes’ James Vowles their new Team Principal
Just over a month after parting ways with Team Principal Jost Capito, Williams announced they had signed Mercedes’ Motorsport Strategy Director James Vowles to fill that post. F1 Correspondent Lawrence Barretto looks at how and why the deal came about…
Williams are F1’s second most successful team in terms of constructors’ championships won, but have struggled to replicate that form and compete at the front since the turn of the century. They have finished last three times in the last four years.
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Owners Dorilton Capital decided late last year that things needed to change, and thus parted ways with Capito – while removing FX Demaison from his role as Technical Director. At the time, they didn’t have a replacement ready to go, with sources suggesting there were more than 10 under consideration.
Vowles was high on their list – and Dorilton moved swiftly, getting the deal over the line in a month or so. Vowles says he told Mercedes boss Toto Wolff of the offer “a few weeks ago, into the New Year” and said the Austrian, as he expected, was “incredibly good” about the news.
That Vowles has been cleared to start work in just a few weeks (February 20) without the need of chunky garden leave suggests not only do Wolff and Vowles have a very close relationship – the strategist having become a close confidant and part of Wolff’s inner circle – but also that the association Mercedes have with Williams through their technical partnership is tight too.
Williams shift strategy with Vowles appointment
Though Capito had experience in F1, his stint with Sauber was almost 20 years ago, while he was at McLaren for just a few months. His pedigree came from rallying, through immense success with Volkswagen.
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And while he did make changes to Williams that moved departments away from working in silos, it became clear to the owners that it will take at least five years, if not a decade to get back to the front – and stay there. At 64, Capito wasn’t the person to do that, Williams having already coaxed him out of retirement to do the job.
In Vowles, they have someone who is ambitious – and for whom such a big, long-term project comes at the right time in his career, having gathered recent F1 experience and been integral to success in this formula.
Vowles has spent 21 years at the Brackley-based operation, joining when they were British American Racing (BAR) and staying through their iterations as Honda, Brawn GP and now Mercedes. During that time, the outfit won nine constructors’ championships. In recent years, his role has expanded from focusing on strategy to contributing to the overall future direction of the F1 team.
Having spent so much time entrenched in that culture, Vowles will take that experience and way of working, which will be permanently etched in the way he goes about his job, and apply it as best as he can at Williams.
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It’s a chance to test himself in a high-profile role for the first time and to develop the skills that he will hope will ensure a long tenure at Williams, while also making him attractive to other teams, including perhaps a return move to Mercedes as and when Wolff decides to pursue a different path.
The last time Williams took on a senior recruit from Mercedes, it didn’t go well. Paddy Lowe joined as Chief Technical Officer – when Claire Williams oversaw the day-to-day running of the operation – but left a couple of years later after the team failed to get a car ready in time for the start of 2019 testing.
This scenario is different. While Lowe was highly-rated at the time, it was believed Wolff wanted to move Lowe on. This was not the case with Vowles, a trusted ally of Wolff, who in an ideal world would have preferred for his “sparring partner” to stay.
Vowles should be afforded time by Dorilton to come in and assess what needs to be done, before being given more time to making changes and begin building the foundations to long-term success.
It will be interesting to see how Vowles tackles the new role, whether he can step up and deliver, and what other changes he needs to make – with the support of the owners – to the structure and culture, to give Williams a chance of recapturing former glories.
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Mercedes back succession plan
Mercedes’ decision to let Vowles leave, considering how highly-rated and liked he was within the team – not to mention his place in Wolff’s inner circle – shows how comfortable Mercedes are with a succession plan they’ve had in place for years.
Wolff knew that keeping hold of the best people forever wasn’t realistic. Even if Mercedes have been the dominant force for close to a decade, the very best will always be hungry for the next challenge. The very ambition that has contributed to the Silver Arrows’ success is what increases the risk of them leaving or being poached by a rival.
By creating a no-blame culture and following through on a commitment to provide clear career progression pathways for his staff, Wolff has built a sought-after workforce that deliver success and are capable of stepping up when required.
Engineering heavyweights Aldo Costa, James Allison and Andy Cowell have all left senior roles in the last few years, but each has been filled with a high-quality candidate that has allowed the silver machine to keep punching as if nothing has changed. That will give Wolff confidence in the wake of Vowles’ departure.
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In allowing Vowles to stretch his legs in a more overarching role in recent years, his departure means the nine-strong strategy team he leaves behind is capable of ‘flying the plane alone’, having learned from the 43-year-old. It also gives an opportunity to someone to possibly step up, which in turn drives ambition.
And in parting ways on very good terms, it means the door will always be open for Vowles to return in the future. With all that in mind, it’s no surprise an agreement was reached – and in quick time too – to let Vowles depart.