Podcast F1 Unlocked
FULL TRANSCRIPT: Read every word from Williams boss James Vowles' Beyond The Grid interview
Former Mercedes engineer James Vowles took over as the new Team Principal at Williams in February – and is only the third person to hold the role in the team's 46 year history.
Now having passed his first 100 days in the job, Vowles joined Beyond The Grid podcast host Tom Clarkson for a chat about how his new job is going. You can read every word from his interview in the transcript below, listen to the episode in the audio player, or head here to catch it on your preferred platform.
Tom Clarkson: James, it's great to have you back on Beyond The Grid. We're talking after Canada, where the team had its best weekend in a while. Alex Albon starting ninth, finishing seventh. Just how much of a boost was the weekend?
James Vowles: Huge. For the organisation, it gives everyone the satisfaction that the work they've been putting in for, specifically the update that went into the car there, but not just there, for all the seasons we've been there or thereabouts in the position of scoring points and perhaps not achieved it every time. But you go to Canada with an update that's delivered, good strategy, good delivery by Alex and walking away with points that have pushed the team back up to ninth in the championship. So that for this organisation was huge. They needed that to elevate themselves. When I walked around the factory, both before and afterwards, it's a different mood. People can see we're a racing organisation, we're serious, we want to move back up to the front again. There's a reality that sets in with individuals as well. We know that that seventh was, I'm not going to say fortunate, but things fell our way in order to achieve it. That won't be the case every race weekend. But we do have a car that can scrap for that point again, like it did at the beginning of the season.
TC: I also think there's a fearlessness to both Alex Albon and Williams at the moment. Where's that come from? Is it your influence?
JV: I hope in part it is, but one individual can never change the culture of an organisation by themselves. The organisation has to change around you. I hope what I've brought to the organisation is, as long as you use data-driven mechanisms behind the decision making you're doing, there will be no consequences of failure as long as we've done what we believe to be correct at the time. So just trust everything that's going forward. I think that's alleviated a little bit of concern that was going on. Some of what you saw in qualifying and in the race was just maximising everything that came out of the data that you had to trust because it's completely different to everyone else.
TC: Are you still involved in the strategic side of the team?
JV: Yes, but at a light level. My job is really just to come in and give advice based on the 20-odd years I've been doing it and some guidance. If you imagine a bowling lane and the buffers that come up on the side to keep the ball roughly in the lane, that’s what my job really is here. Providing support when I believe the decision that everyone is making is correct, to make sure the confidence is there to do it. Again, when you look at the circumstances of qualifying, you need support on things to make sure that that the direction of travel is correct or there's nothing that's different to what I'm seeing to it. There’s the odd question I ask in the race, just to make sure again that there’s guidance being taken to areas that I think have a level of importance, but the hard work is being done by others.
TC: Can we talk a little bit more about Alex? You've worked with many of the modern-day greats. I'm thinking Hamilton, Schumacher, Rosberg, Button. How good is Alex Albon?
JV: There's no ego. He's a funny chap, but I called him yesterday to explain to him that was a drive of champions. I've worked with a good number of them and it really was. He didn't put a foot wrong at the point where he's under pressure from four incredibly fast-charging cars behind on tyres that were in a much better state than his. Some of the work he was doing on repositioning his car, on the exit of ten and a few other corners, was very clever. And he recognizes that. He's obviously not someone that's going to go in and boast about it to the world. But for me, that was a drive of champion. He's definitely bringing the car to the limit of his performance, which is what you're looking for out of a driver. I think he's very underrated and I'm incredibly happy that he's here within our organisation today.
TC: Would you consider building the future of this team around, Alex?
JV: Yes, I would. He's got leadership qualities to him. There are areas where he and I talk about where I think he can do more in certain areas, but he's got what it takes to bring us forward as an organisation. As I said, for the future from where I am at the moment, I hope he's very much a part of it.
TC: And how difficult a benchmark is he for someone like Logan Sargeant, who's a rookie trying to get to grips with Formula 1?
JV: He's a perfect benchmark. He's not here to actually push down your team mate in order to elevate yourself. He's just here to perform in the car, which is what he does every weekend, and it gives Logan a reference. But Alex is more than happy to help with advice and guidance on providing Logan a step up in order to find out some of the performance that could not be on the table at certain points. So I think he's a perfect teammate for Logan in that regard and Logan uses it. Logan has this appreciation, which again doesn't exist with all drivers, of ‘here’s where I want to be and I'm very prepared to adapt and change in order to get there.’ The beginning of the season was a lot trickier than I anticipated. When you look at the layout of it, how many street tracks there are, how many tracks the rookies had never even been to before, let alone seen physically, there was a lot of them. Even now, we’re into races where Monaco was wet – one of the trickiest tracks – we go to Canada, a track that again, they're not sure about, and FP1’s completely gone. So they lose an hour of a session that they didn’t have much running into. Then we're getting them onto intermediate tyres into drying conditions, and slicks into really marginal conditions. These are some of the toughest conditions and it's good – you have to learn at some point. But I think really the message I want to get across to the world is that, for individuals that are trying to learn the car and the extremes of the sport, this is not easy conditions to do it by. Everyone that's in Formula 1 is pretty much a multiple world champion before you come here from karting to Formula 3, to Formula 2. You’re against the best of the best of the best. That's the reference now, and it's difficult and that’s why the sport is fantastic.
TC: Let's bring it on to you now. You've just completed your first 100 days in office here at Williams, and it still feels odd to be talking to you in Grove and not Brackley [Mercedes HQ], just up the road. But how has it gone and what sort of an impact do you think you've made on Williams?
JV: I'd say it's gone well, and I'm not adjudicating it by my own feelings, but rather the workforce that we have, both directly and indirectly, let the world know that this is good. They're happy with the direction. They can see the leadership. They can see where we're going. They believe in where we're going and trust in where we're going. An example of that is just the update kit. The update kit was delivered through expectations where it wouldn't even make it. But the team pulled together after some good talks and discussions and the teamwork was probably the best I've seen it in the time I've been here. That doesn't happen by chance. That happens because you have everyone aligned. This is why we're moving and this is why we're moving there and this is how we're going to do it together. Everyone has really been welcoming, which is another good sign that's involved in this. The way I describe it is green shoots. You look at it and you can see across all of the business areas where you're getting development and growth, that wasn’t there 100 days ago. We have a long journey to go. There's zero doubts about that. But my job is to lay out a vision that is not just about survival week on week, but how are we going to be better in one year, two years and five years? The workforce can see that and believe in that as well.
TC: Do you feel a weight of responsibility? We’re sat in Frank Williams’ old office. Williams is the third oldest, most historic team in Formula 1. You're about to celebrate your 800th race. How do you feel about that?
JV: That's why I came here. It's for exactly the reasons you highlighted. It has incredible legacy. If you can't find me here, you will often find me in the experience centre and sat next to some of Frank’s old cars. I was there yesterday for half an hour getting inspiration. I joined here because it's got tremendous amounts of legacy and success behind it. I get goose bumps when I walk around the old cars. It’s not the weight I feel. I'm hyper competitive like many people in Formula 1. First and foremost, there are nine other teams to beat on the grid. Some will take longer than others to beat. But irrespective, that's what drives me on day to day. I want to do proud to the name that's above the door and the legacy that's involved in the team. I don't treat that as pressure. I'll generate far more pressure on myself than the legacy will, if that makes any sense. I want to be successful for me. I want to be successful for the 800 individuals who, in this organisation, are giving up every minute of the day for this belief that we're going to move forward. Finally, as I said, there's a name above the door and I want to make that proud. In years to come, when we look back at this era, I hope they look back at a positive change.
TC: So when you're walking around the conference centre getting inspiration from Frank's old cars, is there one car that stands out?
JV: I really wish I'd done my contract properly because it should have probably included one of those cars. They’re all in a very small region, but basically somewhere around the 14B up to the 15 region, so you're going from the Prost, Mansell and Senna cars. For me, they’re a big change in livery, but all of them are quite special. It was the era I just started watching Formula 1, became enticed by it and Williams back then was a force to be reckoned with, no doubt about it.
TC: Well, it's 30 years since Alan Prost won that World Championship in 1993 in the 15. Time flies. You also race yourself. Are we going to see you driving one of these cars at somewhere like Goodwood?
JV: I think when I've done the brand a little bit more proud than I have today, I'd very much enjoy doing that. I think it should be a celebration of success rather than just anything else. But I think an opportunity like that, you would never turn down. Let's put it that way. You summed it up well. Goodwood’s probably safe enough that I’ll be okay.
TC: What about Frank Williams and Patrick Head? Did you have any dealings with them in your previous life at Mercedes?
JV: No, I had dealings with Claire Williams. In fact, Patrick was here with us yesterday so I still have communication and contact with him. Fantastic character. I really, really like Patrick. He gives you the bare truth behind things that most others wouldn't. Frank, I really wish I'd had the opportunity to spend more time with him. Our paths just never overlapped.
TC: Let's now talk about the future. You've been very vocal in recent weeks about the deficiencies here in Grove. Some parts of it you say are 20 years out of date. In this cost cap era, what can you do about that?
JV: Part of the reason why I'm being vocal is to make the message heard to the world. I want openness and transparency. Facilities help you in some regards. You still need people, thoughts, creativity, culture, all the other aspects that come with it. But infrastructure systems are still very much a part of it. First of all, I want the world to be appreciative of here's where we are today and is our intention. Our intention is that in the world of old, we didn't have money. It was unfortunate but that's what Williams was. It was financially starved to a certain extent. A number of individuals, we're in survival mode rather than forward thinking strategically about how we're going to be better next year or the year after. It was a downward spiral. That's not the world we're in today. I'm very fortunate with this because this doesn't exist with most teams up and down the grid to this level. There’s significant financial backing behind this team. Money is not going to be the limitation. But we are restrained, and I would argue sort of handcuffed to a certain extent, by an element of the cost cap. This is where it gets a little bit tricky because the cost cap has only been used in one definition, I think externally mostly, which is what I would call the operational side. For complete clarity, I think that's been a huge success and has to remain part of the sport. It’s part of the reason why you're seeing a little bit of a closing up of the field. But there's a second side to the cost cap, which is the capital expenditure side. Long story short, operational is basically the bits you see appearing on the car, the carbon fibre for it, the cost of people’s salaries here, keeping the lights on, that's your operational cost. Your capital expenditure side is actually, I need machines that are, for example, curing the carbon fibre. In fact, I need areas where I can cut and lay out carbon fibre. I need a simulator. These are capital expenditure and you’re into tens of millions for each of those. That's restrained quite significantly in the cost cap. Part of it was for good reason, to try and control expenditure. But what's actually really happened is around about 2020 or so, for all the years prior to that, any investment you made, which is for many teams, over 100 or even over 200 million across the years prior to that, that's locked in. If you didn't happen to have the money just prior to 2020, you're now with exactly what you had at that time. There's a little bit of a capital expenditure that appears but it's a small amount year on year. It’s not enough to change where we are. The reason why I've been vocal in public about it is that if I just take where we are now with some of the facilities, for example, composites, I will have to use a lot of external companies to do the work. We simply don't have the facilities internally, which will cost me about three times the prices elsewhere. You won't get a meritocracy, you won't get a stabilisation in the field, because we'll always be on the catch-up. If I take it even more extreme, each year, you still get a little bit of CapEx available to you. Around about 7 million or so. I spent nearly every penny this year just on the system that allows me to understand where a part is or even how to build an assembly. Just a digital software system. It's not an exceptional piece of software, very useful obviously, but that's bread and butter elsewhere and has been for 15-20 years. Sadly, that's where all my money's having to go at the moment for good reason. It'll give a structure and it will help generate performance. I don't think people have really been open and honest about it. I've seen excellence. I've been very fortunate to be a part of Mercedes. That's what excellence looks like. But allow me the opportunity to fight with similar tools to what others have available to them.
TC: Vested interests in Formula 1. I'm assuming the guys at the front are quite happy with where Williams are because you're not a threat. Do you need the support of the Mercedes, the Red Bull, the Ferrari type teams in order to get what you want with the CapEx?
JV: Yeah, and this is a good thing, this isn't a bad thing. Under the regulations we have, for this particular regulation, you need five teams to be in support of them. So we need four other teams to be in support, but you do need the support of your peers. You do need them to be accepting that we would like the ability to invest, which will become more of a threat to those teams over time. That's the nature of the sport. Equally, I don't think it would be right that you don't have the support of your peers, because otherwise we start pushing through rules that are just benefiting one party over another. But hopefully what the world can see here is, I'm talking more fundamentals. It shouldn't be that I spend three times the price that others do to do the same part.
TC: Could this be linked to constructors’ championship positions? So the people who finish 10th get more CapEx expenditure than the people that finished first?
JV: I think you could, if you did that across many, many years so maybe five years on average, if that makes any sense. I think with the swings that you are sometimes seeing so, for example, if you take Aston Martin, that's a large swing in balance. Should they be rewarded significantly as a result? They have good facilities as well and they’ve invested in them at the right time. That's where it became difficult. That exact discussion took place between all the teams and the conclusion out of it was you'd need a long, long period of time going backwards. Another suggestion is why not just take the add up of the CapEx that people have done over ten years and balance that? There's a number of ways that you could be doing it. We need to find one that I think is fair, that really represents where different infrastructures are. FIA and Liberty have been very, very supportive in this process. I don't think we're there yet, is my feeling on it.
TC: Are there any similarities between what you're doing here at Williams and what you've done at other times in your career? Going back to when you joined British American Racing in 2001 and you were trying to create a front-running team in Brackley, or when Brawn rose from the ashes of the defunct Honda team. Have you got experience of building from the ground up, that is useful and you're able to apply now?
JV: Yes. I think many simply think of me and the other Brackley boys as those that had the dominant championship era with Mercedes. But actually you described it well. It was more rebuilding the team several times over. There was a rebuild around 2004 and 2006. Again for the Brawn era, that was a complete rebuild. And again before 2014. You have to remember that at the end of 2012, we were Mercedes back then, but we didn't score a point in the last six races. That was Mercedes in 2012 and that requires huge, transformational change. You have to change everything. You have to accept you're not good enough and do that fairly rapidly in the space of a couple of years. It's fortunate that I've been on this journey many times before. It's the enjoyable part, if I'm honest. When you're winning, to maintain that, you have to continuously change as well. You're never static, but the large, big foundational efforts that you do, if you get them right, they pay big dividends later. I've had the opportunity to do that a few times in my career.
TC: So you need to invest in the infrastructure here at Williams. But one of the things you said when you first came in is ‘I'm going to start looking for a technical director.’ Are we going to see a migration of Mercedes engineers over to Williams or are you not allowed to do that? There were definitely whispers in the Montreal paddock, if I could say this, that there is an announcement soon. Is there anything you can tell us?
JV: What I can say is the following… Since I started, it's been my primary focus to make sure we have the right technical structure in place and also putting in place structures here that allow us to really move on and develop without the external bodies being in place yet. Before the end of the year, you'll see that the structure would have changed here internally with support from external individuals. But we're not at the stage yet where I can talk any more about it. It's a very sensitive time, as I'm sure you would imagine, involving other organisations. There will be news shortly, in fact, but not today.
TC: And what about the job of Team Principal? Just how different is it to what you were doing at Mercedes where you were motorsport strategy director?
JV: My role migrated across the last few years when I was there, to really start taking on more and more responsibilities that are very akin to what I'm doing here. Not the full breadth, but very akin to it. Toto [Wolff] gave me more and more responsibilities. Drivers fell underneath me. Originally it was just young drivers. Then it was young drivers plus sim drivers, then young drivers, sim drivers, and race drivers. You get the idea. It just grew over time for that whole area to start falling underneath me. I had a team of strategists there that were doing all of that hard work. I had oversight of it, but they were doing the hard work day-to-day and it migrated more to a role where we were looking at Formula 1 as a whole. What do we want across the next five years? What do we want Concorde to look like? How do we shape the regulations to help the sport? What do we want our other organisations to be? How does GT3 fit into it? What does Formula E look like? Does that fit in? Do we need it? What are the structures? Is it profitable? They were all sort of areas that I had contact points on and I enjoyed that. It was good to be really involved in the wider scope of motorsport. Now obviously that doesn't change you day-to-day for what Williams is or what’s required of me here, because Toto brings a number of skills to the party. One of them is very clearly that he brought a business that was at a fairly low value into something that has huge value today, with large amounts of sponsorship. His expertise is really focused in that area. He's a great leader. All of those assets I was able to learn from him. When you come here, there’s a lack of technical direction, so it needs someone in place that understands how to put that in without, as you described it, a technical director or otherwise in place. It's different as a result of that. I was fortunate at Mercedes to be a part of the technical management structure that's there. There was a good group of individuals discussing the technical direction of the organisation. Through that and through other experiences, I was able to gain some concepts and ideas on how to be running this organisation. But the TP role here is one that I think is very, very different to one that's at Mercedes, for example. Simply because this one, the breadth of it is largely across all parts of the organisation, technical as well in some level of depth.
TC: Do you have a separate CEO here? Because it seems there are two different ways of doing it in Formula 1. Toto, Christian Horner at Red Bull, are Team Principal and CEO. Whereas other team structures, you have a Team Principal and a separate CEO. What do you think works best? What are you going to do here?
JV: There’s pros and cons of both. We don't have a CEO here, but I have an incredible management committee. It's not many people, but we have someone focused on the HR side. We have someone focused on the operations side. We have someone focused on the revenue side and we have someone focused on the financial side, filling the role effectively as CEO, all coming together once a week. My link with the board is very close as well. It'd be unusual in a day if we haven't spoken five times, so it's not a typical board in the way you would normally think about things. As a result of that, I don't think a CEO is required within this organisation at the moment, because there's very close contact with things.
TC: And how does your previous experience as an engineer help you? When you look at the grid as a whole, there are a lot of former engineers now in the role of Team Principal. Andrea Stella at McLaren, Mike Krack at Aston Martin, and now you here at Williams. Does it help?
JV: If you look at what the Team Principal is doing, you're trying to at least have an overview of every part of the business from commercial income, how you market yourself, what your brand looks like, and from that perspective, you have what I would call another generation of Team Principals. Toto is leading the march on that. Christian’s incredibly good at that one as well, understanding what you need to optimise in those areas. That’s just one small part of the company, though. The other part of the company is production. The other part of the company is performance, design, build. You need someone that has an overview of all of those and all you're seeing is someone who could be more expert in one area than another. I think what I bring to the party, both through my experience at Mercedes, but also from other organisations that I had links with, I understand finance, HR, and business from those as a result of it. I'd be the first to tell you I'm not the best engineer on the grid. I have a very good ability to understand what's going on, dissect it and present it in a way that is easy to understand. But there's far better aerodynamicists than I am and technical directors than I am. My skill is more being able to work with all of those individuals, bring the right individuals together at the same time and discuss a direction of travel. I have a good enough understanding of where we're going as to whether or not that's going to be the modern way Formula 1 goes. I think it certainly works for Williams in the structure we have today and the direction of travel that we're in. It may not work as well within other organisations where they have huge technical strength.
TC: I think you're selling your engineering ability short because you have a Masters in motorsport engineering from Cranfield University. You've obviously been keen on motorsport for a long time. Tell us where the interest first came.
JV: For me, I sort of dabbled in karting many years ago.
TC: So the initial interest was as a driver?
JV: Certainly as a lightweight interest into it, yes. But I realised very soon that there are far better people than me at it. You will invest everything into it. The financial backing wasn't there to be able to do it properly, but I was handy. I wasn’t bad.
TC: Toto Wolff, after one of your GT3 races, told me, and I'm quoting him now, “you weren't s**t”.
JV: That's pretty much it! That's how I describe it as well. Surprisingly competitive is the right way of putting it. It was good. Same in another test I did with another manufacturer, I ended up being within 1.2 seconds of the works drivers, which is not s**t. It's okay. I enjoyed it dramatically. But the point is there are still people out there 1.2 seconds faster than you, the professional drivers. That's the reference. I love it. That's the difference to it. You form a passion and a bond with it. What I decided at the time was that I enjoy it, but I watched Formula 1 on TV and gained a connection with it. You don't realise that behind the scenes, there's a tremendous amount of other people designing and building the car, and you don't even think ‘I'll have a career there.’ You're watching it because it's an elite sport with entertaining aspects to it. I kept on going through school, formed a relationship with it and Williams was the team I supported back then, which is a coincidence in many regards. The first degree I did wasn't engineering at all. It was mathematics and computer science because I was just good at them. This is back in the nineties, so computer science was still on the up at the time. It was a useful subject to have. You knew that you would have some level of success from it. University degrees don't necessarily define the job you have. They give you the breadth of skills to allow you to go and use them through different domains. About a year in, I thought I really can't do this for the rest of my life. It's not the most exciting, for me anyway. I'm not here to be behind a desk so I wrote letters to every single Formula 1 team at the time saying ‘I'm going to graduate in a year and a half, two years’ time, and I'd like a job with you. Tell me what is possible.’ I had 11 rejection letters and put them up on the wall. I'm hyper competitive and tenacious as anything. That was a red flag to a bull.
TC: Was Williams one of the rejection letters?
JV: Williams was one of them. But there were two helpful replies. Williams was one, British American Racing was the other one. It wasn't just ‘no’. It was ‘no, but here's why – we need engineers. We don't really need mathematicians. They don't have a place within this organisation, but you need an engineering background to get in and typically we wouldn't take graduates either so there has to be something about you, whether it's an experience set, that brings value to the team.’ I then went on to finish off that first degree, worked in Formula 3 and started the Cranfield course. There was a huge amounts of applicants to it and I got through and got the place. It was linked directly with Formula 1. Pretty much most teams had a link with that course and either presented as a part of it or gave you access to Formula 1 teams. You had access to the BRDC and I wasn't naive enough to know that actually what you need is the ability to at least get in front of individuals to show them that you're capable, because otherwise you would just be too far away. It provided that and it was a good course as well. It gave you a grounding in composites, metallurgy, structures, aerodynamics, management as well. It taught you a number of aspects of that and it served me well. What I did at the same time was work in Formula 3 and Le Mans, and worked in them all. Every hour of my day was either studying or working on cars. I loved it. I was sleeping on the floor of someone's house, the normal things you would expect, but I put everything in. All the chips were down on the table. I didn't really care. Everything had to be about making it into Formula 1 for me. As a part of that course, you had to design a school race car for something called the Jim Russell Racing School, which doesn’t exist anymore. It went bankrupt in the UK, but we won an award for it – the Pro Driver Award of Excellence. On presenting it in the audience, there were two Formula 1 teams and near enough I ended up with multiple job offers the next day. One was British American Racing, and that was my career. The formula is more straightforward than that. It needs to be one of the top universities, it doesn't have to be in the UK. Actually, we would look worldwide now. There's plenty of good ones in Switzerland, very good ones in Germany as well. It doesn't matter. Top universities in the countries that you're in and you need to be near enough the top of your grades in the class because it's the best of the best that make it here. Then you have to be tenacious. You have to make sure you get in front of us in a way that we can see that you're special. Now the world's changed, fortunately. Graduates didn't really become part of the foundations of Formula 1 teams, certainly for Williams. I was a graduate 23 years ago and I'm here today in this position. I completely believe in the cycle. You need two things: the brightest and best coming through the door and a mechanism within the team that looks after them. Find your leaders and make sure you look after them and train them in the right way. That was the fortunate pathway that I had. I think the level and quality that we're testing candidates to now, I'm not sure I would have got through my own entrance exam. But you always say that, you go back and realise you've got a lot of knowledge that goes with it. IQ, intelligence. EQ, how you actually understand emotional intelligence, how you connect, how you communicate. I think both are equally as important. The scope and place for someone that is one of the most intelligent people you can meet, but perhaps can’t interact as well with others, or share ideas, there's definitely a place in Formula 1 for that, but actually Formula 1 is about bringing together 800 or a thousand individuals working as one, which means your emotional intelligence, how you communicate, how you work with individuals is just as important. It's not just about having the best grades. You get five or six people together. How do they work as a team? Does one stand out? Does one take ownership and responsibility? Does one sit down? You're looking for the behavioural styles of individuals.
TC: Talking about entrance exams, there used to be an engineering, multiple choice exam for potential Williams drivers. Does that still happen on your watch?
JV: I don't think it does. That might have been just against Nico [Rosberg], which if so, was a very clever idea. But no, I don't think that's still a part of things. I mean, generally the way you'll find drivers in the future is that I'm actually looking for the same characteristics. I'm looking for quality of performance on track, but intelligence as well. How well do they deal with the information that you throw at them quickly? The simulators are a better environment, or even their live race environments are better to test that than a multiple choice piece of paper. Finally, you're looking for culture. When something goes wrong, do they point at themselves? Or do they point at the tyres, the car, the wing, the winds, whatever it may be? It's really important that they take ownership, otherwise they won't grow. That’s what I’m looking for.
TC: Can we talk about the biggest influences on your career? There are two individuals specifically I'd like to ask you about. One of them is Ross Brawn. Not only do I think you sound very similar to Ross, but both of you come at the sport as great strategists. Ross, back in the days at Ferrari, came up with some of the most innovative strategies that we saw. Do you agree that you and Ross approached the sport the same way?
JV: I learned a tremendous amount from him. He was very good at bringing the right people in the room together at the right time to communicate and talk with each other. That's one of his strengths. He had a very good ability to look at a timing page. Not detailed systems underneath it, but a timing page and have a view of the race from that. That's a skill that served him very well. What happened is technology's obviously developed since then, allowing you to do things a million times in the future in different directions, which gives you more of a view statistically of what is the right way to go about it. But even so, I remember a very proud moment in Japan many years ago, when I was working alongside him. I was with him on the pit. All the systems just failed. Everything went down, which was oddly enough, an atypical thing in Japan. But he was in his element because he was looking at his timing page going, ‘leave it with me, we'll figure this out.’ He was looking at the gaps, looking at the progression. He was a leader. He had the command of a room. He was able to bring the right people together, give you a subject, give you direction to move forward on it. He was very good at understanding, as I am as well, that you're not going to catch up by scratching as other people are in exactly the same way year-on-year. You've got to do big steps, which means look for regulation changes or large changes that you can execute and do. Don’t just do the small minor improvements that are the same as everyone else.
TC: We're talking about the double diffuser in 2009…
JV: Exactly. The brilliance behind it was that all the work was done in 2008 and 2007. But 2008 was a sacrificial year. We always knew it would be a struggle, because the focus was on running three wind tunnels in different countries to produce the 2009 car. You have to get everyone in line with the vision that it's not about now, you have to give up on now – it's about next year or the year after and here's how we're going to do it. It’s strategic thinking and very much an element that I learned from him.
TC: What about Niki Lauda? What was Niki's greatest quality? What did you learn from him?
JV: What I liked about him is there was no bulls**t. It was just really direct and actually in the beginning, he created a lot of friction by basically being really direct and in your face on things. He was just abrasive, pure and simple. I formed a very close relationship with him during that period of time, because he would call a spade a spade. He would call exactly what things are when other people were perhaps a little bit nervous about treading on people's toes. The drivers held their respect because he was one of the best in the world at what he did. He taught me a lot about how to interact with individuals. All too often, especially in English culture, you're a little bit cautious about approaching a point. One of the best things you can do is be direct. Explain what you're trying to do and get over the problem, because more often than not, you create more problems by going indirectly around the solution than actually going straight forward. He had the respect of every single member within that team after starting very abrupt, simply because he just wanted performance and winning. That culture emanated from him in spades and really went around the organisation.
TC: What about Toto Wolff? What did he say to you when you approached him last winter and said, “I've got this opportunity at Williams, please can I leave Mercedes?”
JV: He said, “I knew you were calling me about that.’ He was having dinner with Susie and I could hear Susie in the background whooping. So it doesn't matter how he wanted to play it down, I had Susie's backing, so I was good to go. He was happy for me. He knows that I'd been alongside him, really doing everything I could to support him and learn from him in every opportunity he provided. Another opportunity for the time being wouldn’t be at Mercedes. He could see that I had really reached a glass ceiling, with walls I couldn't break through. But I had the capability to do this elsewhere and he was completely in support.
TC: What is Toto's greatest strength as a leader?
JV: Charismatic. He can make a room laugh or cry. He has the ability to generate the direction of travel that's needed behind it. He's very honest. He'll call it brutal honesty, but it actually worked well. He commercially had a vision. The same strategic thinking I was talking about with regards to Ross, he has that as well but more focused on the commercial side. He had a vision of how to make Mercedes into what it is today financially, and it's a powerhouse. That was his mindset.
TC: Now, talking of powerhouses, you've worked with some of the greatest drivers the sport has ever seen. An incredible collection of world champions; Jacques Villeneuve, Jenson Button, Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg and, of course, Lewis Hamilton. Which of those was the strongest all-round package?
JV: As with all humans, no two are the same. They're very different in characteristics. The one that impressed me year-on-year is Lewis, because he can pick himself up and literally change a lot about himself. It doesn't matter if it's training hard, or changing your diet, or changing how you're doing things psychologically. He would adapt every year and grow because he knew if you stayed the same, you wouldn't be successful the following year. He wasn't satisfied with being seven-time world champion. It's not a numbers game with him. He's personally pushing himself more and more to the limit, but that culture is the reason why Mercedes went on to win eight [championship titles]. It's really hard to win eight. You have to keep everyone aligned with the direction of travel you're going in and it's tiring. You've got to maintain a level of operation that is just incredibly high. There can't be a second of letdown in order to keep going. It wears you down more and more. You don't reset, it just keeps wearing you down. You can't celebrate the now. You can't celebrate the success you have, because if you do, you fall behind. It's tremendously difficult but Lewis emanates that all the time. If you look at what he is, he's never the same individual when he comes back. I learned a tremendous amount from him, but all of them have something really special to them. That's why they're world champions.
TC: You have won nine constructors’ titles, eight drivers’ titles. That was with Mercedes. What does success look like for you now?
JV: It will take a bit of time to build this momentum, but success will be that every year we look back, we realise we have moved forward relative to where we are. I don't just mean championship positions. I mean systems, structures, performance output, development rates, culture. You should look back one year before and be proud of the journey you've been on, but see large tangible steps. More importantly, you can see why those steps will then lead forward in the future.
TC: And James, if you succeed in taking Williams back to the front of Formula 1, will that be your greatest achievement?
JV: I think so, yeah. That's why I'm here. It's something that you can look back on with pride.
TC: Great to chat, James. Thank you.
JV: Thank you.