RACE DEBRIEF

    With a record of finishing last in the constructors' championship four times in five attempts between 2018 and 2022, Williams had become Formula 1’s sleeping giant. But they turned a corner in 2023 and for the first time since the heady days of 2014, when they were the third-best team, the British squad look like they have successfully course-corrected and are now building a foundation that in the future could put them in contention to add to their 16 World Championship titles.

    That revitalisation has been headed by James Vowles, who is coming up to a year in the job as Team Principal and has presided over a season where they finished an impressive seventh in the constructors’ – their best performance since 2017.

    READ MORE > IN DEPTH: ‘We’ve had to have our elbows out’ – Alex Albon reflects on a pivotal season for him and Williams

    Vowles is under no illusion that this is only the start of a long journey. But he can be pleased with the way Williams have pulled together, the staff showing the kind of grit, determination, passion and joy for racing that the team’s co-founder Sir Frank Williams instilled in the ranks when he started the team back in 1977.

    As with every rebuild project, Vowles is currently balancing the need to look long-term – with investment in infrastructure, tools and personnel (some of which won’t yield a direct performance benefit for years) – and ensuring they deliver to a decent level on track so they remain an attractive proposition to new backers and keep up the optimism that is currently sweeping through the team.

    He is helped by the fact that Williams have a very supportive owner in Dorilton Capital, the investment firm who are committed to putting resources into the team in the long-term to get results. They know it will take years and are backing Vowles’s strategy for the future.

    Part of that strategy was to bring in a new Chief Technical Officer in Pat Fry. This is a department that has endured instability for far too many years. Bringing in someone of Fry’s expertise – with more than two decades in the sport, including stints at Ferrari, McLaren and Alpine – was aimed at delivering steadiness.

    Fry started work at the beginning of November and has spent the last couple of months assessing the operation back at base and trackside. He has a proven track record, having helped guide Alpine from a distant fifth in the constructors’ championship to a solid fourth place. During his time at McLaren, the squad clocked up 66 wins, one constructors’ title and three drivers’ championships.

    “I’m trying to understand how we work, what’s needed and what we are good at,” says Fry when we sat down at Williams’ hospitality in Abu Dhabi late last year. “Some things are better than where I’ve been and there are some things, well quite a few things, that we need to fix and understand. But it is all about trying to build up those first impressions and then trying to set an overall target for the team.”

    READ MORE: Vowles praises F1 regulations for promoting changes to pecking order throughout season

    Vowles began chasing Fry’s signature last January but initially he says “it was ‘no I don’t want to think about it because I want to finish what I started [at Alpine]’”. However, things changed as it became clear to Fry that there was little he could do to really move things on within the parameters he was given at Alpine.

    “I went back there with the idea of going back to the team where I started many years ago and to try and rebuild that and try and bring them forward again,” says Fry. “The first three years were great, everyone at Enstone should be proud of what we managed to achieve. We were a distant fifth; year on year we designed and developed a better car and we were a solid fourth at the end.

    vowles-zandvoort-portrait-2023.png
    Williams boss James Vowles had his eye on luring Pat Fry to Williams ever since he took over

    “I want to do more, I want to end up building another winning team. Winning is everything. We weren’t really committed enough to take it beyond fourth place. We might have said we could do it, but we never had the buy-in from the management to push it the extra bit, so in March I decided I had taken it as far as I can and I’ll look for something else. James had been pestering me for a while and this is a fantastic opportunity.”

    Fry can see the potential in Williams – and is relishing getting stuck into a new project that is ripe to be shaped. But as was the case with his boss Vowles, Fry is going to take some time to assess the operation before carving out a detailed plan of attack.

    READ MORE > END OF YEAR REPORT: Progress for Williams as they look to build on a promising 2023 campaign

    “I always try and write as much as I can down in the first two weeks of my first impressions,” he says. “Often when you dig in, the first impression is right but I have to understand the reasons of why it happened. I can easily list five, 10, 20, 30 things that are… not worrying, but think we have to get into. But you then have to dig down to the root cause, and a lot of the root causes are things we have to address in the long-term plan.

    “It’s impressive to see how well Williams have done. Certainly [last] year, there has been better collaboration between various groups – engineering and aero. It’s looking promising. All these things are down to how well everyone else has done, but they have unlocked a chunk of performance which is a good step.”

    BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 28:  Pat Fry, the Ferrari Technical Director for the Chassis Division is
    Fry spent almost five years working at Ferrari

    When I spoke with Vowles last year – following his confirmation he had found a Chief Technical Officer (which was later revealed to be Fry) – he said he was already “actively looking for a head of aero” but was naturally keen to get Fry’s input on the ideal person, something that they concede might take time, even if the team are now an increasingly good proposition for potential newcomers.

    “You need patience,” says Fry. “People have six month notice periods, some are a year. I think the project we have here is really exciting. It’s a case of trying to inspire other people to join that project.

    READ MORE – Behind the scenes with Logan Sargeant: Williams’ rookie on his new deal for next year and his goals for 2024

    “Things that were restricting us at Alpine are not a problem here. The board are behind us. They want to invest. They want to do all the right things. So the opportunity is there. We will make another step next year, but my eye is on the longer term things.

    “We need a three- or five-year vision. So for the right people, we are going wait a year or year and half or whatever, but it’s all about getting key people in the right places and changing the mindset we have as a company.”

    BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - MARCH 03: Pat Fry, Chief Technical Officer of Alpine F1 attends the Team
    Fry felt he'd done all he could at Alpine

    On that latter point, it’s clear that Williams as a whole are trying to instil a new culture at the team – and part of that will include, as Fry says, emboldening staff to push the envelope and take risks without fear of being criticised for doing so.

    “We shouldn’t be afraid of decisions, we shouldn’t be afraid of risks,” says Fry. “We have to be courageous. The difference between first and second is often how brave you are at the time in the decisions you make, be it in the wind tunnel or in the engineering office or how quickly you make things.

    READ MORE: Vowles admits Williams' step forward is more than expected as he reflects on first year as team boss

    “You have to have that environment where you’re willing to take a risk – and failure is not a problem. It’s what you learn from your failures. You learn more by pushing and failing, as you don’t know how conservative you’ve been. It’s that environment that will take time, but that’s where we need to get to – where the team are not afraid to take risks.”

    Williams have some way to go to upgrade their facilities to get in line with the very best in the business, and while they have strong funding from their owners – because of the cost cap and limits of capital expenditure – they can’t just spend at will.

    "An overwhelming desire to move forward" – James Vowles on his new job at Williams
    "An overwhelming desire to move forward" – James Vowles on his new job at Williams

    New power unit and aerodynamic rules are set to be introduced in 2026, offering teams further down the grid the chance to make a big step. This big change is probably coming a bit too early for Williams to take full advantage as they build their operation up, but Fry believes there are still gains to be made.

    “Every time there is a big regulation change, it’s a good opportunity,” he says. “Clearly the tools and methodologies we have are nowhere near as good as the top teams but it’s something to work on and we can make sure we get as much as we can in place for when we start doing that.

    READ MORE: Mercedes to power Williams into new F1 era with engine supply for 2026 regulations

    “If you’re a PU [power unit] manufacturer, your 2026 car is already getting drawn and laid out. For us, we need to be thinking about that in the middle of [this] year. We have already laid out what we think the car can be so we hit the ground running when the aero rules are freed up at the start of 2025.”

    The path is long, but Williams have started making steps – and things like the signing of Fry and the extension with Mercedes to keep using their power units until at least the 2030 are moving them in the right direction. And Fry himself will be hoping he can deliver on his stated goal of helping to build another winning team.

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