Feature F1 Unlocked
James Vowles is on a mission to return Williams to winning ways – just don’t ask about the short-term
There’s a feel-good factor around Williams Racing at the moment, and it’s not really part of the plan.
When James Vowles, formerly Mercedes-AMG’s motorsport strategy director, was appointed Team Principal at the start of the year, he made the usual noises about changing the culture, resetting the organisation and improving the results.
Anyone listening could have been forgiven for hearing this as lip-service. It is, after all, the thing a new team principal – or manager/coach/chief exec in any other elite sport – is supposed to say on installation. It took a while longer for the penny to drop that he actually meant it.
Across the first two-thirds of the season, however, Vowles has got the point across, mostly through repetition. He is, as he insists time and time again, not interested in results this year and perhaps not even next year.
That's because his task is to restructure and rebuild the team – and chasing performance in 2023 is not so much a distraction from that as a giant, insurmountable roadblock.
Rather more erudite than the average team principal, Vowles, sitting in the Williams motorhome, explains this in mellifluous tones that, one suspects, could be profitably deployed selling refrigeration to Inuit.
He concedes that the 2023 field is very tight, and that even small improvements may make the difference between final positions in the constructors’ standings – but he resolutely will not countenance doing anything to stack the deck in Williams’ favour.
“Normally, this would still be a development race because even a tenth [of a second] would make the difference between whether you can score that final point or not – but I would rather throw away our prospects in the development race for this year’s championship to have a chance next year of making a step, and another chance in 2025 to make a much larger step.
"My focus is there: I’m not interested in fighting for the last point every week in 2023. I’m much more interested in us being the team that makes big steps on the grid in the future.
"You can’t do both things under a cost cap: you can’t improve your current position and make radical change – and these are radical changes we are making. We’re throwing a grenade in: we need to break the system in order to make it much better."
The project Vowles discusses is a root-and-branch restructuring of Williams, redressing what he describes as "20 years of under-investment." The examples he cites are not the sleek, signature tools of F1 – the wind tunnels, driver-in-the-loop simulators and seven-post rigs, but rather nuts-and-bolts infrastructure items like digital production management software.
While it’s not unknown for teams to discuss tough decisions, the theme is usually giving up a little bit of development this year for a better car next year. Vowles goes a lot further than that, selling not the jam-tomorrow argument of a faster car in 2024, but the distinctly unsexy benefits of digitisation and better process control – constructing a better team rather than a faster car… at least for the moment.
“I will sacrifice this year – and next year – in order to keep making moves,” he confirms. “It’s the only way you can get your foundations and structures built correctly. It means we won’t keep up with the development rate of other teams.”
The turnover of team principals has been high in the last few years and it is rare to hear someone so freshly installed – at a backmarker team – dismissing the quest for short-term gains. But Vowles insists it’s the long-term health of the team that he has been hired to ensure.
“There were many discussions before I signed and in every single one, I laid it out as I have now: that I’m not here for 2023 or ’24 or even ’25," he says. "I’m here to put in place structures and systems that will last this team 10 years.
"I said if that’s what is required, I’m the right person; if it isn’t, then I’m not. And everyone bought into that, because if you want real success – and I do – that’s the way to go about it.
"Other team principals may not have that sort of backing and that’s our advantage: we can build properly from the ground up and get this done.”
The place in which Vowles’ plan falls down is that, of late, Williams have been doing rather well. Alex Albon can’t stop scoring at the moment, with two seventh place finishes and two eighths in recent races attracting thoughtful glances from rival team principals. At Zandvoort, both cars made it into Q3, with Logan Sargeant taking the big step of contesting the final stage of qualifying for the first time.
It leaves Williams seventh in the points table, currently winning the battle of the bottom four squads with a comfortable – in backmarker terms – margin of 10 points and likely to hold onto that position. For a team that’s finished last, last, last, eighth and last across the previous five seasons, this isn’t something to be taken lightly. Nor is the fact that Williams give every impression of being a happy ship at the moment.
Vowles is not a masochist. While he reiterates that points are not the goal this year, he’s also keen to emphasise the long-term plan stops at the garage door, and on a day-to-day basis, he’s just as keen on scoring them as anyone else.
"Of course – it’s about procedure and operation and picking up every point that we can," he outlines. "You need a clean execution in qualifying with no penalties, you need clean execution in the race, and you need drivers not trying to overreach for what can’t be achieved, but achieving what we can in a proper manner. This is perhaps not the attitude that the team has had in the last few years.
"It’s always needed luck and fortune on its side, or to make luck and fortune happen. And when you do that, you’re rolling the dice.
"Every so often, you’ll roll a double six, when it has been a crazy race and you’ve done the right things – but I’m much more interested in doing it clean and, when an opportunity falls our way, making sure we’re in a position to take it.”
Vowles is always keen to incorporate his drivers into this mindset. It isn’t necessarily the approach at other teams but is, he insists, part of the job.
"In my opinion, being a team principal is all about guiding your team, and that includes your drivers,” he continues. “I think one thing I can bring to them is a growth mindset that allows them to extract the absolute best that they can from themselves, from the car and from the team. We talk about it a lot.
"My perception is that sometimes, as a driver, you’re alone: you’re given all these tools and put out there to perform on behalf of the team. You need to feel the support of those 800 individuals pushing you on, and you need to be helped into a state where you’re taking confidence from that rather than feeling pressure.
"This is a mental game: it’s not muscles that make the difference, it’s having the right headspace, having the belief and creating the strength within to extract more. Logan perhaps needs to have this more because Alex is very experienced now.
"Logan has huge potential: many times he’s put in laps faster than Alex and this isn’t by chance: he’s quick – but we need to create an arena in which he can perform, buffers against which he knows he can push, and others he knows he can’t.
"Even Alex, despite his experience, needs to be in an environment where he knows what is achievable and how we’re going to work together to achieve it."
And with that, Vowles departs, more grenades to prime, perhaps more fridges to sell, but also with a clear picture of where his team should be five and 10 years from now. The reboot of a once-great Formula 1 team will be a fascinating process to watch.