Feature F1 Unlocked
Playing the long game – How new boss James Vowles is plotting Williams’ return to form
Circa 15,000 bespoke components neatly fit together to make a modern-day Formula 1 car. Most teams have a software system that itemises every single part, logging the number of spares for each, where they are located and the history of use. It’s considered a basic requirement of F1 team – and one that is necessary considering cars are built, stripped and updated multiple times a week.
Williams does not have that system. That the British team has put a car on track every other weekend, with this year’s model in contention for points in each of the first three Grands Prix of 2023, is remarkable.
But it also shows the scale of the challenge facing new Team Principal James Vowles, the man tasked by owners Dorilton Capital to return one of F1’s most famous teams to race winners.
Lacking that simple system – one which most teams have had for almost 15 years – “was probably what took me back the most” says Vowles when he arrived at Williams’ Grove HQ and assessed what he had to work with.
Vowles knows what is needed to win world championships. He was part of nine of them, having clinched one constructors’ title with Brawn and eight with Mercedes.
The 43-year-old has spent the past two decades at Brackley, first when the team was run as British American Racing (BAR), then through the guises of Honda, Brawn and Mercedes.
Mercedes have one of the most impressive facilities in F1. Bringing the Williams operation up to that standard isn’t as simple as throwing money at it. With Formula 1’s cost cap now in force, there is a limit on how much teams are allowed to invest in their facility. And Williams have a lot of ground to make up.
Since BMW left around two decades ago, Williams have bravely battled on, taking opportunities where they came. Pastor Maldonado gave them a victory in 2012 – their last visit to the top step – and their decision to take Mercedes power from 2014 at the start of the turbo hybrid era, together with a very aero efficient car, gave them two successive third places in the constructors’ championship.
But it papered over the bigger cracks of an organisation that lacked investment across the board, from the leaking roof in reception to the quality of tools they had to develop performance-related parts for the car.
Vowles’ task, with the backing of well-resourced owners Dorilton Capital, is to address the weaknesses from the ground up. It’s a project that Vowles concedes will take years.
“The team has over the last 15 years been through a tremendous amount of difficulty, financially and otherwise and it’s survived all of that – but it’s just survival, compared to other organisations that have had finance,” said Vowles. “That’s the luxury I had prior to joining the team and as a result of that, you have these stark differences between where we are today and where we need to be in the future.
“The cost cap is just a limiting factor on all of these things, simply just because it puts us in a position where there’s a limited amount of capex (capital expenditure), that won’t be enough to spend our way to success. So the pathway is to a certain extent the number of years required to get some of the core facilities to the level required to compete with the funds and that’s not the work of six months or 12 months.”
Vowles is realistic about the time it will take Williams to morph themselves back into a squad capable of fighting at the sharp end. That he’s able to say that publicly shows he has the support of the board, too.
“A realistic step for this organisation is to make sure every year, we are just pushing forward and not slipping back, so that has to be dream number one; and dream number two is we have to decide on a sensible time in the future – and it’s years – where we start to actually break into sixth, fifth, fourth,” he said.
“From then onwards, the sport will really have to have some level of political change to allow probably the teams to break into the top three. That’s the future, but we’ll see how it ends up.”
Early in that future, Williams have a decision to make regarding their power unit supplier from 2026 onwards. New engine rules will be introduced for that year, with a greater focus on electrical power and the introduction of 100% sustainable fuels.
Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault are sticking around, Red Bull Powertrains are joining forces with return entrant Ford, and Audi have signed up to the party, the German manufacturer making Sauber their works team.
Honda have signalled their interest for the next rules cycle, which runs 2026 to 2030, however it remains unclear if they will commit to F1 again for certain and if so, with which team.
Williams have been with Mercedes since 2014 and Vowles says that “clearly, we’re happy with the relationship that’s been in place for many years, Mercedes have produced fundamentally the best on average power unit in the last 15 years”.
However, like any sensible business, Williams are “viewing the market place” – which has become more competitive given the new entrants – and reviewing their options. Time is short, with Vowles saying the team need to decide “a little bit before” the end of this year.
Elsewhere, Williams’ rebuild from a personnel perspective continues with the team bringing in a Chief Operating Officer from the aerospace industry. Frederic Brousseau “knows the production from design all the way through to delivery and knows how to deal with difficult time scales and difficult supply,” says Vowles, who joined Williams after Brousseau was signed.
“He’s perfect for the role and I think it’s a position that Williams hasn’t had the luxury of having for many years. I have, in my previous life, had a very, very good COO, and it makes a tremendous amount of difference.”
There remains still some way to go before Williams announce a Technical Director, though. The position has been vacant since FX Demaison’s departure ahead of last Christmas, the former rallying technical specialist leaving the team at the same time as then Team Principal Jost Capito.
Williams have struggled to successfully find a long-term replacement for co-founder Patrick Head, which is why Vowles is keen to make sure the next appointment is the right one.
“I’m a firm believer in fundamentally ensuring we have growth within our sport, we have some incredible individuals that are ready to be technical directors,” he said. “So first and foremost, it’s someone with Formula 1 experience, it’s not going to be someone from outside of our sport.
“And it could be someone who has already been in the role who wants a change of scenery or someone that has been really up against a glass ceiling and ready and waiting, and has all the ability to do so but hasn’t had the opportunity.”
When a new Technical Director is in place, they will find a team pushing hard to get the most out what they have, with a keen aspiration to grow. This year’s car is a decent package, one which has performed well on each of the opening three circuits.
It has its weaknesses, and will likely struggle on tracks like Barcelona as it did last year, but the better balance and understanding of the overall package has put them in a position to mix it regularly in the midfield.
That’s a big step forward but can they maintain that through the year? Vowles says they will continue to add performance to the car – but not at the expense of making bigger gains in the medium to long term.
“There’s a balance certainly but basically the intent within the organisation is incredibly clear, if you have a choice between a decision that improves us next week or one that can improve us significantly more in six months, 12 months, 24 months you go with the latter of those two decisions,” he said. “You still have a wind tunnel however that has to go through the process it normally would do to evaluate performance and that will I’m sure result in performance that we can add to the car this year.
“Furthermore, there are some elements that aren’t quite optimised and don’t necessarily have a large cost on next year’s performance package but allows the learning to move forward and that’s where we’ll invest our money and our time.
“However, what I mean by that is we are certainly not going to shortcut it to fill technical roles for people here for six months rather than 12 or 24 months, we’ll find the right people and get the right people in place.
“Again, in terms of core structures for the car as well, we aren’t going to rush next year’s chassis, we’ll do this in the way that I am used to, take our time about it but make sure we take chunks of performance as we do so.”
And that’s the general vibe at Williams right now. Yes, they want to make gains. Yes, they want to be frontrunners again. But they aren’t going to run before they can walk or make rash decisions. They are playing the long game. It’s a strategy that requires backing from the financiers, a patient board and utter trust in the person in charge that the wait will be worth it.