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SUNDAY CONVERSATION: Claire Williams on motherhood, gender politics and leadership

06 May 2018

A chip off the old block - that's how one might describe Claire Williams, who has taken to running her family's team with all the gusto of her mother and father. In an exclusive interview with David Tremayne, she discusses twinning motherhood with leading an F1 squad, addressing the gender pay gap and why she feels "a responsibility and sense of duty to give something back to this team"...

Look closely at every Williams car built since 2013, and you’ll find a butterfly logo. It’s discreet, yet it tells a moving and hugely important story of the team’s heritage, and the steely determination of the woman who now effectively runs the enterprise begun by Frank Williams back in 1969, and reborn with Patrick Head in 1977.

A woman who, since October last year, has had to juggle motherhood and the rigours of that job.

“It takes quite lot of organisational planning,” Claire Williams admits readily when discussing her six month-old son, Nate, “but luckily I have some very good childcare arrangements and my husband Marc is around as well. But it is difficult. For me Williams, as everyone would expect, isn’t a job and I always said it’s like another child to me.

“A slightly more troublesome and difficult-to-understand child. I have a duty and responsibility to Williams as well, and home life has to take a bit of a back seat unfortunately at the moment. That wasn’t the plan, but that’s just the way life is. I know Nate will grow up and understand, because I want one day to be able to say, ‘Here you go Nate, here’s a great successful Formula 1 team.’ Like Dad did for me.”

Motherhood has added another completely different dimension, that makes all the rest worth even more than before, and she adds: “When you are having a difficult weekend, and you can think to yourself, ‘I can get on a plane and go home and have a cuddle with my little boy,’ that makes everything okay again.”

Like her illustrious father, she is as tough as tungsten beneath a benign exterior, but she also has a sentimental side. That symbol of hope represented by those butterflies is a memorial to her mother, Lady Virginia – Ginny to everyone in the paddock – a brave and outwardly formidable character who lost her battle against cancer on March 8th, 2013. Ironically, 27 years to the day since the accident which confined her husband to a wheelchair.

“Mum loved butterflies, and there were loads in the garden at home,” Claire reveals. “Mum loved her gardens and named sections after drivers; there was the Piers Courage garden and the Ayrton Senna garden, all done in their memories.

“At her funeral a butterfly flew into the church. It was the middle of winter, so that was extraordinary. It landed on a stained glass window then dropped on to someone and wouldn’t come off. It actually came back to the house with us, and only then started flying around. That was amazing, because Mum had a tattoo of a little butterfly on her wrist which she got done when she was 60, much to Dad’s horror.

"I had our graphics team create the butterfly logo for me. It’s like a sun, with the butterfly coming out of it. Mum was Williams’s number one fan and Dad’s rock – you know that phrase behind each great man there is an even greater woman... She was the first lady of F1, and brought such great class to the sport. We will never take those butterfly logos off the cars.”

In Formula 1 a woman often has to work twice as hard as a man to be thought half as much of. But when the subject of sexism comes up, Claire merely smiles. For her, it’s nothing like the hurdle she faces, as Deputy Team Principal of one of the sport’s best-loved F1 teams, of turning around their fortunes. In 2014 Williams were the surprise of the season, but ever since they have been on a downward glide.

“It’s such a difficult issue, but everyone is interested in the female element,” she concedes. “It’s really weird because I’ve never, ever considered it. I grew up in F1, so I’ve been surrounded by men all my life. So when I was put into this role I never thought, ‘Oh God, am I going to have problems, will people take me seriously because I’m a woman?’ I’ve never really found that it’s been more of challenge doing this role because I’m a girl. I don’t know whether that’s because I don’t recognise it, or because I don’t know what people say when I’m not listening, how people judge me. But it’s always been positive. I don’t really even think about it. The girl thing just doesn’t come into it.”

Recently, however, when the subject of gender equality was raised, she leapt on to her soapbox with a gusto of which Ginny would have been proud.

“Gender equality is obviously an issue that Williams have been looking at and addressing for a number of years now. It’s hugely important as part of a wider societal conversation and it’s really important that we address these issues.

“The most important thing when you’re looking at gender pay is that women are paid the same amount as their male counterparts for doing the same role. At Williams we tackled that issue 12-18 months ago. I can sit here with total transparency, saying all women at Williams are paid what men are paid for doing the identical roles. I’m really proud to say that. But it’s also really important to say that we recruit on merit. Sport has to be done on a meritocracy, it’s not just a box-ticking exercise.”

Few have been born into such a strong and historic racing dynasty. Frank has always been one of the sport’s greatest fighters, but Ginny was also one very tough cookie.

“She was approachable and had a lovely way about her. She was a very classy lady,” Claire says, her face softening. And she laughs when you mention how Ginny once told Frank that a driver he was considering would never become a World Champion because he made his own bed. She claps her hands and laughs.

“I love that story! What a lot of people don’t realise about Mum is that she was hugely influential. Not in the intricate day-to-day operations, but in driver selection back in the day. She would give her opinion whether it was asked or not, and invariably she was right.”

She was also Frank’s tower of strength after the road accident in 1986 that left him paralysed.

“Mum went down and fought for him in the south of France,” Claire says with a faraway look. “The doctors had left him out in the corridor to die. She was formidable and brave and what she went through in her life at Williams was amazing.”

Few people enjoy two such strong role models as parents, but Claire is reticent when it comes to suggesting what she inherited from each.

“I think you are always a blend of your parents, and have characteristics of both. I have a lot of Dad, but also lot of Mum. But I’m always reluctant to say what I think those qualities are.”

Of her perceived toughness, she laughs. “See, I don’t think I am. People say I am but it’s difficult to judge yourself. I leave it to other people to think about that and get on with what I want to do. But I don’t see myself as tough.”

Initially, working with then-new CEO Mike O’Driscoll, her efforts bore fruit in the 2014 season, when Williams were third behind Mercedes and Red Bull, and ahead of Ferrari. Back then the arrival of Pat Symonds, in charge of the technical side, produced an immediate dividend. Now Paddy Lowe is in charge of that area, and the team are still in rebuild mode.

“Obviously, it’s not been the start that we’d hoped for, and maybe we’d come into it with a bit of blind positivity, almost, believing we could turn things around in a greater way than we actually had,” Claire admits. “We also made a lot of changes and brought new people into the team last year and maybe our expectations of what they could deliver in the timescale was exaggerated. And equally we should have done better and we all put our hands up to that, because everyone is accountable for that at Williams, and for where we are.

“But I do believe that sometimes you almost need to hit rock bottom to make you address the areas that you may have papered over previously, and probably that’s what’s happened at Williams in the past few years. We have identified the issues and where we can deliver performance.

“Paddy and his team have done a fantastic job in identifying the areas to build into that project and to roll it out to the rest of the team so everybody knows what that mission is and what the expectations and targets are. That’s really important, and fundamental honesty even more so. I think this has been a wake-up call, because we are all guilty of resting on our laurels sometimes.

“Williams are a big team now with nearly 700 people, a huge campus, there’s a lot of resource and equipment in there, and turning it round isn’t the work of a moment, unfortunately. And anyone who thinks, ‘Oh, you’ve had a bad year but you’ll be back up fighting at the top again,’ is naive. You have to adjust your expectations, which we have, and that’s kind of a bitter pill to swallow because we want to be in Formula 1 to win races.

“But we need to galvanise now and go into a period of rebuilding, and that is going to take some time. There is no quick-fix silver bullet, and we just have to work together, be honest about our issues and face them head-on. Yet there’s a sense of urgency. You can’t just go through the process at temperate speed, you have to grab it and run with it, and do it as quickly as you can without making any mistakes or panicking.”

Williams’ last win - their 114th - came in Spain in 2012 on Pastor Maldonado’s day of days. Frank had recently turned 70, and celebrated with Ginny, Claire and her brothers Jonny and Jamie. They were far from the only observers who felt very emotional that afternoon. As noted, Williams are much-loved.

“I’m so pleased that Mum chose to come to that race,” Claire says, “because it was difficult as she was very sick at the time but always covered her illness. She never bemoaned it and not once did she cry through the sadness or the pain.”

A faraway look comes into her pale eyes when you ask her to define her own mission, before the tungsten resolve replaces it.

“I feel a real responsibility and sense of duty to give something back to this team. We’ve been so privileged to have been born into Williams and to live a life within this magical sport. Williams and F1 have given a lot to our family, and the team have been its centre. For me, these last few years have been heart-breaking.

“I am actually really impressed by the attitude that we have here today. Rather than one of a team demoralised and broken, there seems to be a real shot of energy that this situation has made into the arms of everybody working here. There is real enthusiasm and drive to fix it that I haven’t seen in my time as DTP, so I’m really enthused by that.

“And all you can have is faith in your people, that they have identified the problems correctly, and that there is a plan in place to rectify them. It’s my job to give them everything they need in order to do that.

“And I believe that we have got the best people in place to deliver it, and we’ll just need time in order to do that. I’m not going into granular details - this area is wrong and that area is wrong and this fix will bring us X tenths…

“But if people think we don’t have a plan and we are going the way of Tyrrell, they will be sorely mistaken. That will be over my dead body.

“There is a lot of fight in me and the rest of the team. We have a plan, and clear ambitions. You may have a bad year, but it’s what you do in response that counts.”