Paddock Magazine spoke with James Vowles, team principal of Williams, during the Monaco Grand Prix. James won 8 constructors’ championships with Mercedes and worked for the Silver Arrows as a chief strategist. Williams announced in mid-January that James would take over the place of Jost Capito as their new team boss.
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How could you assess the first few races as team principal of Williams, and how was your transition to the team?
The transition has come very well; we’re about three months into it since I started with the team. We’re finding positive performance steps every day. You do not see the action of that potential for a year or even two years because it’s not about making minor changes to the current car; it’s about changing big blocks in the organization to make it more robust in the future, which takes time. If you focus on developing the car every week, you miss the big picture, the changes that allow you to become much faster in the coming years. The organization has been very welcoming; everyone has been relatively kind, but more importantly, when you give them traction, everyone knows where we need to go, and that’s the critical point. If we had problems there, it would have been more difficult. Looking at the first few races, Bahrain was everything we could achieve.
Regarding Melbourne, we all know there is a lot more potential in it. Regarding where we were with Alex, we had a little bit of luck and a little bit of our own luck that we created negative luck as a result of things. 10th isn’t a fair reflection of the car; 9th would be a better reflection of where we are on the grid today. Fortunately, plenty of races are left in the season to cool ourselves. In terms of Logan, you can’t expect someone to come into a sequence of 19 and perform immediately among the best drivers in the world, but he’s doing good. There were times in various races when he showed some incredibly quick performance, quicker than Alex. And Alex is a good benchmark. On the other hand, he needs to be more consistent. He needs to build the experience to perform consistently and be quick.
This team have been surviving; they haven’t been thinking forward a year or two.
Do you have a long-term strategy to get Williams back where it belongs?
On the entire company side, yes. The strategy lasts 4 or 5 years because that’s how long it takes to fix some elements. To explain some of the big lead time items that need to be done, for example, if we want to improve the simulator – just the simulator, that’s 20 months. If you want to fix the site, change buildings – that’s 2 to 3 years. You have to start thinking much further ahead about what you want the company to look like, including the structure and systems.
I’m sure you performed a current state analysis when you arrived at Williams. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the team?
The strength is agility. This team have been surviving; they haven’t been thinking forward a year or two. If you give them a problem and you’ve got a week – they fix it in a week. Where they’re weak is, I have a much bigger problem, and we have a month – can we fix this? I’ve noticed it doesn’t happen that way. That comes from the fact that the organization didn’t have finance, didn’t have money, didn’t have resources for 15-20 years, and that’s what they’re used to. Changing that culturally isn’t a work of a week or a month, or even a year. It takes a long time to allow people to understand we’re not surviving. We’re here to be successful. In Formula 1, you can’t worry about next week; you need to worry about next year and the year after.
Another strength is the machine shop area and some elements, like the wind tunnel, it’s similar to Mercedes. That’s a real strength. The weaknesses, though, are that it’s two of maybe 100 areas, and the other 100 areas don’t have the investment required to be anywhere near the championship battle. Another area is that many individuals are knowledgeable and work incredibly hard. Still, they need help with what excellence is today and what the standard of Formula 1 is today. Many people have lost their way to where the standard needs to be. Therefore, it will take time to come back. That’s what I understand; I’ve seen it for many years and lived it for many years; it just takes time.
What was the main drive behind your decision to leave Mercedes and join Williams?
Mercedes has achieved – not just within Formula 1 but within several teams’ sports a result that would be unparalleled again. It was dominance beyond dominance. I know Red Bull is very quick at the moment, and I’m curious to see what happens in a year or two. We’ve won around 130 races and several championships – I’ve had success, but that was with me being a very significant senior part of the machine but a part of a structure created with me. I had the opportunity to work from the ground up with a suitable investment to build an organization. That comes only once in a life, and I would have been foolish to say no to it. Williams has more championships than Mercedes does, and it has a legacy. Williams is a team I followed when I was a tiny kid, and I was passionate about it. It was an opportunity to return to where I started in this business, and I couldn’t say no to it.
It was dominance beyond dominance.
What does a typical race weekend look like as a team principal? How did your daily routine change compared to your previous positions in the sport?
You’re trying to balance the requirements of sponsors and marketing. For example, I spent 3-4 hours fulfilling some marketing requirements yesterday, combined with engineering time as well. I like to understand everything that’s going on with the car, the setup, the drivers, the program, what tyres we’re using, and how much fuel we’re using. It ends up being about an entire full day of meetings, but enjoyable. In my experience, and that’s my belief anyway, you can’t go into the qualifying or the race not knowing what’s about to happen. You need to be a part of the process because the responsibility will still fall back onto your shoulders as a result of things. A typical day is – this morning, we had a team briefing, meeting yourself, doing some PR, being with sponsors, and doing some marketing. Then the fun bit as well, we’re going to FP1, watching the cars go out this track, which is exceptional. Then, we need to understand what we did well and poorly. Then move away from it, and go back into discussions with sponsors and media. You’re always combining backwards and forwards between these two. As I said, it’s enjoyable because there is never one minute that’s the same thing.
You raced yourself in the Asian Le Mans Series. Is it something that you’d like to continue doing in the future?
It is, yes. I had several races even last year, but I didn’t make them very public. Across the winter, when I was negotiating with Williams, I had another Asian Le Mans drive, but I said no to it because I didn’t think it would be appropriate with the changes we were going through. At the moment, I need to make sure that we are on the right pathway, which will take every millisecond of my time and energy. You’ll see me back in a GT3 car, I’m sure.
The only thing you saw was my leg bouncing
We saw you having some stressful moments earlier on the pit wall; how can you handle stress?
Interestingly, I very rarely get stressed. The only thing you saw was my leg bouncing. I’ve tried to control it, but it’s hard to control. But if you’ve ever listened to me on team radio, you see my voice is always like this. I don’t feel stressed in the way other people do. I’m fortunate to have an incredible team and people around me. It’s never one person; it’s the team around you, supporting you along the journey. I’ve had the same at Mercedes, and I have the same here as well.