Why Vowles is a ‘very good’ fit at Williams – and doesn’t see them as a ‘mini Mercedes’

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Just over four weeks after Jost Capito departed his position as Williams team principal, a familiar face has taken his seat. Former Mercedes motorsport strategy director James Vowles will head up the struggling squad.

Vowles started his F1 career as an engineer at British American Racing, which became Honda in 2006. By the time the team became Brawn he had stepped up to the role of race strategist, and helped guide Jenson Button to the world championship that year.

The following year the team became Mercedes, which went on to dominate the V6 hybrid turbo era. Vowles and his strategy squad took Lewis Hamilton to six drivers’ title, Nico Rosberg to one, and the team to an unprecedented eight consecutive constructors championship wins.

Following Capito’s exit, Williams owners Dorilton Capital moved quickly to appoint a replacement. Vowles admitted he only told Mercedes boss Toto Wolff “into the new year” that he was contemplating a change, yet it wasn’t the first time he had considered moving up from the strategy department into team management.

Vowles takes over as Capito and Demaison depart
“I think this journey towards team principal has been one that’s been in my head for many years, and Toto and Mercedes have been incredibly kind to provide me a pathway to get there,” Vowles explained. “A number of responsibilities have come my way over the last few years.

“I’m fortunate enough to have an incredibly strong strategy team, a strategy team that really over the last few years, I’ve simply been the front face for. But they’ve been doing the hard work behind the scenes and they deserve an opportunity to headline it in many regards.”

Vowles had already begun his transition beyond his realm of race strategy. “That’s what happened this year,” he continued. “We handed the reins over to them and they did an exceptional job, including the win in Brazil.”

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He joins Williams after another tough year for the team, which finished 10th and last in the constructors’ championship. Having finished eighth the year before their points tally fell by more than half in 2022. Yet their history is rich with success – only Ferrari have more constructors championship wins – and Vowles felt joining them was an “incredible opportunity” he could not pass up.

Alexander Albon, Williams, Yas Marina, 2022 post-season test
There were precious few points for Williams in 2022
“I’ve been chatting to Williams over the last month or so,” he explained Vowles. “We all have a relationship inside the sport, so it wasn’t that it was a complete ‘cold call’.

“From both sides, both Williams and myself, we concluded the fit is very, very good,” he continued. “After a number of meetings with the board, we found a way of working, a way of thinking, and a way of approaching things. Culture, people, and systems were incredibly aligned.

“It’s at that point where I brought Toto into the conversation to let him know what my will and desire were, and Toto’s response was the best I could have hoped for. He’s been incredibly good in terms of accommodating this change.

“Mercedes know it’s a loss, but in a way, it’s a gain because Williams, fundamentally and for myself, ends up being a big step. And I think that’s why you’re seeing this collaborative nature.”

Williams’ incoming team principal is new to the role and is taking charge of an outfit which is statistically one of the most successful but has spent much of the past few years fighting at the back of the grid. While Alexander Albon acquitted himself well with the team next year, he is partnered with rookie Logan Sargeant, and the team is in need of a technical director.

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While Vowles has embraced one challenge, Mercedes faces another in replacing him. His departure from Mercedes is a loss for the team which is seeking to reassert itself after a 2022 campaign which failed to measure up to its high standards. But Wolff believes they are well prepared to handle the exit of such a significant figure.

Vowles contributed to Mercedes’ dominance
“You can’t freeze a successful structure,” Wolff explained. “But you need to almost reinvent yourself whilst keeping what’s good.

“With James, we always had a very open discussion of where the path would or wouldn’t lead, and the strategy was his core activity. Then we kept adding responsibilities to his job and some of that was already a team principal’s work.

“Therefore, in a way, we knew that this is going to happen, could have happened at Mercedes and it happened at another team.”

With Mercedes’ plan for Vowles to hand over the reins to a new team of strategists having been in motion for some time, the team appear well-prepared to handle his departure, which may prove an opportunity for its current head of race strategy, Rosie Wait, to move up.

“James has been moving off the pit wall and not actively interfering anymore in the decision-making on race weekends,” Wolff continued.

After 21 years at the Brackley-based team, could taking up the reins at Williams give Vowles a chance to prove himself and eventually move back across to Mercedes? It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen movement between the two teams.

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This has happened most frequently with drivers. George Russell spent three years at Williams before stepping up to Mercedes. His predecessor Valtteri Bottas also made his F1 debut at Williams before becoming a Mercedes driver alongside Hamilton. Nico Rosberg, whose seat Bottas took in 2017, also had a stint at Williams before joining the Silver Arrows.

That doesn’t appear to be on the cards for Vowles at the moment. Wolff, who owns one-third of the team, was amused by suggestions they were “sending him to a boot camp for a few years.”

Wolff says he isn’t lining Vowles up to replace him one day
“No, I think I’ve always been very open going forward with my job. I’ve made a step beyond the actual employment and my role within the team and being a shareholder and that was a long-term decision. I keep introspecting, thinking of how much I actually can contribute to the organisation.

“If one day I believe that there are shortcomings in an area, be it on the sporting side, on the technical or on the commercial side or in the politics, I would not hesitate one single second about appointing someone to that area or finding someone that could take over what I do. Because as a shareholder, my main interest is that the team prospers, that we are winning on track and that is 90% of what comes to me and the 10% business development or financial development of the company.”

However he has not totally ruled out handing control of the team to someone like Vowles in the future. “I think you never say ‘never’ because James is great and I hope that he’s going to have a long career as a team principal in Williams,” he said. “Hopefully we will see him more often in the press conference after successful weekends and if things go well there, he could, as I do now, have a 10-year stint there.”

Nor does Vowles see his move as part of a long-term plan to eventually take charge of his former team. Williams is no “mini Mercedes”, he stresses, but a team with its “own history and home heritage.” He is eager to return the much-loved squad back to regular point-scoring contention.

“The highest thing on my priority list is making sure that everyone understands that it’s about working together, it’s about empowerment, it’s about treating your colleagues with the respect you want back from them, the growth you want back from them so that we can work together towards that goal,” says Vowles.

Williams has a long way to go to reach its goals. But though its new team principal may be inexperienced in the role, he brings deep knowledge of one of the top performing outfits in the pit lane. Will that finally allow this once-great team to realise its potential?

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 10 comments on “Why Vowles is a ‘very good’ fit at Williams – and doesn’t see them as a ‘mini Mercedes’”

    1. This smells like preparation for bigger role at Mercedes some day. ‘We like him so much and we like to see him go’ is the most ambivalent attitude I witnessed in F1 for a long time. Regardless of behind the scene development I sincerely hope James will transform Williams into something it should be.

      1. @boomerang
        I disagree. Nothing such, direct or indirect, no matter how one wants to interpret/look at things from the outside.

        1. Yeah, I think this is more about allowing people to persue their own goals over time @jerejj than anything about Mercedes long term planning to bring him back in.

          It does show how Mercedes is build with a solid team to be able to let them go when they want.

    2. I thought James was supposed to do a stint of Gardening Leave before taking up his new role, but then Williams aren’t exactly competing for podium places with Mercedes.

      1. @drycrust Vasseur & Seidl don’t Gardening Leaves either.

        1. @jerejj Yes, and I was surprised at that too! I suppose at the Team Principal level what they do know won’t go out of date over the few months of gardening leave.

        2. ’Don’t do’

    3. Wolff and his wolves…

    4. Logan, it’s James…

    5. If it wasn’t for Vowles, they’d be Wllms.

    Comments are closed.