James Vowles, Williams, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023 pre-season test

Why Williams say it will be “very difficult” to catch top teams without rules changes

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New Williams team principal James Vowles walked through the doors of the team’s headquarters in Oxfordshire last month well aware of the task at hand as he took on the role.

Founded in 1977, Williams went on to become one of the most successful teams in Formula 1 history. Clay Regazzoni claimed the team’s first grand prix win in 1979, and the first of nine constructors’ titles came a year later. Only Ferrari have been champions more times.

But Williams last won a race in 2012 and since coming third in the standings in 2015 has primarily been on a downwards trajectory with its form. They came last in 2018 with just seven points, and have struggled to improve since.

The 2019 campaign was a disaster, the car not even ready in time for pre-season testing. In 2020 neither George Russell or Nicholas Latifi scored and Williams finished last in the constructors’ championship for the third season running. Amid growing financial pressures exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Williams family was forced to sell up, and Dorilton Capital took over.

Williams’ last win was over a decade ago
“The team has over the last 15 years been through a tremendous amount of difficulty financially and otherwise, and it survived through all of that,” Vowles said ahead of his first race in charge, adding there are “stark differences between where we are today and where we need to be in the future”.

Vowles spent 20 years at Mercedes before taking over the role of team principal just a few days before 2023 pre-season testing. He hopes his experience means he knows exactly where Williams needs to improve and he did not sugar-coat the scale of the challenge they face, dismissing any ideas of a quick turnaround in their fortunes.

“To break into the top three is incredibly difficult,” he said. “They have resources beyond your dreams. They have experience beyond your dreams. They have the best people on the grid.

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“As you become better and better at what you do, you also become more and more cost-efficient. I don’t mean through other external techniques, I mean just simply your composite production. So all of those additional costs that will be borne by teams that perhaps are fourth and backwards.”

Alex Albon, Williams, Yas Marina, 2022
In 2022 Williams came last for the fourth time in five years
His goal for the team is to make incremental gains in performance. “I think certainly a realistic step for this organisation is, first and foremost, to make sure that every year we are just edging forward. That has to be dream number one.

“Dream number two is we have to set a sensible period of time in the future – and it’s years – where we start to actually break into sixth, fifth, fourth place.”

But further progress will depend on the future of F1’s rules. “From then onwards, the sport really will probably have to have some level of political change to allow, properly, teams to break into the top three.”

F1 introduced rules in 2021 which vary how much aerodynamic development each team may conduct based on their finishing position in the previous year’s championship. Williams finished last in 2022, therefore gets the highest allocation this year. However this may not go far enough, says Vowles.

“Where the top three are at the moment is such a strength that even with ATR [aerodynamic testing restrictions] catch-up, it’s very difficult to make up for lost time in that regard.

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“What I really mean by that is that I think more components that have been shared between organisations, more major components that take away perhaps some of the locked-in gain, that will help balance things.”

Alex Albon, Williams, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Albon snatched a useful point in Bahrain
While the much discussed cost cap has reduced the spending deficit teams like Williams have to the top teams, it has other less helpful repercussions, such as constraints on capital expenditure on fixed assets.

“The cost cap is a limiting factor in all of these things simply because it puts us in a position where there’s a limited amount of CapEx [capital expenditure],” Vowles explained. “It won’t be enough to spend our way to success, as I would probably define it.”

It will take time “to get some of the core facilities to the level required” and “that’s not the work of six months or 12 months” but rather longer term goals.

“Further to that, as I’ve discussed externally, we are in a position where we are lacking key technical personnel and the team are definitely under strain at the moment to ensure that we’re filling those voids as best we can. So the pathway is not one of months but years.”

Vowles described the scale of the task ahead of him as being “about what I expected, but maybe a soupçon of being slightly worse”.

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“Any organisation – irrespective of whether it is a F1 team or otherwise – cannot be a high-performing outfit if you take money away from it and basically have such disruption across a number of years that you end up in a poor situation. And that’s where Williams stands. It’s not for lack of good people. It’s just simply a lack of stability.”

James Vowles, Williams, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023 pre-season test
Vowles spent his first race in charge of Williams last week
High on the list of appointments Vowles needs to make are two senior technical positions. Besides the departure of technical director Francois-Xavier Demaison at the same time as Vowles’ predecessor Jost Capito, the team is also looking for a new head of aerodynamics to replace David Wheater.

While Vowles sees much to be done to turn the ship around, the team has at least begun the year in a promising position, close enough to the tight midfield group to be able to compete for points. Newcomer Logan Sargeant almost reached Q2 on his debut in Bahrain, while Alex Albon was convinced he would have reached Q3 had a front wing flap not broken. In the race Albon ensured the team scored a point on Vowles’ first weekend in charge, taking 10th place while Sargeant rose to a promising 12th.

“To have the pace we had under the circumstances, I have to say I’m super proud,” beamed Albon afterwards as he pointed out that only Aston Martin was ahead of Williams in lap time gain around Bahrain compared to 2022.

It was an encouraging start for Williams to life under its new team principal. But it’s clear Vowles is under no illusions about the scale of challenge this team faces if it is ever going to return to the glory days of its last championship win, now more than 25 years ago.

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Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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13 comments on “Why Williams say it will be “very difficult” to catch top teams without rules changes”

  1. Mercedes start early to try to change the rules all ready. No change means it’s easier to catch up changing costs a lot.

  2. Through the 80s, 90s and early 2000s Williams were in the position of Red Bull / Mercedes but way more extreme. At peak inequality they would have had 10 times the staff and budget of the smaller teams. Their cars would lap even the fifth fastest car multiple times per race. Eventually though major change happened. Williams lost Renault and later lost BMW and then sponsors. At the time of huge aerodynamic, technological and engine formula changes they were short on money. The reshuffle of 2009 was unprecedented and had lasting effects on the pecking order of F1. When Williams did have a fast car again they were unable to capitalise in future seasons and sank while others found their feet.

  3. If you lack the monetary resources, then yes, it’s probably impossible to compete at the same level with those who can. That’s not really something F1 should be doing something about. It’s up to Williams to capitalise on the boom of the sport and find a financial and/or technical partner that can elevate their position in that regard.

    That it’s not impossible to compete with the top 3 is evident in the team that made it a top 4 this very season.

    1. By spending top 3 money, of course…..

      Even if F1 holistically is a money making machine now, the bulk of it will always follow success.
      Problem is – what value does it bring to place your $5Million branding on a Williams compared to a Red Bull or Merc when nobody’s going to see it. It never gets broadcast…. A far smaller number of people are interested in what happens to cars at the back.

      1. As in, the team owner supplied the money to Aston Martin – the team didn’t have to scrounge it like other teams do.

    2. No, because he makes the critical point that if you didn’t get your spending into major infrastructure upgrades before the cost cap you’re really stuck. So, unlike Aston Martin, who splurged a huge amount on state of the art facilities before the cap came into effect to bring them closer to the technology levels that Ferrari, Mercedes and RBR enjoyed, they can’t even if they had the money.

      …unless I am confused and the cap doesn’t include infrastructure upgrades.

      1. Admittedly I don’t know everything about the cost cap but it would make very little sense to have infrastructure costs being factored in. We’re not in the era of privateer teams anymore, teams need state of the art facilities that could easily be double the cost cap and if regulations prohibits that, FIA would be shooting themselves in the foot

  4. It is as much a skill to find investor, invest the money in the right places, build towards a future, as it is to drive fast, and design a fast car.
    When you no longer have those skills to able to successfully run a team, there are plenty of people and organizations waiting that think they have the skills and the connection to make something of it.
    It’s not just matter of having capital, thats what Mclaren has been demonstrating for over a decade now.

  5. Great article, Claire…

  6. Vowles paints a bleak picture which I’m sure is no exaggeration. However… although Toto has sold all his Williams shares over the years, I can’t help but think that there is still some tie-in between Wolff and Williams, and now Mercedes and the Vowles move over to Williams. I suspect Williams will rise much quicker from the ashes than most of us expect. Sure, not quite like a phoenix, but I’m sure there’s something going on there behind closed doors which will expedite improvements.

  7. Red Bull Racing breached the cost cap in the YEAR BEFORE a significant regulation change. Wouldn’t it make sense to allow other teams to add an equivalent ‘overspend’ to their budgets? This would close the gap faster rather than cement in any performance gains the Red Bull cheating might have purchased.

    Yes, it could become a slippery slope of rotating overspends…but how else does the FIA fix this mess?

    1. $1.8m will make virtually zero difference, but I wouldn’t mind it. I think beyond just wind tunnel time / the like, they should also give more spending ceiling to the lower teams on infrastructure. Unless I totally misunderstood his comments, it seems like it’s the actual facilities themselves are one of the biggest factors which will put a major ceiling on their performance gains.

      1. It’s really a catch 22 for Williams I guess. They’re right, they need the money for facilities with more and better staff but they need to convince potential investors. With the results they’ve had over the past 10 years, it’s near impossible unless another Lawrence comes along.

        One can dream that McLaren and Williams join forces then open that extra grid slot to let andretti in to see if they can put their money where their mouth is

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