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Vowles takes Williams by the hand: Culture, the budget cap and Albon

Vowles takes Williams by the hand: Culture, the budget cap and Albon

09-09-2023 06:00 Last update: 09:00
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James Vowles became team boss in Formula 1 for the first time earlier this year. The former Mercedes man is impressing as the leader of Williams, who are starting to revive under his leadership. In an exclusive interview with GPblog, Vowles explains what he has found at the team, how he is working to change the culture and the impact Alexander Albon is having on the team.

Williams flourishing under Vowles

Williams have almost double the number of points of their closest pursuer, Haas (11 points) and seem to be heading for their best spot in the constructors' championship since 2017. Back then, they took maximum advantage of the extremely powerful Mercedes engine. Now Williams are doing it on their own.

This cannot be separated from the arrival of Vowles. The Brit had been part of British American Racing (BAR) since 2001, which later morphed into Honda, BrawnGP and Mercedes. Under the latter brand, Vowles had been promoted to Motorsport Director and became a hugely valued force within the team. Calling him as Jost Capito's successor was seen as a big signing.

Over six months later, things are much better at Williams. The team that finished bottom of the rankings in four of the last five seasons are again maximising the car's qualities under Vowles and are now seventh in the championship. In doing so, they leave Alfa Romeo, Haas and AlphaTauri behind.

How Vowles looks back on his first six months at Williams

"I'm proud of what this team has done over the last eight months. The direction of travel is one that's positive. We really are moving in the right direction. You can see there are a lot of people that believe in the direction of travel. If you look back at some of the races this year, the two that stand out are Montreal and Silverstone. We took everything we could and more from what we had as a package. I'm proud of that," said the 44-year-old team boss.

Beforehand, there were many question marks over Vowles' switch. Was there any honour to be had with Williams? A team where time seems to have stood still in recent years due to a lack of investment. However, Vowles stresses that the people have a lot of potential, as evident from this season's successes.

"Normally, when you change a culture, it takes many years. You can't do it overnight. But what surprised me is in six months already, we've seen the start of culture change. We haven't changed the culture. We've seen the start. That is rare in such a big organisation. It means that we had an organisation that was ready to go through change and has belief in the direction of travel that I'm presenting to them."

Albon impresses as leader of Williams

Another positive surprise that Vowles mentions is Alexander Albon. The two already knew each other, but Albon has made a good impression on his new team boss. "I think Alex has taken a step himself, and we work very well together." It becomes clear how significant a role Albon plays at Williams when asked how important such a leader is.

"It's very important. The team will look up to and listen to a few voices within the team. And absolutely one of them will be your drivers, both normally. The driver can describe what is happening (in the car) and what the limitations are. They can do that in a way that makes it clear to the engineers and designers what to do."

"It's an incredibly young age [27] for someone to be a leader in that environment, but you need that direction. Car data is incredible, but it doesn't tell you everything. The car data will only tell you the limitations that the driver is driving to. You need to understand what's limiting you and what's that boundary. That car data won't help you with as much as the driver will."

Vowles' 'No Blame Culture'

Whereas Albon plays his role to improve the car's performance, Vowles is mostly concerned about the culture within Williams. According to Vowles, people were afraid to make mistakes and, therefore, did not progress. Under Vowles' leadership, the 'no blame culture' that is also highly regarded at Mercedes was introduced, and with success. The question is, why is that culture so important to Vowles?

"If you were working for me, I need you to never be questioning whether or not you should be pushing the boundaries, developing and innovating because you are fearful that you might make a mistake or fearful that you might lose your job. As soon as you have a fear culture, two things happen. First of all, you'll do what's safe. So instead of pushing out, you'll push so far because you know that's comfortable. You won't push yourself any further than that. Second of all, when a problem comes up, the first thing you'll do is hide it. Not show it to the world and go, 'I got this wrong. Here's why I got it wrong.'"

"The amount of failures I've had in my career is enormous. Every single one, as long as you openly talk about it and treat it correctly, has made me much, much stronger. Success doesn't really make you stronger at all. You sit back and go, 'yeah, well done'. I want to create an environment that pushes innovation. I want to push development. I want to push teamwork. I want to push that if you make a failure, learn from that. And then teach others around you the same thing."

But how do you then bridge the gap between development and performance? In Formula 1, the result is ultimately what counts, and sometimes hard decisions will be made. "We will gain, and we will lose together," Vowles said. For Vowles, it is more about how the gap with the top is closed.

"If you look at where we are at the moment, what do we need? We need to be doing a development rate that is better than the top three teams on the grid to be able to catch up. If you do any less than them, you won't catch up. So how do you do that? You can't do the same. They have more established equipment, more established environments, more people and more money than we have."

"So we have to make sure that we're taking every risk we can to push the boundaries. And we will fail. We will make mistakes. And I've already explained to the team that I'm okay with that. In 23-24, make mistakes, make failures, and learn from them. Because it's the only way that we're going to do something that is going to push the boundaries that allow us to do a better job than other people. It takes time."

The advantage of the top teams in Formula 1

This brings up the critical point: how long it will take? Alpine/Renault always labelled a number of years or a number of races on targets, but Vowles won't start there. "It takes years," he pointed out, but why is climbing up the ranks in F1?

"Williams is an incredible organisation, but went without the required investment for the last 20 years. And you don't have to trust my words. In England, all of the accounts are public, so you can look at the accounts and see how much we have invested. I can then show you how much I was fortunate enough to spend within Mercedes. The numbers are not even close. So as a result of that, there were some facilities in Williams that are easily 20, 25 years out of date."

For example, Vowles explains the 'etching machine' in the factory. Whereas Williams' is as big as the Formula 1 paddock, Mercedes' is the size of a table. Digital systems are also lacking at Williams. Tens of millions are needed to develop those systems.

The problem for Williams, which can invest money under the leadership of Dorilton Capital, is that there is now a budget cap on those investments. Vowles thinks the budget cap is a good idea, but with the budget cap on facilities, the top teams have an advantage that small teams now cannot easily catch up with. For Vowles, it is completely annoying. As part of Mercedes, he voted for those rules a few years back, and now they are actually working against him.

"We have to be sensible as a sport. We want this to be a meritocracy. We want this to be a sport. And it isn't at the moment. I'm running with one shoe off. And I don't have spikes. Other people have spikes and a rocket launcher on their back. So we need to equalise the sport. The problem is it will take time for people to understand that. It's hard for people around us to accept that we're ready to spend hundreds of millions more, not small numbers."

Vowles continues to push hard for changes to these rules to make the sport more equal for all participants. It takes time, that is no secret, but Vowles has shown he can already maximise performance with the resources available at Williams.