What’s going on at Williams? Crunch time for James Vowles as pressure mounts

Michelle Foster
Alex Albon, Williams, 2024 Japanese Grand Prix.

Alex Albon was involved in a collision with Daniel Ricciardo on the first lap at Suzuka.

James Vowles has talked the talk but now it is time, if you will, to chassis the chassis and spare the spare as while the team was the butt of many a meme in Japan, this is his first big test as Williams’ team boss.

Picking up the reins at the beleaguered, cash-strapped but adamant now-investment-charged Williams in January 2023, Vowles made it crystal clear that Williams, who hadn’t finished higher than P5 in the Constructors’ Championship in the five years prior to his arrival, were antiquated in their systems at best.

James Vowles’ (long) battle from stagnation to success

P7 in his first year in charge was deemed, from the outside, a hallelujah moment. But the result belied Williams’ ability, or at least their infrastructure in a time of CFD, simulators, and even AI.

On his knees as he begged rivals to give Williams some leeway in the cost cap investment spending, Vowles spoke of equipment that was 20 years out of date and systems the involved paperwork instead of e-filing.

Back in June last year, he even highlighted a 2024 problem but no one, definitely not the media, listened to the nuance of his comment: “Bear in mind,” he said of Williams’ FW45, “there are 17,000 components and by the time you have designers doing this 17,000 times, you get lost. So you have inefficiencies.

“That software to fix that isn’t, unfortunately, 100 pounds, but that’s millions, and even up to 10s of millions if you get it right.” And that’s just the start of the bill for Williams to catch up, not surpass, rivals’ technology.

Now fast forward to March/April 2024 and there’s Vowles telling us how Williams don’t have a spare chassis, and we’re all looking at him like “WTF!”

Having sold Williams to Dorilton Capital back in 2020, that was supposed to resolve the team’s issues, after all, money fixes all problems.

But it doesn’t. Not if you cannot spend it in a cost-cap environment.

First Williams, and no offence to Jost Capito but his short tenure speaks for itself, needed the right person in charge and so persuaded Vowles to leave his role as Mercedes’ strategy director to take up the team principal role at Williams.

Perhaps most telling of the desperation, deficit, delusion, and da gravity (apologies) of the job was that Mercedes – who had previously been overseen by now Mercedes motorsport director and shareholder Toto Wolff – didn’t ask for a 12-month gardening period, they told Vowles to have it, and best of luck. Lots, and lots, and lots of luck.

P7 in his first year in charge without any telling problems except his number two driver and his crashes, and the F1 world at large applauded Vowles as the team recorded their best championship position since 2017’s P5. Clearly, Vowles and Dorilton’s cash were paying off… surely.

And then came 2024…

Speaking even before pre-season testing, before even the first F1 car had put in a single lap in a shakedown, Vowles said Williams would be “late” to the on-track party. But it was, he implied, a well-thought-out and conscious decision.

Blah, blah, “chassis technology is different”, blah, blah, “pushing everything to the limits”, and then perhaps more telling “challenged us to push ourselves beyond where we wanted to be”.

He added: “You simply can’t do everything at the same time, you can’t change what you’re doing and break technology cycles, and put yourself in a much better performance situation, without taking an enormous amount of risk.

“And we have, but there’s no doubt about it having the car where we have it now, and you’ll see it in Bahrain, is late.”

Late played out to be a day-before-pre-season shakedown, and, some pundits suggested, day-one-trials in testing, but more worrying was yet to come.

Making it through Race 1 and Race 2 of the season with little more, used loosely, than a Logan Sargeant crash in Saudi Arabia, Williams were P7 in the Constructors’ Championship but knocking on the points door with Alex Albon’s P11 in Bahrain.

And then came the headlines, not many of them being polite.

Albon crashed in FP1 for the Australian Grand Prix and lo and behold it emerged that Williams did not have a spare chassis. OK, not great, not wise, but not the only team… until they shoved Sargeant out of his car and gave it to Albon.

Now they were in the headlines and most in a negative, although let’s be fair by saying a few mixed opinions, context.

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Vowles fell on his sword singing mea culpa from the rooftops especially when asked by Ted Kravitz if he’d “damaged” Sargeant’s confidence (Ed: read career). The Briton told his compatriot: “I have hard decisions to make and mine is for the wellbeing of this organisation as a whole. And that is I’ll do everything it takes to score the point if it is available to us.”

Vowles subsequently revealed Williams don’t have a spare chassis, and given the magnitude of building one they won’t have a spare on hand until Miami (Alpine and others included but who cares for the sake of a good headline).

But two weeks on from Melbourne, and still point-less, the “wellbeing of this organisation” is still reeling from the blow of Australia FP1 with Williams the butt of many a meme when Albon crashed on the opening lap of the Japanese GP.

Through no fault of his own and in a racing incident (Danny Ric!!), Albon crashed at Turn 2 of the Japanese Grand Prix when there was contact with another driver as they tussled for track position. Off into the tyre wall, out came the red flags, and out came the memes.

From Williams’ pre-race packing job to “spare chassis – X” to “Williams checking the rules if they can put Albon in Sargeant’s car which is actually Albon’s car”, Williams, Vowles and the Williams chassis were the punch line in Sunday’s jokes.

The irony is that if no one had crashed, and crashed so hard they broke the chassis, then no one would’ve known never mind joked or criticised.

Alpine don’t have a spare, Wolff “certain in my time at Williams” did not “have any spare chassis”, Haas do, but that’s not necessarily their norm, and those were the only teams weighing in on the debate.

Williams’ subsequent confirmation that the three big crashes in three weeks have put their upgrade plans on the back foot also shouldn’t come as a damning indictment of Vowles’ leadership.

It’s not his fault his drivers are crashing, and it’s not his fault F1 has a cost cap, nor that Williams’ budget is at the lower scale of that. It’s also not his fault that he’s having to scramble to make up for 20 years of stagnation to find short, sharper and more cost-effective solutions to Williams’ infrastructure problems.

The memes and headlines may be quick to judge the team boss and his 16-month tenure as Williams’ team principal, but, clinched as it is, Vowles needs time.

Time to update the infrastructure… and time to upgrade the driver line-up.

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