Opinion: Why James Vowles’ tough demotion call underlines his leadership strength at Williams

Thomas Maher
Williams' Logan Sargeant and James Vowles

James Vowles' decision to take Logan Sargeant out of his car in Australia was tough, but the right call...

James Vowles’ decision to hand Logan Sargeant’s intact Williams to Alex Albon in Australia was devastating for the American, but underlined Vowles’ credentials as a team boss.

Williams ended up in a hugely awkward position at last weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, with only one driveable car after their defacto lead driver Albon crashed his in practice – leading Vowles to make a very awkward call.

James Vowles unhesitant in swapping Alex Albon into Logan Sargeant’s car

During practice in Melbourne, Albon crashed his Williams at high speed at Turn 6 after bottoming out on the kerb exiting the corner. With the Grove-based team pursuing their first points of the season, the crash was costly enough by itself in terms of track time lost and the financial burden of rebuilding the car and manufacturing new parts.

But, shortly after the crash as Williams confirmed Albon would miss the next practice session – the story got even worse. Williams didn’t have a spare chassis in Australia and, as a result, would be down to just one car for the rest of the weekend.

Astonishing enough in its own right for a team in 2024, when everyone is supposedly swimming in money from the huge audience and sponsorship cash invested in F1, the team simply didn’t have another chassis manufactured on time after facing pre-season pressures in the factory.

This meant that Albon and Sargeant had gone through pre-season testing, Bahrain, the uber-fast and frightening Saudi Arabia, and Australia’s also extremely fast and not much less frightening Albert Park, all in the knowledge that there was no backup if they made a driving error.

Albon, as the more experienced of the two, therefore placed Williams in a dilemma. With one car available, and the team needing to maximise the chance of points, should James Vowles make the decision to remove the blameless Sargeant from his intact car and hand it to Albon after he had crashed his own?

After all, doing so would mean destroying the confidence of Sargeant at a time when he is trying to build upon barely surviving the winter after a tough first year, as well as sending the message to him, the sponsors, and the fans that the team really don’t have the belief in him to bring the car home in the points if the possibility is there.

But Vowles denied this was the case, saying, “The fact that we signed him shows you I have faith in him. This year, I think you’ve seen he’s been closer to Alex than before.

“However, I have one car and just one car. There are five very fast teams taking up those top 10 positions. There are no points apart from if you’re in the top 10. There’s one point separating the bottom five teams at the moment. So every point will make a difference between now and the end of the year. In that regard, therefore, you put your money on the driver that, so far this year, has been slightly ahead of the other one, which is Alex.

“So I’ve reset everything, taking a view from Bahrain, from Saudi, and taking a view here on which of the two drivers is most likely to score points.”

James Vowles swift decision unsurprising given his background

It’s a coldly logical view and one that’s difficult to argue with. After all, F1 isn’t a sport for mollycoddling drivers and Vowles, prior to joining Williams as a team boss, became famous during his Mercedes days for being the man who would make the “Valtteri, it’s James” radio calls which Valtteri Bottas dreaded.

While it became a humorous meme radio call, it was one that belied the seriousness of the situation if Vowles needed to utter those words – Mercedes would utilise Vowles’ seniority to ensure the drivers (usually Bottas, unfortunately for him) did what the team wanted.

The most famous example was at the 2018 Russian Grand Prix when Bottas had the legs on Hamilton for the race win but Vowles instructed him aside to allow the British driver to take the win as he was embroiled in a championship fight with Sebastian Vettel.

Vowles, as Mercedes’ last rung of authority before Toto Wolff would intervene, thus adjusted well to putting the needs of the team ahead of the individual driver – a grounding that not every team boss has.

But, while Vowles swiftly made the call to swap his drivers around, that’s not to say the speed with which that decision was made was done easily.

“It’s very difficult to do,” he said.

“You have an elite athlete that’s doing nothing but what I’ve asked him to do this year, he hasn’t made a single mistake and he didn’t put a foot wrong across this year. And yet I’ve taken him out of the car.

“So that would damage, whether it’s you in a car or him in the car, it would damage your confidence. One of the methods I’ve been putting in place with him so far is structure around it, including he and I talking about where his strengths are and where his weaknesses are, help and support in terms of his surroundings, in order to move him forward.”

Vowles also explained that Sargeant’s confidence will likely come back very quickly once he’s back in the car, saying the American driver understands the dynamic of the team sport.

“The truth behind it is, with a racing driver when they get in the car again, which for him now will be in Japan and he ends up within milliseconds of Alex – which is what he’s been doing the last few races – you’ll see the confidence flows back anyway,” he said.

“The second message is this. He understands this is a team sport, it is the weirdest sport in the world where I’ve got two drivers, but it’s a team sport.

“He understands that and one of the reflections I had is I was nowhere near his maturity when I was his age. He’s frustrated by it because he wants to be performing at the highest level but, equally, he understands and recognises that, as a team sport, I’ve had to make one of the hardest decisions so far in my position here.”

Unfortunately, it ended up being in vain, as Williams didn’t quite have the race pace to challenge for points with Albon on the day.

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Vowles reveals performance push led to risks being taken over parts availability

With Williams sending the cracked chassis home for checks and repairs, Vowles is confident the team will have both cars ready for the Japanese Grand Prix but, once again, they won’t have a third chassis available.

But while Vowles showed his leadership mettle by applying cold, hard logic, the tougher question for him is why the team failed to have a spare chassis at their disposal.

At a time when the likes of Andretti have been rejected from F1 over concerns over their ability to race in a competitive manner, a historic team like Williams failing to be able to field two cars at the third round of the season is a major dropping of the ball and the first question mark over the decision-making processes Vowles has implemented over the past year.

Vowles explained the reasons for the delay in introducing the third chassis into the rotation, revealing it could be as late as China before it’s ready – well over a month since the first race of the championship.

“When I started in February last year, the plan was to have three chassis at Round 1,” he said.

“As we went through large changes in organisation, adding performance and technology changes in the back end and process, we started to push out fundamentally certain elements of things. So there’s a finite amount of resources and, as we were going through an inefficient structure and making transformation at the same time, we started to cause problems.

“Those problems before could have translated to adding metal components or [running] last year’s rear wings. In this particular case, the third chassis started to get delayed and delayed and delayed. I think one of the things that we’ve been transparent about is we were very late with these cars, very, very late. We pushed everything to the absolute limit.

“The fallout of that is we didn’t have a spare chassis. Now, even when it was intended to be coming here for Round 3, it got delayed and delayed again as other items got pushed back as a result.”

Risk versus reward gamble resulted in Australian GP failure

Vowles has been particularly open about how far behind Williams is compared to a team like Mercedes in terms of their organisational and manufacturing infrastructure and, thanks to continuously highlighting these shortfalls, succeeded in securing a rules change relating to capital expenditure that will allow Williams (and the other trailing teams) to invest more heavily into their resources without eating into the budget cap.

It stands up to scrutiny then that, in the evaluation of risk versus reward of chasing performance and points, Vowles opted to place his faith in the drivers that they wouldn’t cause damage that would require a third chassis. Unfortunately for him, that risk didn’t pay off in Australia, but it shows where his priorities are – after all, having a third chassis but two less developed cars is less likely to score points.

To ensure harmony within the ranks, Vowles revealed he called the team together in Australia following his decision, and outlined how this apparent weakness should be viewed as a catalyst for further strengthening of the team.

“Without a doubt, you’re in a situation where you have teams that are here that have flown on an aircraft for 24 hours to come here and not be able to compete at the highest level,” he said.

“So one of the things I did [on Friday] is I called the team together and explained why I made the decision, and why we have to pull together as a team, not pull apart, and why we have to use this as a catalyst for change.

“So this is all frustrating, we should never be in a situation in the top tier of motorsports where we’re not able to produce two cars to go to the grid.

“But I’ve always said all the way along that this catalyst of change that we need to do, the change that we’re doing within Williams at the moment, is not one that will take place over one month or one year, but many years to start resolving all these issues.

“As you would imagine, you’re seeing an output of it, which is the third chassis is not ready. This is more what I’m trying to use as a strength within the organisation of ‘This is why we are changing’.

“This is why I’m confident this will work as a result of things. Please use what’s happened today not as a frustration, but as a catalyst for why we need to do this and very quickly together.”

Vowles is still finding his feet as a team boss and, despite the major failing that Australia unfortunately revealed, has shown that he’s making the best of every situation that he’s presented with. While Sargeant’s confidence will have taken a dash, his performances don’t yet merit being picked over Albon and, while there has to be sympathy and empathy for him in that situation, him being removed from his seat was the smarter, if colder, call.

The ability to make decisions like this marks out the great from the good, and the good from the adequate, provided that that required sympathy and empathy is illustrated alongside the logic. Vowles appears to have that ability, and he has passed the first major test of his leadership. Even better for team owners Dorilton Capital, there’s no sign that he wasn’t certain in his decision-making, nor that he lacks the capacity to make the exact same call again if required.

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