Williams’ team boss James Vowles has summed up his first year as an F1 team boss in a typically self-effacing fashion.
At the start of 2023, Williams announced the signing of James Vowles as their new team boss, signing him as a replacement for the departing CEO and team boss Jost Capito after a short stint following the departure of Simon Roberts.
Seeking a longer-term solution, Williams secured the services of Vowles in what was a big career move for the British engineer after serving for years as the motorsport strategy director at Mercedes.
James Vowles reflects on his first year as an F1 team boss
Having successfully completed his first year as a team boss, Vowles has earned plaudits up and down the pit lane for his calm, methodical approach to leading a team – he’s made it very clear his focus is on the medium to long-term strategy of Williams’ advancement, rather than focusing on short-term performance gain.
But, while the short-term may not be his main focus, Vowles’ arrival led to – or at least coincided with – an uptick in the team’s performance.
Alex Albon, as the more experienced of the two race drivers alongside rookie Logan Sargeant, was no stranger to points finishes and, with two seventh-place finishes as the highlight, helped Williams secure seventh-place overall – their best result since 2017.
Reflecting on his season in an extensive interview with Motorsportweek.com, Vowles characteristically downplayed the extent of his impact and pointed to the merits of the personnel already embedded as being seismically important to the turnaround.
“I don’t think I’ve monumentally f**ked up, so that’s quite nice!” Vowles said.
“So it’s nice that we’re on the right path together, and we have the alignment of 900 people pointing the right way.”
Just how nervous had Vowles been about the change of environment after being part of the furniture at Mercedes, particularly as he took on the much more visible role of leading a team for the first time?
“Apprehension wouldn’t be the right word but, when you go into a complete change in environment, you always have a feeling of ‘Is one individual really going to be sufficient for a difference, and will you be accepted, or will you be pushed out because an organisation has its own strengths?’,” Vowles said.
“What I was incredibly pleased by is that the organisation, within minutes of me arriving, accepted who I was and who I am.
“The body language where they struggled to look each other in the eye and were a little bit shoulders down, turned into an organisation where their heads are held up high again and that’s the direction of travel we are on.”
Vowles also revealed how he found a team who were willing to forgo their own personal time and even camp out in the factory in order to make the extensive Canada upgrade package come to fruition on time.
“I went down and I did a talk to some of the key people involved in production and build,” he said.
“The talk was, ‘We’ll make this work, I’ll be here with you. Let’s get this done, but it’s incredibly hard.’
“What I didn’t realise is they took that as we’re going to have to sleep in the factory! They were prepared to do that, completely comfortable with giving up their home life to be in the factory 24/7.
“That doesn’t exist, certainly in my old place, to that level. That’s Williams all over, and the passion and the racing are very much embedded in the bottom of it.
“Even though I was forewarned before coming here, I wasn’t aware of the lack of systems or the structure and machines that really exist everywhere else.”
With Williams lagging behind on infrastructure, Vowles led a very public campaign to increase the allowance for capital expenditure to invest in new facilities and systems at the factory – a campaign that worked as the four tail-end teams were given a $20 million nod.
While nowhere near the $100 million Vowles had hoped for, he believes it will still have a big impact over the next season or two.
“It will take a long time to get there,” he said.
“It’s not just the structure. We need to invest in infrastructure, which we are now. So my pleas in the middle of the year, thankfully, were heard for some CapEx in order for us to be able to change some really aging equipment. It’s a better place now. But that won’t kick in overnight, a lot of that is going to take 12 to 24 months to properly get to that position.”
But, while success might elude the former behemoth of Formula 1, Vowles is enjoying every second of the process of the rebuild.
“The enjoyable part is when you have an organisation that was perhaps a little bit scattered, but it really does want success, and as a result of that, they’ve changed,” he explained.
“Normally, cultural changes or positional changes take years. And in just months, we’ve had impressive… restructuring isn’t quite the right word, but an impressive movement in the right direction.
“What I’ve been thankful for as team principal is that your words resonate with individuals. They can see the values that I have personally, and ultimately, that’s the best compliment you can ever possibly have in terms of that position.”