Williams’ team boss James Vowles has opened up on the rules of engagement that bound Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg during their epic rivalry at Mercedes.
Now the team boss of Williams after jumping ship from his strategy role with Mercedes after 2022, James Vowles spent the entirety of his career prior to Grove racing with the Brackley-based outfit through their guises as BAR, Honda, Brawn and, eventually, Mercedes.
As chief strategist and, later, strategy director, Vowles proved hugely valuable in his contributions to the multiple titles won by Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg between 2014 and 2020.
James Vowles outlines details of Mercedes ‘rules of engagement’
At the start of 2014, Mercedes found themselves in a dominant position as their car and power unit proved to have no equal – something the team learned early enough to the point that Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg knew they would be fighting each other for the title.
While their friendship was stretched past breaking point over the course of the next three years, their head-to-head battles started in quite amicable fashion – partly due to Vowles’ input in drafting up some rules on how the pair should go about racing each other.
“The biggest thing that we got into with the drivers in 2014, for example, was that both of them knew – both Nico and Lewis knew – that it was one of those two winning,” he told the High Performance Podcast.
“They knew, by the way, before we turned the first wheel in the first race.
“My role in this was I constructed a document that created some very clear… how we were going to work with each other, and how we were going to fight each other – at the time, it was called the rules of engagement, but changed later to another term that was less military, but racing intense.
“It was some really clear boundaries on ‘This is how we’re going to behave and this is how we’re going to perform’.
“There was a lot to do. And it started with this, and an an ethos that I believe in today. The whole first page was about being a sportsman and, to explain that – you can win a world championship but, if you’ve done so in a way that is not fair and sportsmanlike like, you will have regrets for the rest of your life.
“You have a championship to your name, but it’d be sullied, it’d be muddied, it won’t be pure.”
Vowles outlined how the desire was to win on the merit of being simply better than everyone else, rather than finding loopholes or adopting a win-at-all-costs attitude.
“That applies to the drivers as it does to the engineers within the team and the designers,” he said.
“It was very much bringing them on that journey and making sure they’re aware that you can become the best sportsman in the world which will create a legacy beyond many, many years.
“Or you can win a race by doing something that has perhaps forced or hurt or damaged your teammate. Which one do you want to go down? It’s a very simple choice when you present it to a sportsman – ultimately, they want the one that creates the legacy for many years to come.”
Vowles pointed to the example of Michael Schumacher, who he believes suffers from a sullied reputation due to some of the actions he carried out on track – despite his seven world championship titles.
“Michael [Schumacher], an incredible man, but still marred by 1997 in many regards,” he said.
“It stands out in everyone’s mind. We created the mindset that that’s not how I want to be remembered, I want to be remembered that we were a dominant force working together.
“Between the two of you within these rules, the fastest driver across 20 races will win. Not the fastest driver on a weekend, not the one that’s done something that’s maybe benefited them in the short-term – the fastest driver on 20 races, and we’ll construct it and make sure it’s built that way. And we’ll give you each equal opportunity.
“They bought into it and it created a good environment. It doesn’t mean that, in time, we didn’t have a breakdown. I mean, everyone will remember Barcelona 2016 [when the pair collided to throw away a potential 1-2], which still sticks in my mind today because you’re taking two of these sportsmen who were constrained within their boxes, and just got frustrated.
“But, actually, what you do at the time is you don’t back off, you double down and go, ‘This is how it’s going to be’.”