James Vowles’ decision to leave Mercedes to join Williams as team boss resulted in some friendly advice being offered by Toto Wolff.
After almost two decades with the Brackley-based squad through their iterations as BAR, Honda, Brawn and, finally, Mercedes, Vowles became a critical component in the success of Mercedes between 2014 and 2020 as he served as chief strategist and, later, strategy director.
But, when Williams came looking for a senior figure to become their new team principal for 2023, Vowles couldn’t resist the opportunity to spread his wings – resulting in some funny, blunt advice being handed out by team boss Toto Wolff.
James Vowles: Toto Wolff’s blunt advice revealed
With Vowles having switched sides to become a rival on the grid for 2023, Vowles recounted the story of Wolff’s advice as he appeared on the High-Performance podcast.
“I think he said ‘Don’t be s**t’ – [that] was his advice! Which I’m trying to do!” he chuckled.
“Other than that, he knows that I’ve been forming for this for quite a while, so there was little he could provide about it.
“Even today, it’s not just him, I would say Fred (Vasseur) and Otmar (Szafnaeur) – before he left – and a few others were guiding voices where I can happily call them, even though they are adversaries. It’s not asking for advice but they can give me guidance.”
Why did James Vowles make the decision to leave for Williams?
Having carved out a hugely successful career with Mercedes, Vowles explained why he had taken the decision to depart the multiple World Championship-winning team in order to join a backmarker squad with far fewer resources and start from the bottom once again.
“I knew my long-term wasn’t going to be doing strategy for the rest of my life. I loved it to bits, it’s a brilliant job,” he said.
“But, for many years, we’d built up a really strong team behind the scenes. From around ’21 onwards, the hard work was done by them. I was simply making a final decision. But the hard work was done by them or enacting more aspects of my job including team orders, other aspects of motorsport, advising Toto, all that sort of thing.
“The reason was Toto was kind enough with his time to give me as much experience as he could, he knew where he was forming me towards. It doesn’t mean that I had a job within Mercedes to be team principal there, but he provided me with his time, knowledge and experience, and more responsibilities.
“That started happening, so simulator drivers, then race drivers, started to come beneath me and I started working with our Formula E outfit, GT3 team, elements of finance and the cost cap and other bits and bobs. I just kept pulling it in.
“You can’t just keep doing so what I did is not absolve responsibilities, but build a team that just did all the strategy bits for me. And so I could focus on that growth. The direction of the path being clear – once you’ve made yourself out of engineering, and you’re focused a lot more on how the company runs, you have a better idea of how to step into this role.
“Not that I ever thought this role could appear but, if it did, I wanted to have the maximum amount of exposure, so I’d be ready to jump into it.
“Toto is incredible at what he does, no doubt about it, and has many, many more years as the best one of the best team principals in the pit lane.
“So it got to a point where I had to decide for my life, not for Mercedes’ life. That decision came when I very swiftly realised that I think the growth opportunities I have, the growth for learning – that was slowing down at Mercedes.
“I can go to a completely different level by going elsewhere. So I had honest conversations with Toto across that year period. It wasn’t a big surprise to him that winter. And it’s why also he was accepting of the fact that he let me move on. He wanted me to move on as well as a result of it.”