Formula 1

‘Bigger than a chief strategist’ – Why Wolff let key ally leave

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

Mercedes Formula 1 boss Toto Wolff has lost a key ally by releasing motorsport strategy director James Vowles from his contract to join Williams as its new team principal.

Vowles has been an ever-present at Mercedes since it revived its works team by buying Brawn and has therefore been a permanent part of the senior set-up that Wolff has worked with since his own arrival in 2013.

Best known as its chief strategist, Vowles became less hands-on in the role towards the end of his stint with Mercedes, with its race weekend strategy instead handled by the nine-person team that he oversaw.

He was part of Wolff’s inner circle, which means his exit comes with two obvious potential consequences for Mercedes.

The first is that the strategy team may need a new figurehead, even if the actual day-to-day work doesn’t change.

The second is that Wolff has lost a right-hand man, and though this is unlikely to have an instant tangible impact, it will be something that Wolff himself feels.

So why would Mercedes let someone with his seniority, experience and authority in the team leave before the end of their contract, to join another team?

Wolff’s answer to that is effectively that it was unfair to hold him back from a great opportunity he wouldn’t have got at Mercedes, at least not in the foreseeable future.

“There’s many more pros in James leaving and becoming team principal in Williams, than there are negatives,” Wolff insists.

“From a personal side, obviously James will be missed. I’ve been working closely with him for many, many, many years.

“The two of us, plus others, but mostly two of us, were strong allies and strong sparring partners when making the difficult calls in the race. And we almost never disagree.

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“That is definitely a loss from a personal standpoint, and from a professional standpoint of him being the chief strategist.

“But he’s bigger than a chief strategist.

“He will grow into this team principal’s role, and this is what he deserves.

“You cannot stop someone that’s reaching out for the stars. You just need to embrace that.”

Vowles says his role at Mercedes changed because Wolff was allowing him to gain more experience that would eventually make him a team principal candidate, a job that Vowles says has “been in my head for several years”.

With Wolff looking likely to continue running Mercedes beyond the end of his contract, which expires at the end of this year, Vowles had nowhere to go at Mercedes.

“That next step is something that James deserves,” says Wolff. “Within our organisation, for him to move up, I would have needed to move aside.”

So, when Williams started to chase Vowles after getting rid of Jost Capito, Wolff did not want to stand in his way.

He would perhaps have fought harder were there not inherent confidence within Mercedes that it can always be trusted to promote from within.

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Mercedes has been strong with its succession planning in recent years, backing those already at the team to fill gaps in senior roles left by the likes of Aldo Costa, Andy Cowell and James Allison, who have either departed the organisation or in Allison’s case moved into a new role.

Wolff says that is the case again now, with discussions taking place for years over how someone like Vowles would be replaced, leaving him “comfortable” with the revised strategy structure Mercedes will have rather than feeling “a big weakness has been created”.

“So as an organisation, you have to be always prepared that you could lose members of the organisation because they just don’t enjoy anymore what they do, or they have a different opportunity within your company,” he says.

“We had that many times that people have stepped up and they leave an open position behind them, or they join another team. And it’s proof that we are developing and working with capable people.

“So, there is no gap left behind. For many years, we’ve discussed succession planning in this area.

“We put an emphasis a few years ago on how it would continue if anyone wanted to do something else, whether within Mercedes or outside.

“James is very good at setting that up. We have an extremely talented team of strategists. They have flown the aeroplane now alone in the last six months.

“I feel very comfortable with the structure going forward. And not that suddenly a big weakness has been created.”

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