Overseeing strategy for a top Formula 1 team is no easy task, especially when there are people like us waiting for things to go wrong so we can explain how we would have done it better.
But the pressure James Vowles has been under in that role at Mercedes will be nothing compared to what he faces in joining Williams as team principal, which will be the biggest challenge of his F1 career.
He joins Williams when it is in disarray. Owner Dorilton Capital, which bought the team in 2020, wants to see improvement. That doesn’t mean winning races yet but Williams needs to step up to feature in the final part of qualifying regularly. If that’s achieved then there’s a decent chance of grabbing a few points consistently, and if you get enough of those you move off the bottom of the constructors’ championship.
The only thing standing in its way is the other teams all wanting to do the same and Williams has been last in four of the last five seasons. In terms of results, it is currently factually the worst team in F1, so that’s a big challenge for Vowles to take on.
However, he might just be the right man for the job. He comes in with vast experience of how a top team goes about its business and has been in F1 for his entire working career having joined what was then called BAR in late 2001.
He headed the Mercedes strategy team and knows how to make decisions quickly under pressure – whilst doing that job you don’t have much time to think about it. Mercedes has won 125 races in his time there, so while we remember the mistakes there have been far more correct calls.
Decision-making is critical for any race team. As long as you get more right than wrong, then you are OK. Lots of people go through life not making decisions because they are frightened of getting them wrong, but if you do that in an F1 team you stand still. And if you stand still, you very quickly go backwards.
Those working at Williams should welcome Vowles with open arms. There seems to have been some reluctance within the organisation to adapt to the direction Jost Capito wanted to take Williams in and appointing one of his ex-workmates, Francois-Xavier Demaison, as technical director was perhaps the key nail in the coffin as far as that was concerned.
No one at Williams will have been impressed with this decision as Demaison had no cliff-face experience in F1 and Capito had only limited experience from the distant past. I know if had been there I wouldn’t have liked it.
Every team will set its own goals for the season ahead. For Mercedes, for example, it will be to win races, the drivers’ and constructors’ championships. Williams needs to set more modest objectives, but ones that will be just as tough to achieve.
If I was there, initially I would be aiming to get at least one car into Q3 regularly and then make sure you execute the race as efficiently as possible and ideally score points every race.
For some, that may sound like an easy objective but I can assure you it’s not. If Williams can achieve that and regroup while doing so then it can set its sights a bit higher.
This team needs to walk before it tries to run and everyone needs to get their motivation back. Williams hasn’t won a race since 2012, when Pastor Maldonado surprised us all with his performance at Barcelona.
Vowles’ experience at Mercedes will allow him to compare how Williams operates. Yes, they are very different teams in their size, structure and budget but they have to do all the same things. They have to design a car, build a car, race a car, develop that car and design next year’s car, so there is no difference. It’s just about scaling the operation to ‘cut their cloth to suit their purse’.
It may take a little time to get a feel for how everyone operates, but from day one he needs to be on it. The new season is just around the corner, so making sure Williams is ready for that challenge should be top of the job list. Those early races can bring big rewards for a team if the race team executes the grand prix correctly – as I’m sure Vowles understands only too well – and cars can just reach the finish.
From then on, he can start to understand how the other groups that make up the company operate, and more importantly how they communicate. Communication is everything and making sure everyone is pulling in the same direction is critical to the overall performance of the company.
Yes, Williams will need a technical director but within the team there are a lot of very intelligent engineers waiting for the opportunity to take on that challenge. Look inward and make sure everyone is operating in their optimum position before looking outward.
The team needs to understand that Vowles is not there to reinvent the wheel. He is there to give his best to get them back to where we all want to see Williams. Yes, it’s a very different Williams compared to when it was challenging at the front, but everyone needs to remember that once upon a time Williams was on top of the F1 world.
If you want a precedent you just have to look at Red Bull. When it took over Jaguar for 2004 it was a bit like a phoenix rising from the ashes and there was an immediate upturn of form in 2005. Williams can do exactly the same.
If Vowles can do what I have suggested above and get the company to all pull in the same direction, make sure that everyone can speak their mind and contribute, then it will bring a much more coherent culture to an ego-driven group of people. It’s not the job of any one person to make the company successful, it is the responsibility of all to never be satisfied with what they did yesterday and push harder every day to achieve more.
The new season is a chance for the team to regroup. There have been a lot of mistakes in the last few years. At the start of the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, Williams was very competitive and came close to winning races despite not quite managing to do so. The team is still struggling to understand what happened since then.
Everyone in the team, whether it’s the ownership and board or the rank-and-file working at Grove, now needs to understand that James Vowles is there to take them in the correct direction and get Williams back to being competitive.
It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen a lot sooner if they all get behind him and make his life just that bit easier, allowing him to make the right decisions for the right reasons.