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Formula 1

‘Surviving despite kickings’ – Claire Williams defends her era

by Edd Straw
11 min read

When Claire Williams bid farewell to Formula 1 at the Italian Grand Prix earlier this month, she didn’t expect it to be a big deal.

But thanks to esteem for the Williams name and the recognition that the last survivor of the old model of team ownership was gone, the reception she received from the paddock and beyond became one of the feelgood stories of the weekend.

While much of that was down to the history of the team and the unique legacy of Frank Williams and Patrick Head, who founded the team in 1977, Claire Williams also played her part.

The end of her seven-and-a-half years as deputy team principal, a title that sold the extent of her role short, revealed the esteem she was held in after years of brickbats and criticisms.

Claire Williams

Irrespective of the recent form of Williams, with 2018 and ’19 its two worst seasons since becoming a constructor in 1978, its new ownership and bright future represents a job well done.

Claire Williams might not have delivered on the part of the Williams legacy that’s about racing success in her final years at the helm despite some outstanding results before that, but a big part of the team’s character is that it’s the great survivor. That it continues to survive is partly down to her contribution.

“The overly-complex series of technical regulations have also crippled or crucified us” :: Claire Williams

“I was genuinely overwhelmed because I thought that people would just go ‘alright see you’,” Williams tells The Race.

“I knew the Williams family no longer owning the team would have an impact, but I didn’t realise that it would have that much of an impact.

“It was really nice to see because I’m very proud and protective of my dad’s legacy, and I wanted people to recognise what he’s contributed to this sport. He still lives and breathes it and has given a lot to Formula 1.

Frank Williams Claire Williams 2013

“For me personally, it was nice just to have a little bit of recognition – but mostly it was having that from my team. What they did for me personally over that weekend I will never forget. I will treasure those memories for the rest of my life.

“I do feel it’s the right time for all of us to step away, I certainly feel it’s the right time for me.

“But I’m really proud of my role, I’m proud that I survived it despite the kickings and I’m proud of everything that our family has done in Formula 1.

“I’m also enormously grateful because it’s been an amazing journey that we’ve been on for nearly five decades.”

Williams weathered the most hostile commercial environment it has ever faced during this time.

The 2013 commercial agreements binding F1 together crystallised the fundamental inequality between the haves and the have nots and put Williams in serious trouble as the only team that didn’t have a stakeholder with significant cash that could be poured in.

Despite having an annual $10million payment for its own history, that wasn’t enough and you can argue it was F1’s sole fully-commercial team.

With the three biggest teams guaranteed vast sums simply for turning up regardless of results, the 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid era started with Williams seemingly on a trajectory that would return it to winning ways but really facing a battle to survive.

Felipe Massa Williams Chinese Grand Prix 2014 Shanghai

“I wasn’t involved in these discussions and negotiations, but I’m sure at the time people didn’t realise how much of an impact those decisions would have – certainly on independent teams like ours,” says Williams.

“The financial structure structures clearly did not help our cause and have created this two-tier championship.

“What’s happened in discussions at technical working group level, strategy group level on the dilution of the listed parts list and changes to the technical regulations haven’t helped. The overly-complex series of technical regulations have also crippled or crucified us.

“It sounds quite strong, but we have been trying to swim against the tide.

“But we will never shy away from the fact that clearly there were internal issues that weren’t helping our cause either. It was a series of things conspired against the team.”

Throughout this period, Williams defended its status as a fully-independent constructor with an almost religious zeal. Perhaps that hurt it competitively in the short-term, but it was better off financially and certainly more appealing to potential buyers – a key part in its sale to Dorilton Capital.

The desperate underachievement of recent seasons on-track even within the limitations cannot be ignored, but in the end it was the lack of cash, with no more things to sell and credit running out, that forced the sale.

“Unless you’re spending $300million, you’re going to be nowhere” :: Claire Williams

“We’ve always tried to be independent and we’ve punched above our weight in securing sponsorship, but it’s still never been enough,” says Williams. “We’ve just been outspent over many, many years.

“What’s upset me most over the past years is we know what it would have taken for Williams to have been successful, but we haven’t had the money to do it.

“We’ve still had a healthy racing budget of nearly $125m over the past few years, that should be enough. But unless you’re spending $300m, you’re going to be nowhere.”

George Russell Williams Italian Grand Prix 2020 Monza

There is a case to be made that Williams was disadvantaged by eschewing an alliance with a bigger team and persevering its independence. This effectively made it the smallest of the big teams, the odd-one-out in the bottom five of the championship and competing on a very different footing.

A technical partnership might have improved the short-term form, but it would not have left the team so well-placed for the new era to come.

It’s an example of how such decisions aren’t as simple as being right or wrong, especially as it would have required directing enormous resources out of the team and reducing its capabilities.

“This is something that people get wrong, they think that’s the best thing to do for a team that was in our position,” says Williams.

“We didn’t just bat it away out of hand, decisions were agonised over for many, many months and we did the due diligence.

“The conclusion was that it wasn’t going to work for us on financial grounds. It would have meant a load of redundancies, which cost money, and it was too expensive. You lose your ability to be able to manufacture and design those parts. If you’ve got a long-term view, it’s not healthy to do that.

“Also, these kinds of arrangements invariably come with political tails as well, and a whole load of tails that you might not even think of at the time.

“I was made redundant and I lucked into a job at Williams. I’d gone there in order to fill my time” :: Claire Williams

“I was not prepared to put the team in that position for all of those reasons, and have no regrets that I didn’t.

“I may be archaic in my opinion, but I’ve always stood by dad’s and Patrick’s philosophy that Williams should be independent and we want to win due to our abilities and due to what we design and manufacture.

“I didn’t want to dilute that philosophy or move away from that DNA and I’m proud of that. People may disagree but I always felt quite strongly about that.”

Williams no longer has to fight these battles, which inevitably represents a seismic change in her life. While clearly not entirely happy with having to move on with the job incomplete, she has come to terms with it personally.

While the Williams team name is being preserved and Dorilton Capital wants to build on its much-celebrated spirit, it was almost inevitable that the family would have to move on.

“I’ve had quite a long time to get my head around the situation and what was probably the inevitable conclusion of the strategic review,” she says.

“The years that I’ve been running the team have been more good than bad and I think people forget about that and that really irritates me” :: Claire Williams

“During that process, I did have some time to understand how it might feel if I did hang up my boots and as much as it probably wasn’t my ultimate goal to do so, it’s OK.

“Of course, I would love to have stayed on for another 10 years, 15 years, that was my plan, I wanted desperately to take the team back to winning races again and I was prepared to put in the hard graft in order to get it there.

“But I can walk away knowing that we handed the team over in a much better shape.

“If we’d have entered into this process last year, I would have felt probably like I had a lot of unfinished business. At least we’ve handed the team over when it’s certainly on an upward trajectory from a performance perspective.”

Some of the criticisms of Claire Williams’s time at the team are rooted in the perception it was her fate from birth to get this role. But there’s a subtle difference between getting the role because the team needed a Williams in a senior position and getting it through pure nepotism. This was far from the path intended for her but was forced by necessity and started out with a role in the press office.

“Anyone who knows my family knows that they’re not that into nepotism and giving their kids an easy ride, so it certainly wasn’t pre-ordained that one of us would take over,” says Williams, pictured below in her press officer days with Toto Wolff – then a non-executive director at Williams – in 2012.

“In fact, our parents were pretty clear with ‘don’t even think about it’ type conversations were had when we were younger.

Claire Williams Toto Wolff 2012

“I fortuitously ended up in a role at Williams as a junior press officer when I was about 24 after having worked at Silverstone for a few years. If I probably had my way, I would still be at Silverstone right now because I loved that job.

“I was made redundant and I lucked into a job at Williams. I’d gone there in order to fill my time while I was looking for another job and a role came up in the press office.

“I loved working in the comms office and I did it for many, many years and then things progressed quite quickly from 2010 onwards. Suddenly I woke up one morning and I was deputy principal running the place. I will always be eternally grateful that I had the opportunity to run dad’s team and play my part.

“What people misinterpret is, I may have gone out being last in the championship but not all those years that I’ve been running the team have been bad.

Felipe Massa Williams British Grand Prix 2015 Silverstone

“In fact, they’ve been more good than bad and I think people forget about that and that really irritates me.

“A lot of people don’t understand the circumstances behind why – or they choose to ignore or forget them because it makes for better storytelling.

“What I’d like to be remembered for is the fact that I inherited the team when it had had three terrible years – ninth, eighth and ninth – and under my leadership working with everybody in the team, we took it back to two thirds and then two fifths.

“And then off the back of being on our knees again, we were able to bring the team back and we’ve laid solid foundations for it to move forward. That’s underestimated.”

Williams is right that if you condemn her for the failures of recent seasons, the successes of the years before must also be in her credit. Those who pursue the narrative of unmitigated failure are as wrong as those who might seek to say Williams has been an unbridled success over the past seven years.

There have been clear technical problems and looking at the bigger picture you can trace Williams’s decline back to a multitude of decisions over the years perhaps stretching all the way back to the loss of Adrian Newey ahead of the 1997 season.

But while Williams is still at the back, it has a quicker car in relative and absolute terms this year and is at least pointing in the right direction.

“I want to see who I am without the Williams surname because it has pretty much defined my life. Just not to be that person for a little bit would be quite nice” :: Claire Williams

At heart, though, the Williams story is a family one. And coming back to the feelgood elements of this whole saga, it’s perhaps a little surprising to see the experience hasn’t impacted her relationship with a team that Claire Williams once likened to a family member. Despite the toll that the past seven years must have taken, that connection appears not to have been dented.

“I think actually it made feeling even keener for me,” she says. “It didn’t really change the dynamic or the emotions that I had with the team, it made me care even more.

“I never felt that the team was a weight on my shoulders or a millstone around my neck, I always considered it an enormous privilege.

Claire Williams

“I like to think I’m one of those people that gets their head down and gets on with it. You’re asked to do something, and I was asked to do something, and I did it to the best of my abilities.

“And people might say, well no, she didn’t. But nobody knows a load of stuff that went on behind the scenes over the past three years in particular, and what we were having to deal with.

“I still feel enormous love for the team. I know that I always will. It will always remain in my heart in dad’s and my brother [Jonathan’s] heart.”

The question of what is next for Claire Williams is an obvious one, but now that she’s moving on from the team that has defined her that’s for her to know rather than being public property.

Claire Williams

A break is well-deserved, and while a return to an F1 role in the future would suit her skill set (and she says the door is not closed at Williams) it’s not something she is keen on.

“I’m lucky that I can take a bit of time,” says Williams. “I’ve got quite a bit of work to do with my dad and transitioning him into his new house and that sort of stuff. But I don’t know if stepping back into that world is going to be particularly healthy for me.

“One should recognise when it’s time to walk out gracefully and I feel that I’ve done that. I want to see who I am without the Williams surname because it has pretty much defined my life for 44 years. Just not to be that person for a little bit would be quite nice.

“I’m going to take some time to reboot and see what turns up, because when one door closes, another door opens.”

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