James Allison’s first interview since returning to the technical director role at the Mercedes Formula 1 team made clear both how much of a change of focus and pace his job swap with Mike Elliott will be, but also how determined he is to get Mercedes back to title-challenging status.
Allison moved to the chief technical officer role in mid-2021, describing it at the time as “not in the front line, not part of the day to day, not part of the current car, or indeed, next year’s car”.
Though F1 has been part of his remit within a position team boss Toto Wolff described as being his “technical twin”, Allison’s focus on the F1 front was preparations for the new rules in 2026 and his tasks have gone into far different territory including as technical lead on the America’s Cup yacht collaboration with INEOS. The CTO role has also only been a three-days-per-week position.
Now he finds himself firmly back at the day-to-day technical helm of the F1 team, and at a time when it has abruptly fallen from the might of its run of consecutive championships to a position where it declared after just one qualifying session of the 2023 season that it had been wrong to stick with its flawed 2022 design concept and needed a complete rethink.
The simultaneously jaunty, idiosyncratic and fiercely determined tone of Allison’s interview on F1’s own F1 Nation podcast on Monday quickly dispels any thought that Mercedes had to coerce him back onto the frontline in desperation.
He is also extremely candid about the personal circumstances that made him seek a step back in 2021 and why returning now is viable.
Allison’s wife Rebecca died suddenly from bacterial meningitis in 2016, when he was working at Ferrari. He left and took the job at Mercedes so he could be UK based and closer to his family following that tragedy.
In a segment of the interview for which Allison – needlessly – apologises more than once, he reveals that wanting to prioritise a new relationship motivated his change of role two years ago.
“A lot of that goes back to the long and very tragic shadow cast by my wife dying,” said Allison.
“And being lucky enough a few years later to meet somebody else, who at the time was living in France and working in France and had all her life in France and had done for 20 years or so.
“When she kindly, some would say foolishly, agreed to come and cast her lot in with me so that we could live together, she was giving up an awful lot. It seemed a little unfair from my point of view to cast her adrift and say ‘thanks for coming over to England, I’ll see you five minutes a week’.
“Stepping back from the frontline role of technical director allowed some space for our relationship to flourish that would’ve been tough otherwise.
“But that was over two years ago now that Chloe moved over. And she has some roots in this country now doing her own thing that doesn’t depend on my face, so it’s much more believable, much more possible now, to do this than it would’ve been two and a bit years ago.”
Elliott and Allison’s role swap is believed to have come at Elliott’s own instigation when he concluded that he was not as well suited to the technical director role as he had hoped.
Allison describes the process as “a bit of an examining of our own navels here in Brackley” that concluded “that perhaps I was better suited to the short-term fighting on the championship with the car and he was the much better chess player of the pair of us and he would be better suited to doing the job I was doing as a CTO previously” so they “jiggled it about and came up with something that we think is a better fighting machine overall”.
When asked how involved he has been in the 2023 car, Allison’s reply suggests that getting back up to speed with the technical director role will be a substantial task. It will at least now be a smaller remit than in his previous time in the position, as the CTO role exists too.
“I was much less involved than I had been as a technical director,” he says of his role in the W14.
“I was more manoeuvring around in the sort of 2026 space than in the here and now of the current car.
“It certainly is a fair old chunk of effort to get up to speed with everything. Not merely the regulations, but the full engine of the factory and the race team and all the things that are currently in play in the championship fight.
“But it’s exciting and fun and interesting and a pleasure to be back up to my neck in it.”
His assessment of the W14’s strengths and weaknesses comes very much from the position of someone accustomed to winning championships with Mercedes. Allison underlines that relative to most of the grid, the W14 is not a bad car. But also that it’s not what anyone at his team considers adequate – his list of its good points peaking at ‘damning with faint praise’ levels.
“It’s reliable, touch wood. That’s a definite strength. It’s got a very quick pair of punters pedalling it around,” he begins.
“It’s better than most of the grid out there. But until it’s the quickest one it will always feel like a weak car to all of us.
“It’s adequately kind to its tyres but not as good as some of the cars that we’ve made in the past.
“It’s got more downforce than most of the cars on the grid but not sufficient.
“Its handling characteristics leave a little to be desired, and need to be worked on for sure.
“But none of this stuff is revelatory. We’ve been talking about it most weekends and it’s part of what this team needs to address to get winning material back in our hands.”
And when asked which teams he sees Mercedes as battling with through 2023, his answer starts with an insistence that he’s only focused on making progress… then ends with certainty that Mercedes will – eventually – overhaul Red Bull and Max Verstappen.
“I’m trying not to think really in those terms. Just concentrating on what are the areas of opportunity on the car,” he says.
“How quickly can we fill those opportunities with hardware or different approaches, with the expectation that that will improve our chances at any given weekend?
“The sooner we can do that, and on the steepest slope possible, the better our chances will be in any given weekend and up against any given team and in the championship.
“But we’re completely realistic about the significant performance of the Red Bull and particularly Max.
“They’re going to be extremely worthy opposition to hunt down and in due course overtake.”