New Williams CEO Jost Capito is best known to Formula 1 people as the man who left McLaren just five months after being appointed to lead its racing operation.
Capito, who steered Volkwsagen to its Mercedes-like domination of the World Rally Championship from 2013-16, ended up becoming a square peg in a round hole for McLaren. He was a victim of the power struggle that ultimately led Ron Dennis, who Capito was recruited as CEO under, being ousted. So Capito’s McLaren stint was not so much a failure as one that never really began.
Had it done so, there is no guarantee his VW success would have been replicated. Capito was billed as a passionate, knowledgeable, forward-thinking leader who thrived in an inclusive environment and had a penchant for handling the delicate stuff behind-the-scenes. He is also said to have quickly identified key weaknesses.
Ironically, perhaps that is exactly why he was not the best fit for a McLaren team that was a lumbering, struggling, fallen giant and would take too long to accept it had a fundamentally flawed structure in need of a major refresh.
McLaren’s reasoning when he finally left was: “Regrettably, we have not been able to find common ground on what is and will be needed to make the team successful again.”
Since then, some of the problem areas Capito identified have been tackled. Maybe he needed to leave and McLaren needed to sink further still before someone else identified the same things and action was taken.
And if it was already possible Capito’s style wouldn’t quite gel with McLaren, it was effectively guaranteed when the man who hired him was shown the exit door.
Capito was a new enough arrival for McLaren to commit to a complete review ‘under new management’, and he had responsibilities that were said to be similar to then racing director Eric Boullier’s. So it was unsurprising that a man the new management structure either didn’t want or need was booted out.
That McLaren has since embarked on a transition to being a nimbler, more efficient independent team is ironic as not only was it what Capito probably wanted it to become, but also the more relaxed atmosphere and attitude McLaren has grown to adopt in its recovery is probably much better suited for him to excel in.
And that’s what Williams could and should offer. It’s a smaller team, albeit no longer family-owned or run, and though it’s now owned by an investment company it’s free of the corporate baggage and internal strife that dogged McLaren a few years ago.
It means at Williams, Capito could be the boss McLaren never really got. As someone with experience of top-level motorsport, including F1 (he was a senior executive at Sauber’s operation in the late-1990s) he brings a true understanding of not only the sport but also what’s required to be successful, which is important as Williams continues to adjust to life without its founding family and strikes a management balance between business acumen and racing pedigree.
Williams has also already identified and begun to implement a clear strategy in its recovery, which is not likely to change any time soon and which Capito has evidently bought into.
He seems a much better fit for this journey than he ever came close to being for McLaren’s, where he was maybe the right man but certainly at the wrong time.