James Vowles knew change would break Williams — and set it up for the future

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James Vowles knew change would break Williams — and set it up for the future

As the wheel snapped in Alex Albon’s hands, a sign his Williams car had lost all traction after being squeezed wide onto the grass, his first thought was not the crash that was about to happen, the barrier getting closer and closer as he skimmed over the gravel.

“Before I even hit the wall, it was like, this is exactly what we don’t need,” Albon said.

The impact, which badly damaged the front-right of the car, capped off a rough Japanese Grand Prix for Williams. It was the third major crash the team had experienced in the space of two race weekends, following Logan Sargeant’s shunt in practice two days earlier and Albon’s wreck in Australia that damaged his chassis beyond repair.

That Australia incident lay bare the issues facing Williams right now. Lacking a spare chassis that most have as standard from the first race of the season, team principal James Vowles made the difficult call to withdraw Sargeant and give his car to Albon, believing it to be the team’s best chance of points in Australia. Albon came close, finishing 11th.

How did Williams, one of the most successful teams in F1 history, end up here, down to one car in Australia and sweating after two crashes in Japan? It’s a consequence of necessary change, an off-season transformation that overhauled the way the team operates. The way it will go racing.

“It was always going to break part of the organization. I knew that,” Vowles said.

“But if we don’t start to do leaps — I don’t mean small, one-percent changes, I mean leaps forward — we’re not going to be where we want to be.”

A winter of change

Vowles arrived at Williams at the start of 2023 following a long, successful stint at Mercedes, where he’d become Toto Wolff’s right-hand man after rising through the ranks at the Brackley-based team, back when it was Honda’s works outfit.

His first season in charge was, by and large, a success. Led by Albon, who scored all but one of its 28 points through 2023, the team seized chances that came its way en route to seventh in the constructors’ championship, its best finish since 2017. But it was not an accurate reflection of the team behind the scenes.

“When I turned up last year, the car was complete, but for transparency, that doesn’t mean we were in any better a situation than we were this year,” Vowles said. “We were in a pretty poor situation in ’23.”

Williams needed to totally change how it went about building its car. The team wanted it to be an all-rounder that could perform anywhere, not only on tracks with long straights, which had become something of a forte through the past two seasons. Entering his first winter in charge, Vowles experienced for the first time how badly the team lacked the proper processes that were the basics for its rivals  — to an extent that was “far worse” than he’d anticipated.

SUZUKA, JAPAN - APRIL 07: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Visa Cash App RB and Alexander Albon of Thailand and Williams after crashing during the F1 Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka International Racing Course on April 07, 2024 in Suzuka, Japan. (Photo by Clive Rose - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Alex Albon’s crash at Suzuka further stressed Williams’ resources at a difficult time. (Clive Rose – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Before Vowles’ arrival, Williams tracked the car build using Microsoft Excel on a spreadsheet that was impossible to update or use completely accurately. The team’s infrastructure was also creaky and outdated, a consequence of its previous underinvestment before Dorilton Capital acquired the historically family-run Williams in the summer of 2020.

Setting Williams up for the future required change. New processes were put in place for car build, increasing the complexity of the chassis from a few hundred parts to several thousand. Making that change while going through the typical preseason preparations was a big challenge for Williams.

“That’s a huge amount to ask of an organization that still doesn’t have the infrastructure of many of the teams around us here on the grid,” Vowles said. “The outcome of that is things definitely got pushed back.”

Pushed back so far that it ended up going to Australia, race three of the season, without a spare chassis. It was unwanted proof that Vowles, who has always prided himself on transparency, had been accurate in his assessments. “You now have full visibility of where we are,” he said. “My words were put into action. Unfortunately, it’s not what I wanted to show.

“But that also creates the baseline for why we are never, ever going to put ourselves there again.”

Responding to Australia

As night fell on Friday in Melbourne, the sight of the Williams crew building up Sargeant’s car on Albon’s side of the garage (leaving the other side bare) illustrated the point the team had reached. Behind the scenes, Sargeant was coming to terms with the fact he’d been benched through no fault of his own — a difficult decision for him to digest.

Vowles said Sargeant was “very upset, as he should be under the circumstances” but was impressed by how the American rallied. He was in the garage for the remainder of the weekend, participating in every meeting to try and help Albon, whose crash was the reason he was not driving, score a point. “I couldn’t have asked for more from him,” Vowles said.

But there was also a wider team unity that heartened Vowles, even through the difficulty. “We could have exploded apart into smithereens, or we could have pulled together,” he said. “The team was the tightest I’ve seen it.”

Ahead of the race at Suzuka, Vowles took several of the Williams team members to Kyoto for a day trip, visiting one of Japan’s oldest and most historic cities during cherry blossom season. The trip had been planned before the Australia debacle and was something Vowles said he’d do “irrespective of whether we had the strongest start to a season ever or the weakest.”

SUZUKA, JAPAN - APRIL 06: Logan Sargeant of United States driving the (2) Williams FW46 Mercedes on track during final practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka International Racing Course on April 06, 2024 in Suzuka, Japan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Vowles has always been clear that he does not see 2024 or 2025 as years where Williams can make that big step forward, owing to the competitive order under these regulations. (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

“This team here is traveling around to 24 different races, so you need to be as bonded as you can be,” he said. “It’s one of the best experiences you can do to bring us all back together, to reset, wipe the slate clean. How do we want to do this? Where do we want to be in one year, two years, three years? Just use the environment around you to create that strength.”

That strength was tested again at Suzuka, firstly when Sargeant careened into the barrier at Dunlop in FP1 after touching the grass, and then again on Sunday when Albon crashed out, squeezed on the outside by Daniel Ricciardo in a first-lap incident. Typically, those crashes would merely increase workload, stretching the team a little more. With the spares situation as precarious as it is, the ramifications of each incident have only been amplified and, inevitably, tested a team’s resolve.

“We’ve been on the back foot,” Albon said. “But it’s always been kind of the Williams way, that everyone digs deep and genuinely produces miracles to get cars built, repaired, or ready on time. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to rely on that for a little bit longer as well now.” A third chassis will finally be ready for Miami, making this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix the last one without that safety net.

“There is definite character building across the whole factory,” Albon added. “It’s a tough, tough time. And obviously, I’m frustrated for everyone. I feel like we’re in a tough place. Now it’s just (about) staying motivated and hungry and driven to bounce back strong.”

Building for the future

This winter broke part of Williams. But Vowles’s pledge it will never be repeated is important for his team’s future. This is the low point. It’ll be a period that is reflected on in years to come, the team hopes, as one that made it stronger, not weaker.

Vowles has always been clear that he does not see 2024 or 2025 as years where Williams can make that big step forward, owing to the competitive order under these regulations. “They’re not meaningless to me, but they’re not where you’re going to see the significant change,” he said. There’s more performance to find in this year’s car, which is set to form the baseline for next year’s model, and plenty of chances for Albon and Sargeant to shine. But 2026 is where Vowles’ vision of Williams can really start to yield results.

In a way, the state of the team he took over, the cracks within which he saw only in full over this trying winter, have helped Vowles imprint his vision. “I don’t treat any of this as bad,” he said. “It’s just 15 years of going the wrong way without the investment alongside it. And it provides me the opportunity to get right down into the core of where we are and rebuild it.”

It’s the biggest challenge of Vowles’ career in F1, yet one that every experience to date has informed. The toughness of the BAR-Honda years, the rags to riches story of Brawn, the evolution into the well-oiled Mercedes machine that ruled F1. All valuable knowledge built up for him to pull Williams forward.

The one thing Vowles would want is more time. “There’s not enough hours in the day to do everything that you need to do from a commercial perspective, from a driver perspective, from a technical perspective, from the perspective of transformation and rebuilding the team, and a technology one,” Vowles said. He’s found himself spending more time shut away simply to think and strategize about the right path forward, “otherwise you get caught up in the hamster wheel when you’re just doing it the whole time.”

It’s a challenge Vowles relishes. As tough as the start to this season might have been, it has not shaken his belief or clarity about the direction he wants to take the team.

“It’s not like I’m sitting here going, ‘How the hell are we going to bring this team forward?’ Quite the opposite,” Vowles said.

“It’s really clear as to how we can be competitive relative to others. It’s just not something I can fix overnight, or we can fix overnight.”

(Lead photo of James Vowles: Qian Jun/MB Media/Getty Images)