ALEXIA’S TAKE: A look at Mercedes ‘secret weapon’ – James Vowles!

© Steve Etherington for Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd.

By Alexia Tibil

“James has been a highly valued member of our team in his role as Motorsport Strategy Director, playing an integral part in our success in recent years.”

  • Toto Wolff upon James Vowles’ departure from Mercedes.

Following one of the most successful runs within the strategical department of an F1 Team, James Vowles has stepped down as chief strategist for Mercedes and has consequently been appointed the new Team Principal for Williams Racing as of February 2023. With CEO Jost Capito making an utterly shock exit after two years in charge of the Williams team at the beginning December, the role of Team Principal has been a widely discussed topic within the paddock as a successor would have to be named before lights went out in Bahrain.

For those who might not be thoroughly familiar with Vowles’ work within the motorsport community, it is the perfect time to revisit some of his career highlights and fully take into consideration his contributions to Mercedes. After graduating from Cranfield University with a Master’s degree in motorsport engineering and management, Vowles took on the role of engineer at British American Racing back in 2001. BAR was an F1 constructor that used to compete in the early 2000s, and subsequently changed its name into Honda Racing F1 Team. Jenson Button would eventually join BAR at the beginning of 2003, making this a key moment in the team’s future success.

James’ work ethic and dedication at that time has not gone unnoticed, and a promotion was in sight for him. And so, after Ross Brawn saved the team “by a management buyout of the Honda Racing F1 Team”, James was put in charge of the pit wall strategy, and was appointed to the role of race strategist. He played a valuable role within Brawn GP when Jenson Button clinched the Championship with some fantastic strategic calls during the whole season.

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After a remarkable run in 2009, Vowles stayed with the team when Mercedes took control, starting in 2010. Whilst they went on having a few less than desirable seasons with only two wins until 2014, his contribution was significant. When the V6 era began back in 2014, Mercedes went on to win eight consecutive Constructors’ Championships and seven Driver’s Championships, and over his last four years with the team, Vowles has been their Motorsport Strategy Director.

Now, we cannot take a deep look into his career without peeking into his biggest strategy achievements with Mercedes, and the ways his calls managed to turn potentially unfavourable situations into wins. As already mentioned, ever since his days with BAR and Honda, he managed to make a name for himself. First example of a fantastic strategy call should go to the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix, with Button climbing to the top all the way from 14th on the grid, giving Honda their first win since 1967. A safety car at the beginning of the race saw many drivers pitting for fresh rubber, whilst Button opted not to pit at that particular time, and this call saw him get to P2, right behind Fernando Alonso. The wet/dry conditions came in his favor and thus he managed to see the checkered flag first.

Getting back to his days at Mercedes, once again to the Hungaroring track, James made a couple of tremendous calls in 2019 to help Hamilton win the race. As we all know, if the conditions and the weather do not interfere in a drastic way, the Hungaroring race can be a one stopper more often than not. But, in this particular race, with Verstappen being in a comfortable lead, something had to be done, and it took a slightly different approach. A decision from the strategy crew came with 22 laps to go, calling Hamilton to pit and thus making Verstappen a sitting duck. Hamilton eventually made nothing out of the 20 seconds gap and took home the win. Many pundits saw this race as a simply “strategic masterclass”, and with this in mind we should take into consideration the 2021 Spanish GP as well. Seeing that Red Bull had a much faster car that day, Mercedes had to go about in a different way and try to overtake Verstappen. With the Catalunian track being similar to Hungaroring in terms of pit stops, Vowles made the call to pit Lewis twice and called him in as late as possible, and so a 98th victory was just around the corner for him.

As the middle of the 2022 season came upon the teams, we could notice that James stepped down in a way that he distributed his role to different team members, so that he would not have to be present on the pit wall week in and week out – a decision that could have been a foreshadowing of his departure. Toto Wolff had his share of thoughts regarding this change and in a recent statement he revealed that James has been a massive talent within the team, and a pivotal part of their on-track success over the years.

“While we are naturally sad to be saying goodbye to such a capable member of the team, I have no doubts whatsoever that he has all the necessary skills to become a fantastic Team Principal in Formula One,” the Austrian said.

“We wish him every success and are delighted that he will take this next step in his career with Williams, a strong technical partner of ours and one that has a place close to my own heart,” he concluded.

As for the already existing partnership/relationship between Williams and Mercedes, it is fairly important to mention that this move can only strengthen the relationship for years to come. Although, as James recently said, Williams are “an entirely independent organization”, and their success will not be dependent on Mercedes and vice versa, this ongoing relationship between the teams can only do good in terms of future junior drivers that are sponsored by Mercedes.

When it comes to Vowles’ successor, the team has yet to announce anybody new. It is utterly known that they are not in any rush, mostly because James has already distributed his roles last year and it might stay that way for a while. Although many speculate that Rosie Wait, Mercedes’ Head of Race Strategy, could jump in on the vacant job, nothing is as of yet official.

James Vowles’ contribution to Mercedes will be considered as more than a ‘job well done’, as his decisions and calls during crucial moments have without any doubt been nothing but masterful. And I am sure that he will continue to thrive as the new Team Principal at Williams Racing, no doubts about that!

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