Born into the Williams racing family, Claire Williams today serves as Williams Martini Racing’s Deputy Team Principal and is an increasingly prominent presence in the day-to-day management of the team’s marketing, communications and the commercial arms.
With the Grove outfit enjoying a spectacular revival after a torrid 2013 season, we spoke exclusively with her during this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix…
You announced the re-signing of Valtteri Bottas at the preceding Italian Grand Prix. How important is it for the team to have continuity in its make-up heading into 2015?
It’s brilliant for us. We haven’t had it for a while and we firmly believe that we’ve got two great drivers. For everybody in the team, that stability is really important as it allows you to focus on what’s coming up rather than what driver is going to be in your car next year.
Both of them have proved their worth this year; they’ve done a great job behind the wheel and behind the scenes to develop the car for next season as well. We’re pleased we’ve got it [signed], and now we can just move on.
When you compare 2014 to 2013, it’s been a significant recovery and turnaround for the team. Looking at where you are to-date, in comparison to your pre-season expectations, how would you look at 2014 from a report card standpoint?
The teachers would be saying we’ve done pretty well. If someone said this time last year that we’d be third in the Constructors’ Championship, I’d have said they were drinking lots of martinis. The team has done a great job – it’s not been a fluke, it’s been consistent – and that’s one of the most important things about this turnaround. The level of performance has been consistent every race, and that’s been very important.
But we’re not where we want to be yet. Yes, it’s a great transformation and we’re in P3, but we’re a team that’s in this sport to win, and we’ve got to work out our roadmap to winning the next race and that next World Championship.
This year’s results would also have had an impact from a commercial standpoint. How is this panning out for the team if you take a forward view to 2015?
Obviously the improved track performance increases your level of attractiveness to sponsors. The higher up the grid you are, so your visibility increases. You’d expect that we’re having more conversations – more positive conversations – that we believe will deliver sponsorships for us for next year.
That’s not to say that we didn’t have that last year, even though we were in P9. We still managed to sign four new sponsors, so from an activity-level-side in the paddock it surpassed a lot of our competitors. It speaks volumes for the team that we have, our heritage and who we are, and how we go about our racing.
In light of ongoing cost pressure speculation, do you hold genuine fears over the speculation of a diminished team sizes, suggested moves to three-car teams and the risk of the costs of ongoing engine developments being passed onto customer teams?
I really hope not. Of course we want to ensure that the teams which are racing this year will be racing next year. That’s really important to the ethos and the DNA of this sport that we have a healthy grid of competitors that field two race cars, not a grid of a handful of teams fielding three cars in order to make up the [missing] grid spots.
That’s not what we believe in as a team, and I think that we’ve got to work hard to protect the survival of all the teams.
The question of three-car teams and whether we’re set up for it? No, we’re not. Williams is set up to run two cars. Can we adapt, if that situation arises and we need to? Yes, of course, we would have to adapt. But that in turn would bring out a whole new level of costs that we haven’t budgeted for in 2015, so it’s not a pathway that we would want to be following.
Balancing out that argument about containing costs is the fact that Formula 1 is a meritocracy, where the those who have the money and resources will use them. How do the sport’s figureheads balance those two conflicts?
Absolutely, I’m a firm believer in that argument that you spend what you have. This is an expensive sport, and if you can’t afford it, don’t compete in it and don’t complain about it. But that, in my mind, is only applicable when we’re talking about manageable and sensible costs. I don’t that it can be applied when the teams are starting to spend $200-300 million a year, and it starts to put Formula 1 in a very difficult position moving into the future for the people and sponsors who watch and pay for our sport. I think that we have to be really sensible about these considerations, and one of the ways to ensure this is that we are managing costs properly.
From a Williams perspective, we are operating on half the budget of the bigger teams. We believe that spending $105 million should give us the right to compete in Formula 1. We’re not trying to compete with $20 million and saying ‘You know, it’s not fair and we aren’t able to compete’. We have a respectable budget and I think that it’s really important for teams like Williams to prove that, on that level of income, you can compete and be successful.
Williams has been very active in encouraging individual career pathways by promoting the choice of taking STEM subjects in schooling. Can you tell us more about Williams’ role in this?
Education is one pillar of our corporate social responsibility program and we integrated this into our program to ensure that we had the skilled personnel that we need. This business is all about competing at the best of your performance and that’s applicable to everybody across our team.
In order to win in Formula 1, you need to have the best people we’re looking at a real skills shortage of a young generation taking up the roles that we need. So in order for them to follow that career path into our sport, going out and talking about engineering qualifications and degrees is really important for us.
To have the next generation take those courses in order to one day work at Williams and further our team is, for us, very important.
We do a lot across the primary, secondary and tertiary education sectors to ensure that we can have that pipeline of talent come up into our business, so we have STEM ambassadors who go out to schools to encourage and inspire children to see that Formula 1 is a great environment to work in. It’s a great career.
We do a lot of work at universities as well. We have a graduate program. We have a thing called ‘Taste A Week’ where twenty-odd 16-year-olds come in to the factory for a week and get experience across every different department, so there’s a lot that we do.
The evidence does show that companies with diversity at the top are more profitable and have a competitive edge due to it. Do you see that reflected in your space, your subsidiary companies like Williams Advanced Engineering, and in the broader industry as well?
Diversity in a workplace is great. It brings something different to our business. You mentioned before that the sport is a meritocracy and we firmly believe that at Williams.
I wasn’t, as an example, promoted because I’m a girl. I was promoted because I’m alright at my job. We can’t just give roles to women for the sake of giving roles to women. This sport is too knife-edge to do that; you have to be good at your job.
But the great thing about it is that there are more women coming into Formula 1 and particularly coming into roles that have traditionally been ‘jobs for the boys’. That can only lend a much better blend to anyone’s business if you have a better balance between the genders.
Clichés aside, what’s the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced in Formula 1 and how have you dealt with it? What skills have you found useful personally, or which have perhaps even surprised you?
Tenacity is one. That’s not just applicable to me, but more broadly to everybody in this team. To have experienced what we experienced last year, I was so surprised by the level of tenacity that a lot of people showed. This is a tough business and it takes a lot of sacrifices and time away from home from everyone who works in it.
When you’re traveling to the races far and wide, and you’re not achieving the kind of reward when you get to the track – not even getting any points, let alone a podium or a win – that can be really soul-destroying and demotivating, yet everybody in this team rolled their sleeves up and kept fighting until the end, even if it was for P9.
For me, going through that year last year and working behind the scenes to turn that team around, was also my biggest challenge and my greatest achievement that I’m most proud of. But I was only able to do that thanks to the passion that everybody in my team has. They have as much ambition to bring this team back to success as I did.
I came to love the sport from the age of five, and it was a career pathway that I’ve always wanted to pursue. What advice do you have for the next generation – a Claire Williams, Pat Symonds, Rob Smedley, Felipe Massa or Valtteri Bottas – who want to come into this industry?
It’s a cliché, but never give up on your dreams. Do everything that you can to fight to get there.
This is a really tough industry to work in, it’s a difficult industry to get into. I’m a really firm believer that if you roll your sleeves up and you work hard, then you do end up getting rewarded for that effort.
For any young kid, I say that it’s a fantastic environment to work in, it’s a realistic career, it’s so rewarding and you should always follow that dream if that’s what you want to do. Get as much experience as you can, show that you’re conscientious, show that you’ve got the tenacity and the durability, and get the qualifications that you need to prove that you deserve your place in Formula 1.
We extend our sincerest thanks to the Williams Martini Racing Team for making this interview possible.
Images via XPB Images