Claire Williams interview: Pushing the reset button for 2019

After one of the toughest seasons in Williams' history, chats with deputy team boss Claire Williams about the need to push the reset button for 2019.

Claire, we’re here in Austin and obviously not nearing the end of the season now-

Claire Williams interview: Pushing the reset button for 2019

After one of the toughest seasons in Williams' history, chats with deputy team boss Claire Williams about the need to push the reset button for 2019.

Claire, we’re here in Austin and obviously not nearing the end of the season now-

CW: Thank God! [laughs]

Well yes, that’s what I was going to ask! Is there a feeling that you’re about to put it out of its misery and finally get it done with?

CW: Yes, definitely. It’s been a very difficult year. To think I’ve repeated countless times this year, it will be nice to see the back of it. It’s probably been one of the worst years that I’ve ever had at Williams. But you know, I think personally, I like to always try and look positively at a situation. I think we will come out of this year as a team a lot stronger. As a result of what we saw at the start of the season, we’ve obviously done a huge amount of work, most of which we haven’t talked about, we wouldn’t talk about. A lot of work behind the scenes in order to try and come out much stronger, and I fully believe that will set Williams up for success in the future. It’s not the work of a moment as I talked about. I have to look at the positive side of it, and I think just seeing the spirit in this team as well, fighting our way through the season with a smile on our faces, I’m really proud of everybody.

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Do you think that spirit that’s come through, is that the real silver lining for 2018?

CW: Erm, I’m not sure there necessarily is a silver lining to 2018. Positive, but maybe not that. I think it’s more about the lessons that we’ve all learned. The test of any situation like this is always how you recover from it, and how you deal with it throughout, and I think probably everybody in this team has done a really good job of handling this situation. We haven’t imploded. We haven’t behaved in a negative way. We’ve just gone about this season quietly with our heads held high as much as we can. We haven’t aired our dirty laundry in public. We’re just getting through it the best that we can together as a team, and I’m really proud as I said of everybody that’s contributed to that.

Are there any high points at all you can pick out? Are Baku and Monza the two main ones that come to mind?

CW: What happened in Baku and Monza?

You scored some points…

CW: Oh yeah. [smirks] I don’t think our high points haven’t necessarily been on the track this year. I think they’ve probably been away from them. I think that talks to the work that has been going on behind the scenes in order to try and get to the bottom of our issues and put new structures, new processes in place in order to set ourselves better going into 2019. Those for me are the high points I think, and seeing - to repeat myself - everybody’s fighting spirit come through.

As you say, it’s about the lessons of this year that you’re learning, not just saying ‘it’s a blip and a one-off, everything we’ve been doing is fine’ - it’s an actual turning point for you.

CW: Absolutely. Next year for us is going to be very much that we can push the reset button. It’s definitely going to be next-gen Williams from 2019. I’m not saying that we’re going to be coming out and we’re going to be on the podium. But who knows what could happen? But for next year, there’s going to be a lot of changes that will have been implemented across the course of this year that we’ll see come out next year that we’ll be able to talk about in greater detail that you’ll be able to physically see as well, some big changes, and we’re working towards that now.

Claire Williams interview: Pushing the reset button for 2019

Has there been a need to change the company culture?

CW: Yes. Company culture is a massive project for me at the moment. There’s so much stuff that I could talk about, and I would love to talk about, but I don’t want to talk about because there are things that we’re doing across the organisation to try and understand the root causes of the issues. Those are very particular around why the car is slow. That’s what everyone would expect us to be doing. But for me, I think there are wider problems that have become very apparent across the course of the year around the culture at Williams, and how we probably traded rather blindly on the culture that we had probably 10, 20 years ago in the business that Frank and Patrick generated - probably just purely by chance, I don’t think Frank and Patrick necessarily intended went about creating a certain culture. It just grew out of their personalities and how they went about their work. We haven’t done a lot of work on that in the past five years. And for me, getting the culture right in this organisation is going to be a big step towards getting us back to where we want to be, and that’s competing competitively on the race track. I think if we can do a huge amount of work to try and reinvigorate the culture at Williams, then I think we will be in a much better position than we currently are. I think culture can have an enormous impact on performance within any kind of sports team. You see that, there are so many brilliant case studies through history. So I’m doing a lot of work creating lots of different projects, lots of different initiatives to drive a new culture for Williams that we will then build upon in the future. And it will be a continual piece of work that we focus on.

Do you feel there was a feeling that things were done in the team with the attitude of ‘we’ve always done it that way, so that’s why we do it’?

CW: Yeah, and that actually can be incredibly negative for an organisation to have that kind of approach. It’s probably particularly natural for an organisation like ours that has been racing for 40 years or more, and in a team where people have been here even for that period of time. Formula 1 changes, and this sport is always about innovation and growth and technological advancement, but also other kinds of advancement as well. But if you’re not changing, and if you’re not adapting, then how can you expect the outcome to be any different? So 100 percent, we need to try and drive a new Williams way rather than focusing on the old Williams way. Clearly the old Williams way isn’t working. If it was working, we still would be winning races and world championships.

We’re at a time when F1 is going through a similar set of changes. Given the questions over 2021, does that make it harder for you to try and make those changes? For example, it’s hard to go on a recruitment drive if a budget cap were to come in.

CW: Obviously we’re very conscious of what is coming in 2021, but for us, everything that’s coming is what we were hoping was going to be coming. It plays to our strengths, so the budget cap they’re talking about sits very nicely at the level of our existing expenditure anyway - probably it’s a bit higher. So we’ve got some headroom in there anyway if we need to recruit. But I don’t think for us it’s necessarily about a huge recruitment drive at the moment. We’ve got some great talent in our business, we just need to make sure that we are capturing that talent and we have it organised in the right way and we give the talent the tools and resources to do the job that we’re asking them to do, let alone to doing it to the best of their abilities. So we can focus on ’21 and we can think about what’s coming in the pipeline and organise ourselves accordingly, but it’s not going to have a massive impact on the work that we are doing to transform Williams. It’s certainly not a case that we’re holding out until that point in order for us to turn a corner I suppose. We’re able to turn a corner before that, and when that does come in, obviously it will have a wider impact across the rest of the paddock, for all the teams at the top that will then help us then turn another corner, I’m hoping.

When the first plans came out for 2021, you were one of the most vocal team principals speaking about how positive it would be. Has that worn off at all? We’ve got no real further details since then, so were you expecting to know more about 2021 by this point?

CW: They have kept the teams appraised of where they are in the process. But I do believe it’s a pretty complex process that they’re having to manage. This is them trying to reinvigorate and breathe life into a very complicated, complex sport. That’s not the work of a moment. They clearly have to get it right and they want to get it right. They have recruited the best people to do that, and who better than Ross Brawn to lead that charge. They are I suppose making sure that they do all of the analysis to make sure they do come out with a better sport in 2021. But they have kept us appraised of what they’re doing. Maybe there was hope that we wanted to see change quicker, but I think that’s unrealistic to expect. We’ve got to create a sport that’s sustainable for the future as well, and that takes time, and it takes time to get everybody on board. And time goes pretty quickly, doesn’t it? It’s only two seasons away now. It’s not long to go until this change comes on. So I’m looking forward to it - as long as it all happens.

You spoke about capturing the best talent earlier. You’ve of course got George Russell coming on board for 2019, who is a Mercedes junior and currently leading the F2 standings. Do you feel that signing is a real symbol of how you are attracting top talent?

CW: That’s fantastic news for this team. I’m so delighted that we have George. I think his racing pedigree speaks for itself, but coupled with that, he is an extraordinary young man. He is only 20, yet wise beyond his years. His approach to everything that he’s done with me in order to have secured this seat has been so impressive. He turned up to our first meeting with a notebook - no F1 driver has ever turned up to a meeting with me with a notebook! Just his general approach, he came to this race, his first after signing a contract and made the announcement, and he went into our garage and shook everyone’s hands. That says to me the kind of man that he is, and that is exactly what we want as a driver for Williams. He’s going to be a big part of rebuilding this team, rebuilding this team’s morale, and rebuilding its success on the race track. That’s obviously an enormous amount of pressure to put on anyone’s shoulders, but he has, as I said, an extraordinary sense of maturity, and I know he can take it and I know he understands the importance of his role, and I know he will play it really well.

Claire Williams interview: Pushing the reset button for 2019

The second seat is what everyone is now looking to with not many drives left on the grid for 2019. How close are you to finalising your plans?

CW: I’m not in any rush to do that. We have a short shortlist which we are working through at the moment, and as much as it was important securing a driver with talent for the first seat, it will be for the second seat as well. We have options. We just need to make sure that we secure the best driver that we possibly can based on the criteria that we set ourselves for that seat.

Backing is something that both Sergey and Lance are known to bring. George is coming to the team without that, creating a shortfall. Is that something that you’re thinking that you have to make up, or is that taken into account?

CW: No. We’ve already made up that shortfall, and that was why we were able to secure George. That’s not the second driver’s responsibility to secure any finance that enabled us to have George in the first seat, and I don’t really want to talk about the commercials around the second seat. I don’t think that it would be appropriate.

It’s been a difficult year for the team, but how impressed have you been by Sergey? When you’re towards the back of the grid, it’s perhaps more difficult for a driver to stand out, but have you seen real good signs from him?

CW: Yeah, just thinking about Monaco and what he managed to achieve there was pretty impressive for a rookie driver in only his first five or six races. Both drivers have had a really difficult time this year, and to be able to shine is hard for them. And this has been a very competitive year in F1, we’ve seen the likes of Haas and Sauber and those guys move up the grid, and have had a great run this year. It’s been really difficult. But I have no complaints with either of our drivers this season or what they have delivered for the team.

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