Was this a strategic choice?
Last week Williams F1 announced that James Vowles would be their new team principal replacing Jost Capito. James has a 20+ year career in Formula 1 having most recently been at Mercedes and played a key role in their 8 constructors titles. While James is clearly qualified, my guess is there’s more to this story.
Let’s start with a little history. Williams F1 has had a partnership with Mercedes-Benz since 2014, with Mercedes providing their power unit, including gearbox and hydraulic controls. While Williams has surely had its ups and downs, in some ways they’ve acted as junior team to Mercedes providing young drivers a step into F1 with dreams of earning a seat at Mercedes team in the future. (Sorry Williams for this take). Both Valterri Bottas and George Russel have taken this path which has provided Mercedes with an excellent drivers lineup over the years.
At the end of 2021, Williams was losing their driver George Russel to Mercedes and was looking for a solid replacement. The decision to draft up George wasn’t made until late in the season, which left Williams with limited options. If you recall, at the time there was a fierce battle between Red Bull Racing and Mercedes F1 teams, with the championship title in either hands. At the time Toto Wolff of Mercedes was pushing for Nyck de Vries to get the seat. Nyck was a highly accomplished race car driver that had yet to prove himself in F1. While on the other side, Christian Horner of Red Bull was pushing for Alex Albon to get the seat. Toto Wolff’s main point of concern here was that he didn’t feel that it was appropriate for a Red Bull contracted driver to be using a Mercedes powertrain given their rivalry. Ultimately Williams chose Alex, however Red Bull was forced to release Alex from contract to make it happen.
Given Mercedes has a limited number of seats in F1 that they control and have a young drivers group I’m sure they’ve been looking for additional ways to bring young drivers into F1. In 2022 they lost a potential great driver in Nyck de Vries that moved over to Alpha Tauri when given the chance for a seat. They don’t want this to happen again. After spending years of resources, time, and energy raising a driver to have them move to a rival team…not ideal. But like any great business or person in life, you have to look at your defeats with a different lens. How can they improve in such a way that this does not happen again is what they likely were asking and when Williams decided to part ways with Jost Capito, you can bet Toto saw this as an opportunity.
But anyways, back to the point at hand; James Vowles. Is there more than meets the eye here? While of course Mercedes are ‘sad’ to lose James, they now have a strong ally at Williams who of course will have to make choices in the best interest of Williams but will end up aiding in the future development of Mercedes young drivers. Think about it. Do you think given the choice today, with James in command that they would sign Alex over Nyck? I doubt it. Mercedes may have lost a key member of their team but in some sense they’ve gained a strong ally in F1 that currently only Red Bull has an equivalent to with Alpha Tauri.
What will the future hold for both Williams and Mercedes?