James Vowles is a name that has become all too familiar in F1 in recent months. However, most motor sport fans would likely know his voice from the iconic, “Valtteri, it’s James” radio calls he used to make over a race weekend. Previously the motorsport strategy director at Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team, Vowles has been a part of several very successful Formula One teams. Yet, in 2023 he took on a new challenge, joining Williams Racing as their new Team Principal.
Although a big jump, Vowels seems right at home at the Grove-based squad despite the massive shoes to fill. Williams Racing is a team synonymous with the sport, with its first entry as a team the 1977 Spanish Grand Prix. In fact, Vowels is only the third official Team Principal for Williams in their 46-year history.
Ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix this weekend, Sports Illustrated caught up with the team boss. He discusses his career to date, collaborating with Keanu Reeves and the one thing he wished he had in his new contract.
Sports Illustrated: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you find yourself working in F1?
James Vowles: If I wind all the way back, I did an International Baccalaureate, where you had to do six subjects and I focused on maths and science. I went to university in the U.K. and studied for a degree in the late 90s. It was computer science and mathematics because those were the focus areas of where the world was developing. It's not that I had a particular interest in doing either of those two subjects, I just happened to be good at them.
About 12 months into that, I realized this really isn't for me long term. By all means, I can do a degree, but I'm not doing 20 years of this. I was actively pursuing various other opportunities and I wrote to all 11 F1 teams asking what would it take for me to have a job with them. Back then F1 teams were around 250 people and didn't really take graduates. In some cases, it was a straight ‘no’, but in other cases, it was ‘here's what you're missing’. They typically wouldn't take mathematicians, but they would take engineers. They told me to go and do another engineering degree and then give us a call. So I did exactly that and got a Masters in engineering. I don't think the pathway into F1 has particularly changed for engineering in the last 25 years, you still need to be near the top of your class.
SI: Was Williams one of the teams that told you no?
JV: No, theirs was a constructive one. So this was the late 90s when it was a very, very successful team, but irrespective it was constructive. The straight noes were Sauber, Ferrari, it was very impolite from Ferrari. Others were more constructive at the time, and Williams was one of them.
SI: One of the teams you worked at was Brawn GP in 2009. Their story is amazing. They bought the failing Honda team for just £1 GBP and made it into a dominant and successful package all within the space of a year. Hollywood legend Keanu Reeves is working on a Disney+ Documentary about the Brawn GP era, have you been a part of it?
JV: I knew Keanu from before anyway, but I spent about three hours with him which wasn’t intended—it was supposed to be half an hour! But if you get me started and Brawn GP, you'll be here until tomorrow. There was so many fascinating stories from it that I was quite happy to talk all the way through, plus I think it's a wonderful thing because the input I was doing, we weren't paid as actors, but our contribution went to charity, so as far as I know, the more I talked the more charity got. Simple as that. Keanu is a brilliant character, he really is so down to earth.
SI: Were there any specific moments when you were at Mercedes as a Strategy Director, that you thought ‘I want to be a Team Principal’? How did this opportunity arise?
JV: So, I was the Motorsport Strategy Director at Mercedes, that was the title eventually placed on me. As a director, I looked after Mercedes in Formula E at the time, GT3, Formula One. I was trying to do strategy across the whole of motor sport.
Toto Wolff (Team Principal and CEO at Mercedes’ F1 Team) and myself had a very honest chat back in 2014, where we had a chat about what my pathway would be. He was very much in support. If you sort of look at my career within Mercedes, alongside Toto, you'll see that suddenly drivers found my way, and then Formula E found my way, then all the other bits that a Team Principal typically would act within that environment starts to come my way.
The training was very much a part of where I was going forward. It would be foolish to assume that you'd ever make it there or that you deserve that position. But I did everything I could, in my power anyway, to put the training in and the timing to put myself in a position where should an opportunity arise—Mercedes or elsewhere—I'd be ready.
SI: How have you found working with drivers Alexander Albon and Logan Sargeant? Can you tell me a defining characteristic for both of them?
JV: Alex can tell you a story that will make you laugh without realizing he was even going down that route. He is an interesting character. No. Joking aside, Alex is a leader. He absolutely deserves his place from F1. He has all the performance required. The fact he’s really pulling this car into Q3 [final qualifying shootout] every now and again gives you an indication as to how strong he is. Helmet on he has an insatiable desire to extract every millisecond, helmet off and he's actually an incredibly down-to-earth, normal person—a great asset to this team.
Logan is just hungry for every millisecond he can get. He knows he's playing catch up [as a rookie this year], he knows that he has a long journey in front of him. But you see he is able to choose times that are similar to Alex or faster. It's just the consistency of pulling it together, which comes with time and experience.
So very different personalities and as much as one. I mean, Alex isn't old but he's experienced, and Logan being younger, great performance, but just sometimes needs to just bring it back a little bit. It's a good contrast between the two to provide the driver line-up that we have.
SI: You’ve previously swapped the pit wall for the racetrack and competed professionally. Could you talk a bit about that love of getting behind the wheel and has that helped you in your role as Team Principal yet?
In F1, the engineering side contains some of the best engineers that I've ever had the opportunity to work with, either graduates or engineers. There's also a whole bunch of failed racing drivers and I think I fall into the camp of failed racing driver. I did a little bit when I was younger, and realized very swiftly that I would never be on the level required to take this into a professional career. I decided to put it on hold until such a point as I was successful enough in my life to be able to rejuvenate and rejoin it.
Then in 2021/22, I decided to really commit properly back into it, because when you do racing, you really can't do it half-heartedly. You have to train, you have to eat, you have to live and breathe it when you're doing a full-time job at the same time.
Learning is hugely important, in my opinion, to understand what's going on with the drivers. But you have to be in that situation to understand that sometimes, when the racing helmet is on and you're in the cockpit by yourself, the amount of visibility you have is about 500 meters in front of you and 200 meters behind you. And that's it.
You're detached from what's going on elsewhere, and you need to understand how to communicate that to the drivers in an effective way and how to use data. There's a huge amount that I learned throughout this process about the psychology of it, the confidence you need from the right people around you saying the right things at the right time.
I've spoken to a number of drivers since I've done this about my experiences and they all share that it's exactly the same for them now. Not for a second am I comparing myself in ability to an F1 driver, but just the psyche.
Completely openly, before I got in the car, I thought I'd lost all my God-given ability to drive a car fast, you really do. It's normally before the start of the race, but then literally, the lights go out, you start and you forget you're in the flow of the moment, and you realize very swiftly on, you're still the same individual you were before.
That connection, that bond is something that's incredibly strong and brings you much much closer to the drivers as a result. This new job is obviously taking every second of my life, and I love it, but I will want to get back into a race car at some point because you get itchy when you don't.
SI: The team has such a rich history, with 114 race victories to its name and an astounding nine Constructors’ Championships. If you could pick one of the old cars to drive at any circuit in the world, what would you take and where are you going?
JV: I wish I'd done my contract properly beforehand because it would have contained it! There are three cars between basically the early 90s and the late 90s, where I struggled to choose between all of them. But I would probably go with Nigel Mansell’s FW14B because it's got such history to it and it was such a dominant beast of a car.
Circuit wise, you either want to be Suzuka, Japan or Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium. You need to have the corners where you can exploit the car, you don't want to be around a street track, so one of those two places.
SI: Finally, there’s so much traveling with F1 now. You’ll soon be going from Spain to Canada. How do you keep yourself busy on flights? Are you a bookworm, or have a favorite podcast that you like to binge?
JV: I like podcasts when I’m running oddly enough. I use Netflix at many points, then a good book and work. So it just really depends. What I try to do is focus on a book every three races for the long haul. So the last one, which I haven't quite finished yet, is Pandemic by A.G Riddle. It's a fascinating book that is basically written prior—I think in 2017—to the pandemic. It very accurately described what happened, should we have a pandemic, it's, it's eerie in many regards. In terms of Netflix, silly things like Brooklyn Nine-Nine you can’t go wrong with. It’s just things that keep your brain just completely distracted from the world so that you can actually escape is what I’ve watched.