Many Changes at the Top in Formula 1

Formula 1’s off-season was unusual.

It is natural for drivers to swap teams, and several indeed did, but for several team principals and senior executives to move around is rare. But before the season started, there were major changes.

Mattia Binotto resigned from Ferrari and was replaced by Frédéric Vasseur, who had been the team principal of Alfa Romeo and chief executive of the Sauber Group. That set off a series of moves.

Andreas Seidl, team principal of McLaren, then filled the Sauber chief executive vacancy, with Alessandro Alunni Bravi, managing director of the Sauber Group, which owns the Alfa team, being named to help run it under the newly created title of team representative.

McLaren also promoted from within, with Andrea Stella rising from executive director, racing, to team principal.

At Williams, Jost Capito departed and James Vowles took over, ending a 13-season association with Mercedes, with the last four of those as strategy director.

“He will be missed,” Toto Wolff, the team principal of Mercedes, said of Vowles. “We were a strong alliance, strong sparring partners when making the difficult calls during a race, and we almost never disagreed, so he is definitely a loss.

“He will grow into this team principal role, and it is what he deserves.”

Vowles was instrumental in helping the team win eight consecutive constructors’ championships from 2014 to 2021, and seven drivers’ titles — six for Lewis Hamilton and one for Nico Rosberg.

In contrast, Vowles has joined a Williams team that has finished at the bottom of the constructors’ standings in four of the last five years. But he is aware of the considerable task he faces.

“What will definitely be wrong is when you’re hurting, when you’ve been punished and pushed down as an organization because you are suffering, that doesn’t get any better year on year, unless you get a change to the culture, to the methods and systems,” Vowles said.

Formula 1: On and Off the Track

“I suspect, if we go back a few years, a lot of it was the fact Williams didn’t have the strength that was Dorilton Capital,” referring to the American company that took over the team in 2020.

Vowles recognizes that he cannot stop the rot on his own. His plan is to strengthen the technical team and to allow employees “to shine and prosper.”

“You have to instill a culture that allows everyone to realize you have to be empowered, you have to grow, you have to move forward as a unit together, and it has to be one collaborative motion,” he said.

After Vowles’ announcement, he and Wolff held a joint news conference. It was unusual, having someone leaving a team speak about his new team alongside his current employer.

At the heart was the strength of their relationship, but Wolff and Vowles also said that there would be no collaboration between the teams beyond Williams already using a Mercedes power unit.

“Williams is an entirely independent organization and furthermore, it’s one that my success is subject and dependent on me doing a good job there,” Vowles said. “That has to be independent of Mercedes.”

Wolff was as dismissive. “If I were ever to get involved with James and ask him to become a mini-Mercedes, he would tell me to get lost,” Wolff said.

There is naturally pressure on Vowles to succeed, but while the bar he has to raise starts from a low position, in contrast Vasseur has to win championships.

Ferrari’s last constructors’ title was in 2008, and its last drivers’ title was Kimi Raikkonen’s in 2007.

Last season, the team and the driver Charles Leclerc both finished second, yet Binotto left after the team, which started strong, was undermined by unreliability and strategic errors.

“My approach to racing is that we have to do a better job more than today,” Vasseur said. “If today you say the team is in a good shape then you are dead. You always need to have the mind-set to say ‘OK, where can we improve?’

“When you are a top team, you cannot have another target other than to win. The day you start a season and say ‘OK, we can be P2’ [second place], means there is a lack of ambition. We have everything we need to do a good job, and the target, for sure, is to win.”

Leclerc drove for Vasseur in his rookie season in Formula 1 in 2018 at Sauber and has been impressed by what he has seen.

“Ferrari is very different to whatever you’ve been used to before,” Leclerc said. “Once he got here, he understood extremely well the way Ferrari works from the first few days.

“He’s very clear on what he wants and extremely good in putting the people in the right mind-set and providing the right ambience to give their best.”

At McLaren, Stella’s transition to team principal was “seamless,” said Zak Brown, the chief executive.

“He’s very aware of the teams here,” Brown said. “He’s worked very closely with all of them after being here almost a decade, so he is exactly who we wanted to have run the racing team. He was our No. 1 choice.”

Stella said his role was about consolidating the direction of McLaren, which had been steered by Seidl.

“I worked well with Andreas,” Stella said. “We established some very important directions, and now we want to consolidate them, but at the same time the complexity of F1 leaves the business open for opportunities.”

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