Exclusive: Claire Williams will keep battling to upset F1's male-dominated world

Oliver Brown
Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams in Monte Carlo - Getty Images Europe

She might be the most prominent woman in Formula One, but Claire Williams is accustomed to feeling like the odd one out. At times, there can be as much testosterone sloshing around this sport as petrol. “Too many dudes,” as Lewis Hamilton once pithily put it.

For Williams, at the helm of an iconic British engineering company as it navigates a period of grave struggle, it is an imbalance that requires urgent redress.

“I notice that I am invariably the only woman in the room,” she says. “You look at F1 and you just see a swathe of men.

"It can be very off-putting. It can also be somewhat intimidating, because the place is dominated by men with a very large presence, who want to have their voices heard. I don’t want to be the only woman here.

“There is evidence to show that if you get a group of men in one room, the testosterone level increases dramatically, and their heart rates and blood pressure go up. It heightens all those natural male qualities of competitiveness.”

Robert Kubica during practice ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix Credit: Getty Images

As sunlight finally pierces the clouds that have hovered over Monaco all week, Williams is in the brightest form, combative towards her critics and adamant that she is the best person to haul her team out of the mire.

During a candid interview in her motorhome office, inches from the Monte Carlo harbour, rapidly filling with gaudy yachts ahead of Sunday’s Grand Prix, she fiercely defends her leadership and claims she would happily do her job without being paid a penny.

It is a detail sometimes overlooked about Williams that she did not inherit her robes as deputy team principal – her father, Sir Frank, remains in overall charge, although frailty keeps him from attending races – in some golden coronation.

She started out as a press officer, eventually graduating to head of sponsorship, where she negotiated deals worth hundreds of millions to the struggling team. That she has since been handed the keys to the garage does not, she insists, represent any quest for glory.

“If somebody told me to go back to being the press officer again, I’d be happy with that,” she says. “Being involved is what I love. I don’t do it for the pay cheque, you could pay me nothing. Williams has given me so much of my life. I owe it, I feel a responsibility to pay it back.”

To say that Williams are in a parlous predicament on the track is akin to describing the Tierra del Fuego as a touch on the bleak side. From a glorious Nineties zenith, with world titles for Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill elevating the sport to record heights in the UK, they now find themselves with a car so uncompetitive that it counts as success if it is not lapped twice.

George Russell is a British talent of rich promise, while Robert Kubica has made a stirring recovery from a near-fatal rallying crash, but the two drivers are schlepping around the back of the field like seven-hour marathon stragglers.

While she has to take ultimate accountability, Williams’ pain is not solely of Claire’s own making. She is understood to have been strung along by broken assurances from Paddy Lowe, the former chief technical officer, who took a permanent leave of absence earlier this year after failing even to produce a car ready for testing.

Williams during practice ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona Credit: Getty Images

Plus, there were difficulties in dealing with Lawrence Stroll, a Canadian billionaire nicknamed 'Vesuvius' within F1, who was essentially using Williams as an expensive finishing school for his son Lance. Footage from the Monaco Grand Prix 12 months ago, showing Stroll Snr in a seething rage and Claire close to tears, captured the tension.

Williams has, she acknowledges, questioned her leadership. “If your business wasn’t performing well, you would be incredibly arrogant not to be introspective. I have those internal conversations, but I don’t believe my ability to take this team forward is done. I can drive us out of this. If ever I felt my contribution was harmful, then I wouldn’t stay on in the job.”

She is not impervious, however, to some of the more vicious barbs. Last summer, Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 world champion with Williams, ranted: “The team is dead, there is no management. There was an alternative, and they chose Claire instead of Jonathan [her older brother]. Big mistake.”

She purses her lips slightly when I mention this. “What I find distinctly irritating is people criticising when they don’t know the full story. I’m a very honest person. If someone feels that strongly about the situation, then talk to me about it.”

It was once said of her father that he “didn’t do emotion”. Claire, by contrast, has become known for a far more empathetic style. In the documentary Williams: Formula One in the Blood, no scene was more moving than that of Claire reading from the diary of her late mother, Ginny, encouraging her father to recognise her anguish. 

The aftermath of Frank’s car accident in the south of France in 1986, which left him a tetraplegic, sowed faultlines in British motorsport’s most famous family. Ginny, who died of cancer in 2013, wrote a book accusing him of a lack of consideration, and a fixation on racing to the exclusion of all else. Frank, in a startling admission, later said he had never read it.

Jacques Villeneuve has criticised his former team Credit: REX

Was this a source of pain for Claire, so close to her mother that she has had the logo of a butterfly – Ginny’s favourite creature – printed on Williams’ cars? “Not at all. My dad never looks back. If ever he won a race, he looked to the next one. He went through a horrific experience. Why would you want to relive it in minute detail? I think mum would have appreciated it, though.”

When a team is at the bottom, the fashion can be to beat it with whatever stick is available. Claire discovered this for her herself last month, with the publication of F1’s latest gender pay gap report, which identified Williams as one of the worst offenders.

As the only female leader of a team, it was a headline she took deeply to heart. She points out that the proportion of female staff at Williams – 17.6 per cent – is the highest in the paddock, but pledges to do far better.

“To be honest, when I first started my job, I never thought about the priority of promoting women in business,” she reflects. “I had been brought up in a very male-dominated world. I only had brothers. I was almost a chauvinist in my approach. My original comments were, ‘F1 is a meritocracy’. But as I’ve grown in my role, I am presented as a female figurehead. I have had experiences of discrimination. I still do. So, if I can still suffer that, I worry about what someone at a junior level, as a woman, would face. I take it enormously seriously. We need role models in our industry.”

So far, Williams is proving as good as her word, having just chosen Jamie Chadwick, the country’s most exciting young female racer, to be a Williams development driver. Even in tumultuous times, she is not about to shrink from the toughest fights. “Giving up,” she says, with a glint of true steel, “is not in my nature.”