F1's Claire Williams on resilience, managing expectations and losing top talent

Jon Card
Claire Williams is deputy team principal and commercial director of the Williams Formula One racing team - LAT Photographic

The deputy team principal of the Williams F1 team on its togetherness, never being afraid to muck in, and why she sympathises with businesses that lose talent to bigger rivals.

Claire Williams is a business leader with a lot on her plate. As commercial director of Williams Martini Racing, she’s responsible for marketing, communications, brand and sponsorship for the group.

But she's also the company’s deputy team principal, which puts her in charge of the drivers and 60 operational staff at grand prix fixtures across the world.

In spite of this, she's self-effacing about her own abilities, while praising her colleagues. "I make mistakes every day,” she says. “But in the F1 business, I'm not the only person in charge. There are people there to prevent me making mistakes. Everything that we do is done in a collegiate way."

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Her father, Sir Frank Williams, founded the business in 1977 and turned it into one of F1's most successful teams with 16 world championships, although it has not had a victory since Jacques Villeneuve took the title in 1997.

However, Ms Williams says that her father has created a strong culture of resilience and the business still attracts enormous talent. "He's a huge draw. People want to work for him, because they love his passion for racing."

The death of Ayrton Senna hung over the business for a long time. However, rather than divorcing themselves from the death, the team stayed close to the family and embodied the former driver in its history, even keeping Senna's “S” logo emblazoned on the car.  

"Ayrton's death is something that we will never forget,” she says.
“We still race with his logo on the cars. We’re close to the Senna family and work with his foundation when they ask for support. Ayrton's nephew drove for us in 2012. His memory will not be forgotten, it's an important part of our history – and one that demonstrates the resilience of our team."

Ms Williams says that the company has spent a lot of time and money investing in new technologies, particularly IT. The team has partnerships with BT and Symantec. "IT is something that we've redeveloped over the past three years. When our chief executive took over [Mike O'Driscoll in 2013], the IT infrastructure was probably a decade out of date.

“Obviously, if you’re leading an F1 team, IT is critical for success.
Over the past three years we've built up partnerships in the tech space."

Poor performance on the track during the 2012 and 2013 seasons took its toll on the company’s finances. But the team now has new partnerships in place, hence the rebrand to Williams Martini Racing. Ms Williams says that the business is building, which means that communication with the team is important, as overselling the team's prospects would be counterproductive.

Business leaders need to spell out their ambitions and clearly define how they're going to get there, she stresses. "Sometimes in F1, you can be in danger of going to a race and raising expectations of winning, whereas what you need to tell your team is: ‘actually, we’re in a period where we’re building towards winning.’

“That message probably applies to other industries as well. To be successful, you need to lay out how you're going to do that. Everyone needs to know what the ambition is, but you need to have a clear pathway of how to get there."

'He's a huge draw,' says Claire Williams of her father, Frank, who founded the business in 1977 Credit: LAT Photographic

Ms Williams sympathises with business owners who lose talent to bigger rivals. She says that the hardest decision she had to make was to allow Valtteri Bottas to leave the team for Mercedes, currently the sport’s dominant team.

But, she adds, it was a strong deal and one that benefitted the business commercially. "He was a young, future star who had been with the team for a long time. We had a lot of partners that were very engaged and had [created] programmes around him for 2017. It was very difficult to release him."

Ms Williams joined the business 15 years ago, working initially in the press office. She says that she still feels that she's not good enough for the role and has to constantly prove herself. "I'm very aware that I wouldn't be in this role if I wasn't Frank's daughter. I felt it very keenly in the first year or two. I had to prove myself, not only because I was Frank's daughter, but because I was a woman as well. I feel that I have to work harder to prove to everyone that I deserve the role."

As a consequence, Ms Williams says that she's not afraid to get her hands dirty. "If we’re going to be successful, everybody needs to roll up their sleeves and contribute to the team's success. If I see a puddle of leaking water in our motor home, I will get a mop and wipe it up. We’re all in this together."

She’s also on mission to bring more women into motorsport and engineering. She's currently an ambassador for the Women In Innovation campaign run by the government agency, Innovate UK. She also spends time in schools encouraging girls to take up STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and pursue engineering. "It's important when we’re looking at bringing in new talent that we look across the gender divide and don’t exclude one side of the population, because traditionally, women haven't take engineering subjects."

Ms Williams says that her experience at the company has taught her that an ethical approach combined with a passion to succeed is the best approach. "My motto is: good things happen to good people. It might sound naive, but it has worked for my dad for 40 years."


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