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Alex Albon, James Vowles and the start of a Williams renaissance

Albon drove another exquisite race in Monza to finish seventh, with F1’s customary wooden spoon holders reinvigorated in 2023 under the leadership of ex-Mercedes strategist Vowles

Kieran Jackson
Formula One Correspondent
Monday 04 September 2023 15:40 BST
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F1: James Vowles 'incredibly proud' to join Williams Racing as team principal

Alex Albon has a habit of leaving no stone unturned. Another victim of Red Bull’s brutal driver merry-go-round in 2021, dropped as Max Verstappen’s teammate for Sergio Perez, the British-Thai driver was desperate for a race seat for 2022. Aware of George Russell’s impending move to Mercedes, Albon approached the then Williams CEO Jost Capito with a couple of resources: a CV and an Excel spreadsheet, comparing his superior lap times to his rivals. Suitably impressed by both his determination and statistics, a deal was agreed. “Albono” was back on the grid.

So to now, and the rebirth of the 27-year-old at a team rejuvenated. Albon has carved out 21 points in the first 14 races of this season at a team who managed only 39 points from 2018-2022. A five-year period where they were bottom of the pile, the wooden spoon holders, in four of those five years.

Sunday’s seventh-place finish at the Italian Grand Prix was Albon’s best performance yet for Williams, more impressive than an identical result in Montreal in June. A display of crisp driving to qualify sixth on Saturday was coupled with dogged defensive work lap after lap on Sunday, even with his tyres dropping off in the final stages in Monza. Though the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull of Sergio Perez had too much pace, Albon had the McLarens on his gearbox for most of the afternoon. But using exquisite car placement and intimate driver nous, that’s exactly where Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri stayed.

Alex Albon (left) is thriving under the leadership of James Vowles at Williams (Getty)

First to acknowledge Albon’s display was Williams team principal James Vowles, whose influence on this team in his first six months cannot be overstated. Arriving after years of success and experience as Mercedes’ chief strategist, the highly astute 44-year-old was ready to step out of Toto Wolff’s shadow. Tasked with rebuilding a team whose level and morale were at rock bottom – the years of title triumphs under Sir Frank Williams in the 1990s a very distant memory now – Vowles was under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge.

“The main thing is this: what I want to see is positive progress and it won’t be weeks or months, it will be more than that – it’s on a years[-long] timescale,” Vowles said, back in March. “There are no short-term solutions, everything is long term.”

Yet if this is what short-term progress looks like, how far can Vowles take this sleeping giant of the sport in the long term? Williams are currently seventh in the constructors’ standings and a clear seventh at that, leapfrogging Alfa Romeo, Haas and AlphaTauri this season. In Albon, they have a driver who is flourishing as a clear No 1 in the garage. And in Vowles they have an experienced head whose obsession with F1 means, much like his driver, every ounce of effort and second of lap time will be eked out to the maximum.

For example, he was attuned to McLaren’s “dummy” pit stop late in the day at Monza, with the papaya even shuffling out their mechanics in an attempt to trigger Williams to pit Albon instead. Vowles, who has seen such moves numerous times in his 12 years at Mercedes, could not help but laugh about it afterwards.

Albon kept the McLaren of Lando Norris behind him at Monza on Sunday (Getty)

He also stole a march on Alpine – next up the road, sixth in the standings – by poaching Pat Fry in July to be Williams’s new chief technical officer. The straight-line speed of the FW45 has contributed to top-10 finishes in Bahrain, Silverstone and Zandvoort this year. Even Lewis Hamilton was bemoaning Williams’s pace in qualifying on Saturday – who could have predicted that a few years back?

There are still issues to solve, the most prescient being their second seat currently occupied by Logan Sargeant. Albon’s sturdy points-tally is in stark contrast to the American rookie, languishing at the bottom of the standings. Pointless after 14 races, another glimpse of a top-10 finish went astray for Sargeant on Sunday. Speculation is rife that Mercedes reserve Mick Schumacher could be thrust into the seat for 2024. Sargeant has eight races left, including two in the US, to prove his worth to Vowles and keep a seat which will be highly sought after if Williams continue in the same direction.

Vowles enjoyed years of success at Mercedes but was keen for a new challenge (Getty)

Race wins and championships are still some way off. The tally of nine constructors’ crowns and seven drivers’ titles will not change anytime soon. But the gradual renaissance of one of Formula One’s staple teams – who celebrated their 800th grand prix earlier this year – is one of 2023’s feelgood subplots in a season dominated by Red Bull and Max Verstappen. Albon has committed until at least the end of 2024 and is likely to extend further should the top dogs not come calling. Vowles is, quite clearly, in it for the long haul. How quickly the ascension can arrive remains unclear in the unrelenting arms race that is F1, but both driver and team principal have reinvigorated all personnel in the famed dark blue kit both in the pit lane and back at base in Oxfordshire.

What’s more, neither wants to steal the sole limelight. There is no room for overinflated ego. Is this an Alex Albon story? Is it a James Vowles story? What is abundantly clear is that it is a bit of both.

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