Growing up, Claire Williams – deputy team principal of Williams Racing Formula 1 team – spent her weekends knocking the pens from the stationery cupboard at the Williams factory, her father’s place of work. Her and her brother would swing from the chains suspended from the ceilings in the race bays, creating a zip wire from one end to the other. Little did she realise that she would be running the very same team a couple of decades later…
“My dad was very clear that nepotism wasn’t a word in his vocabulary,” Claire says, thinking back to her childhood. “I had no thoughts about even coming into Williams or Formula 1. It was very much my dad’s world and so my parents made that very clear to their children. It wasn’t on my radar that I would end up having a career in motorsport.”
Claire grew up in a world that was heavily orientated around Formula 1, with her father, Sir Frank Williams, being the owner of one of the most successful F1 teams in history. Subsequently, she grew up around the driver, although was still starstruck by Ayrton Senna.
“When I was in my teens, dad decided that I could choose one race a year to go to by myself with him, which was such a treat,” she says. “I chose Hungary and I’d gone into my dad’s room in the hotel one night to say goodnight to him. I was in my pajamas and Ayrton Senna was standing in the room.
“First off, I was horrified because I had a major crush on him. Secondly, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I rather embarrassedly said goodnight to my dad and scuttled off out. I’ve had a number of experiences fairly similar to that and I am very lucky to have grown up in the world that I have grown up in.”
After studying politics at university, Claire was stuck with what to do. A meeting with the CEO of Silverstone Circuit proved successful and Claire secured a job as a junior press officer. After a period there, she joined the Williams team where she has remained ever since. After managing the communications department, she has now been the deputy team principal since 2013.
In that time, the team has had its ups and downs and Claire isn’t afraid to talk about the situation that they’re in at that moment. She isn’t proud of it – that is evident – but she is optimistic that they will recover.
“I think people feel a state of shock as to what has happened and how and why it’s happened,” she says. “But, there is still a really strong fighting spirit within this team. We’re very lucky in that we’ve got some very clever and hard working individuals here, that all have that Williams spirit – continuing to fight and push, and not letting what is happening on the race track stop their hard work or downplay their determination to turn things around.
“We have to remember that yes we’re in a pretty terrible position right now, but last year we were fifth, the year before that fifth and before that we came third two years in a row. Sports teams go through troughs. If we allow ourselves the pity party of feeling sorry for ourselves, then we aren’t going to get out of this. We have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and have an absolute focus and determination to resolve the situation that we’re in at the moment.”
Regardless of the results this season, Claire is adamant that the highs make all of the lows worthwhile. In 2014, the team had some of its best success in recent years, and finished third in the constructor’s standings.
“We did an enormous amount of work in 2013 when the team was in really bad shape to turn things around and we left no stone unturned to do it,” Claire says. “And that was my first year in that role, and for whatever reason, it all miraculously came to us. We were going to the podium regularly and celebrating, seeing Valtteri and Felipe up there and that was fantastic. We ended the season on the double points scoring race in Abu Dhabi, where we were still fighting with Ferrari for that third.”
Claire was one of the team principals who voted in favour of the double points scoring system at the last race of the season, a decision that fills her with mixed emotions.
“When I got on the plane, and for weeks before, I was like why on earth did I vote for that now that we’re in the situation?” she says. “If we weren’t in that situation, we would have taken P3 at the race prior to that one.”
“I remember the nerves, I remember feeling sick that we could lose this – P3 is a massive achievement from P9. It was a really big deal for us and we did it. It will only be usurped by a championship win, a race win as well, but that seems very far off these days. I try and keep that in my memory, so that it reminds me how success feels and why you need to keep working towards it.”
While the team aren’t where they’d like to be out on track, they are working hard to ensure that they are supporting females in motorsport.
“When I first started 16 years ago at Williams, there was only literally a handful of us,” Claire says. “Even in the jobs that are traditionally thought of as jobs for girls, a lot of blokes were doing them. Now, we have a hundred or so of our staff, which is a seventh of our team, as female. That’s a significant turn around in what’s been a very short period of time.”
Williams run a number of successful apprenticeship schemes and placement opportunities, and last year, the number of female applications outweighed the number of male applicants they received.
“The only way to keep achieving that, and to keep inspiring those people, is to have role models across all different disciplines within Formula 1 and our team,” Claire says. “We have ambassadors within Williams that go out and talk to girls in school, secondary schools and in tertiary education to try and encourage them to take the STEM subjects required to go to university and then to take the engineering degrees. We take our role in that really seriously.
“One of the initiatives that I’m involved in is Dare To Be Different, which is a fantastic campaign that Susie Wolff set up with the MSA. it specifically targets females and tries to inspire them to think about motorsport as a career. That’s important. We are seeing a lot of success from the initiative. A lot of girls are now seeing and thinking seriously about motorsport as a career.”
In 2014, D2BD founder Susie Wolff made history for Williams when she became the first female to participate in a grand prix weekend since 1992. This was a moment that filled Claire with pride, despite the criticism that the team had received for their decision.
“I actually shed a tear which is very unlike me; I felt really proud,” Claire says. “We had people suggesting that it was a marketing ploy. I’m very clear on that: motorsport is dangerous and we’ve lost drivers in this team. We take our driver safety extremely seriously. I would not put a driver in our race car that I didn’t feel was competent at driving it and driving it safely. That would just be lunacy.
“Women are risk averse, so I am the last person to make that kind of decision. I was enormously proud and I think that she did a fantastic job. Susie is a real trailblazer for women in motorsport.”
If the opportunity came up again for a woman to fill a Williams race seat, Claire “wouldn’t think twice if the woman had the track record”.
Ending on the future for the team, Claire knows the hard work required to get Williams back to their heydays.
“You don’t get to 10th in the championship without having a lot of issues to address,” she says. “We are slowly and methodically working through them to make sure that we repair the weaknesses that we have in the team. We still have huge ambitions within Formula 1. We have to get the team back to where we need it to be and where we want it to be – that’s winning races again and that’s not the work of a moment. We are all realistic.
“Formula 1 is a very different environment to even two to three years ago. It is very difficult to win these days. To get us back to that level underneath the top teams of Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes, that’s our ambition for the next two to three years. It’s going to be a hard piece of work to get us there. But we will, because we won’t give up. We’ll keep fighting until we do.”