Claire Williams discusses 2017, gender equality in F1 and running her father's team

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In the first two years of the V6 turbo era, Williams was the fairytale team mixing it with the might of Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari, recording consecutive third-place finishes in the constructors' championship. However, after reaching those lofty heights, 2016 has been a reality check -- the team has slipped down towards the midfield and was demoted to fifth by Force India at the Belgian Grand Prix.

Though much was made of Williams' Mercedes power unit, acquired ahead of the 2014 season, it was part of a bigger jigsaw puzzle overseen by deputy team principal Claire Williams -- daughter of team founder Sir Frank, made defacto boss of the team in 2013. In the five years prior to her taking over, the dominant team of the mid-1990s had finished eighth, seventh, sixth, ninth and eighth.

Asked if it was a proud feeling to have taken her family team back to the front end of the grid in such a short amount of time, Williams told ESPN: "Yes it was. When I took over the DTP (deputy team principal) role in 2013 the team was not in particularly good shape and we did a lot of work throughout that year, a lot of work.

"We started in Australia, where we saw where the team was, and we didn't really leave any stone unturned. We came into 2014 and we obviously had the benefit of the massive engine regulation change, which obviously helped us because we had the Mercedes power unit but our success wasn't purely the result of the engine regulation change, you don't just benefit from a change like that, there's a lot of work that's gone on behind the scenes."

This year's slip down the order was anticipated by Williams -- she sees it as inevitable given the lack of significant regulatory change since 2014.

"We knew this year was going to be much harder obviously with going into the third year of regulation stability the field is going to tighten up, so we knew we were going to have our work cut out. But it has been disappointing but I suppose we still have to remember and I always say we have to remember where we have come from over the past two years, so to be disappointed at fourth is almost a positive thing."

But that's about to change in 2017, with a massive revamp of F1 set to increase speeds with wider cars and chunkier tyres. Every team on the grid has had the classic condundrum -- staying competitive in 2016 while also committing enough resource to a rule change which could make it a contender once again. So how does a team like Williams, operating on the margins of its budget year in year out, cope with a two-pronged approach to development this year?


As ESPN talked to Williams on Saturday in Spa, the previous four weeks had seen several reports of the team being out-developed by its main rivals. A solitary podium from Valtteri Bottas in Canada hints at the team's struggles this season, where it has remained constantly in the upper midfield but a long way behind the battle for best of the rest behind Ferrari and Red Bull.

But Williams insists that drop off is not because of an increased focus on 2017. Speaking about the rule changes, she said: "I think its a bit of unknown isn't it? We didn't divert resource, we always had a plan going into this year of what resource would be allocated for 2016 upgrades and development work, and then running a parallel programme for 2017, work for next year's chassis. But a team like ours, with the resources we have, you are always going to have to compromise somewhere, but we didn't make a conscious decision looking at our performance this year, that we're going to divert resource to 17 now. We haven't shifted on the plan.

"Going into next year I think its great for the sport that we've got changes coming. I think it's exciting, as a person I'm naturally quite risk averse so it's kind of like looking at next year you never know where you are going to be. I think again we may have a position by which because there are such diverse regulations coming in from where we are now, whether it's going to bring about convergence of performance amongst the teams? I don't know because no one knows where they are. It could be again a concertina affect whereby its pulling everybody away from each other. So I think we have got to wait and see but I think it's positive for the sport and it's a good, exciting move."

The day before we spoke in the Spa paddock, Williams had been asked when a decision would be made on the team's 2017 driver line up in the Friday press conference, replying with a wry smile: "Before the end of the year."

It's a question Williams has become quite used to -- and clearly quite frustrated at -- answering in recent weeks. With Felipe Massa out of contract this year, the team has been linked with Jenson Button and Sergio Perez. Though Williams has refused to be drawn on a timetable for an announcement -- last year's was made ahead of the Italian Grand Prix -- she said the financial implications of 2017's regulations will play no part in which drivers end up representing the Grove outfit next year.

"We made a very conscious decision back in 2013 that we wanted to move away from the pay driver position. We would never put a driver in our car purely for financial reasons, because that's not who we are as a team, it's not who we need to be as a team.

"We have a very healthy racing budget of a minimum of a £110 million a year, but of course if a driver does come with financial backing, then that's an added bonus and I don't consider it [a bad thing].

"I think the pay-driver term is extremely negative because a driver can be a great talent but have that added benefit of bringing money, so of course us, as an independent team, when the sponsorship market is as it is currently, then of course that's a consideration for us.

"We have to be a responsible business. We have 750 employees and we want to make sure that we keep 750 employees, that's the most important thing for us."

Team boss

The Williams name is one of the most famous in motor racing. Founded by Sir Frank in 1977, the team has won nine constructors' and seven drivers' championships. The team dominated in the mid-1990s and has remained one of the most popular on the grid, an independent stalwart competing against the might of better-funded opposition. Her father has the credit for creating the Williams dynasty but Claire scoffs at any notion that she is trying to step out from under her father's shadow.

"Frank's shoes are big shoes to step into and I'm not trying to take over his team, I'm just trying to continue Frank's legacy in the best way that I can. It was very much a baptism of fire when I took over the role and I've learnt so much in three years.

"It's been an amazing journey and I'm very lucky that we have great people at Williams. I'm not just here - we have a wonderful board and executive committee and senior management group at Williams and we all work together, this is not just one person and then a group of people. There's a very positive atmosphere at Williams and this is how we work. There have been some wonderful times, when we took third at Abu Dhabi [in 2014], that will be the best race that I've ever been to and I will never forget that moment.

"And yes there have been lows, but that's Formula One and because I've grown up in this sport I suppose I'm fairly used to the cyclical nature of it. That's what makes winning great, because you experience the awful pain that comes with losing, whether that means you've come fourth or you've come 15th. I'm only at the start of my career-journey in this role."

Williams says her father has slowly stepped away from the role since she took over in 2013, and that she is more in control than ever before, mixing his own racing mentality with a fresher, younger approach to modern F1.

"We're father and daughter but we're still individuals. For me it's so important -- and that's one of the reasons why I was given this job -- is to make sure that I continue the embed the Williams DNA into this team, because that's who we are, that is our culture, that DNA running through us and that's really important.

"I feel I have a different outlook because I am of a different generation to Frank, but I always have his thoughts in my head whenever I'm doing anything. When I took over in 2013 Frank was much more involved in a daily basis, he's very much stepped back over the past year and I am doing more of the TP more than I ever have before.

"I've got so much more that I want to achieve at Williams, we're just at the beginning. We went through this big transformation in 2013 but a Formula One team is a continually evolving beast and we have to keep working at it, nurturing it, loving it and one day I hope that this team will be fighting for championships again. I'm certainly not going to give up until we are in that position. But it's a great journey, it's a great ride, it's a real privilege to work in this sport and it's an even greater privilege to work in a family-owned team."

Women in F1

Williams role in the sport has naturally led to a lot of attention about women in F1, with Williams and Sauber's Monisha Kaltenborn the only female team bosses in the sport. Her achievements led to an unexpected OBE earlier this year -- something she admitted was a complete shock at the time. However, Williams thinks it is other people who make a big deal about her gender, something she has never felt is an obstacle to success in the sport.

"I never really think about being a woman in Formula One. I never really think about it personally, it's when everyone else thinks about it that it's glaringly obviously there. I just go about my job and get on with my job to best of my abilities and of course a woman in a role like this, there is going to be a bit of a spotlight than if I was a bloke doing it -- and that's fine -- I try not to think about it too much because I don't think as myself as a role model or a reason why more women are coming into this sport. I think that's just more of a natural evolution really.

"I think it's great to see and I think that if my role does encourage other girls to come in then I think that's fantastic. I think this sport has changed so much over the past few years, the gender landscape within Formula One, and I think we should be really proud of that as a sport and shout about it."

Though F1 has not had a female driver start a grand prix Lella Lombardi in 1976, the sport remains open to men and women competing side by side. They also work alongside each other in the paddock, with the ratio evening out every year, something Williams feels is overlooked by the wider sporting world.

Asked if the sport gets an unfair reputation as male-dominated, she replies: "I agree, I'm constantly banging that drum and reminding people that this is a sport that has grown up as a 'jobs for the boys', 'toys for the boys' etc.

"So many other sports; golf doesn't generally allow that, rugby, football, it's all segregated and we should shout about it more. I say that, I put that message out there all the time because I think that it is really important. Because that is facilitated within our sport, it's up to women to come in and take the jobs and become drivers, it's up to our side on the gender fence to do that."

Though Bernie Ecclestone has courted controversy with his comments about women not being physically or mentally cut out to compete alongside men in F1, Williams believes too much emphasis is placed on finding the next female F1 driver.

When ESPN put it to her that getting more women into motorsport would take another generation, she replied: "I think it's much bigger, I think it's a society issue. I think it's a genetic issue, and I'm not talking about women being able to drive a race car because I absolutely think they can.

"We are two different genders and we are very entrenched in the ways in which we do things and the processes and stuff like that. You shouldn't fight that, I think it's up to every individual to decide what they want to do in life and if they decide that they want to be an aerodynamicist in Formula One then absolutely brilliant, and we should try and be inspirational as a sport.

"We should have role models to showcase that that can be done and it's up to... If we want more women in our sport, we're doing the work and it's ups to them to come in and show us ... come in, jump in and do it.

"For me, I think it's much wider conversation and it's much more about human nature in general. But I think we are seeing a shift as generations progress, women being more prevalent in the workspace and the work enviroment, staying in the workspace for longer, believing that they can do things that originally blocks did but this is long and this is not the work of a generation."