Claire Williams, Deputy Team Principal, Williams F1, in the garage. Credit: Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic

Claire Williams, Deputy Team Principal, Williams F1, in the garage.
Credit: Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Williams F1 Team Hospitality

The Paddock, Circuit of The Americas

Austin, Texas, USA

I had the great pleasure to sit down with Claire Williams on the morning of the 2013 USGP in Austin, Texas. We discussed her new role as Deputy Team Principal with Williams F1 Team, the role of social media in Formula 1 racing, and women in motorsport. Thank you, Claire, for your insight and inspiration!

KO: Eight months into your role as Deputy Team Principal; how has that been so far?

CW: Great! I've loved it. I've really loved every minute of doing this new job. Formula 1 is one of those industries where it's a different thing every day. But doing this role, you don't know what you're going to be faced with from one day to the next and I've really enjoyed it. And obviously, performance wise, we're at where we are. But, being in this role has allowed me to influence changes in order to change those things. So, it's been a really good year. Which sounds a bit ridiculous, but, it has!

KO: You started off as a Communications Officer; tell us a little bit about the progression of your career within Williams and how that has developed.

CW: I started my career at Silverstone Circuit, working at the track there. I was there for three years; I was in the Comms (Communications) Team and I loved it. I really did! Unfortunately, I was made redundant, and coincidentally a job came up with Williams at the same time. So fortunately it kind of was a whole coincidence piece. Dad (Sir Frank Williams) didn't really want me working at Williams though. He had to kinda lobby quite hard to get me the job. But we did, and so I worked basically for the first six years as a kind of Comms Executive Press Officer. I did a few races, but I was really quite back room, kind of member of the team doing all the interview requests back at the factory, doing lots of filming.

Then, I suppose in the past four years, I've had quite a few promotions: up from Junior Press Officer to the Main Press Officer, and then up to Head of Communications. In 2011, we listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange and I took on the investor relations piece as part of my Head of Comms role. I became Head of Sponsorship when our sponsorship head left, and then I was given a seat on the Board at pretty much the same time, and was given responsibility of the full marketing, communications, and sponsorship function of the team. Then obviously this year, they asked me to be the Deputy to the Principal and Commercial Director.

In the past three years it’s been quite a ride really, of promotions, which has been great. But, I spent a long time in the press office from a kind of young age, working my way up through the ranks.

KO: What do you feel you've gained from your experience that has helped you prepare for this role? Or was it really a series of events to make you more well-rounded?

CW: When you're working in the press office you have exposure to a lot of the different areas of the business just by the very nature of the job. You may be filming one day, and a film crew wants to do something on the wind tunnel, so you have access to that. Because of the different areas that you have to work against when you're working in communications, you get a full exposure to business from a financial side to the engineering side to the marketing side. It gives you a really good grounding. Doing all the media work helped prepare me for my current roles.

KO: I understand that you were one of the first people to really start Tweeting from the Paddock and sending out pictures with your Tweets. How did that drive engagement for Williams and F1 in general?

CW: That was great, actually! That was in Winter Testing in 2009 and Formula 1 hadn't necessarily embraced the digital and social spaces up until that year, really. So to be one of the first people that, I mean there were lots of other people that were doing it as well, but it was just great fun! That’s what it was, and I've always been very much about wanting to share our sport. I love this sport with such a passion and I want everyone to know how wonderful it is. So it was a real pleasure to actually do that, to be behind the scenes but share what we were doing.

Testing has always been something that hasn't received too much exposure. The TV crews are here at the races; the media are here at the races. So to be able to show people the work that goes on behind the scenes, in any small way, to get two cars to a race track on a Sunday afternoon, takes a lot more effort and a lot more people and a lot more hard work than most people necessarily anticipate. So it was great and it really lifted the social media work that a lot of teams were doing. Because at the end of the day, we're all so super competitive that it was: "Alright, how many followers have they got this week?", all that kind of stuff. It was a great time to be able to do that, to be able to bring social to Formula 1. Now it's just taken off stratospherically, really.

KO: When we met on Friday, we touched on the importance of social media, especially in America, and developing the American market and gaining more exposure. Where do you think the American market is headed and what do you foresee? How do you foresee growing it even bigger?

CW: America is such a key market for Formula 1. We race all over the world but we really need to get some kind of foothold in this country. It's important; so many of the big businesses are based here and we need people in this country to pay attention to Formula 1 and to realize that it's a wonderful sport to watch and to be engaged with. We really need to do some work around that. It’s going to come from a communications piece and making sure that we provide the best racing that we can. What we need to do as a sport is collectively do that, and I think the only way to get any kind of leverage in this country, or to penetrate peoples' mindsets and try and encourage them to follow our sport, is to do a collective effort with it. Whether that's running cars in New York in order to promote the New Jersey race, doing a massive, great social media campaign using Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Whatever it is, we all need to work collectively to lay the groundwork for people in the States to follow what we do and to love what we do.

KO: In addition to social media, do you think there are any other opportunities for fans and media to increase awareness and help grow the sport?

CW: I think it's being hip. It's having a presence far from just coming for the race weekend and turning up for four days and then not being in the country at any other time. That's difficult: how can you get any penetration if you do that? We need to be coming over in advance, talking to people, going into schools and universities and getting the kids fired up. It's about having that presence at the end of the day.

Having an American driver in Formula 1 would be really useful. Alexander Rossi is one of the Caterham F1 Team test drivers, and I think that would really help. In this sport, countrymen follow countrymen and there's a whole nationalistic thing: the Brazilians go crazy over Felipe Massa. To have that, I think, would really help as well. It's about a presence, and we need to create that presence here and get that buzz going.

KO: That's a good transition into education such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), which is helping prepare women in motorsport. You mentioned that gender doesn't necessarily matter if you're good at your job. Can you elaborate on that and what you've seen?

CW:  There's obviously a lot of noise around women in motorsport at this time. It's become a real question, and I find it quite strange, to be quite honest, because this is the 21st century and it's not big news that women are suddenly taking roles in male dominated environments. There are so many female CEOs  at some of the biggest named companies in the world. I mean, it was 30 years ago that we had our first female Prime Minister in the UK; it was three decades ago! This is not a surprise, or it shouldn’t be a surprise, that women are in these roles in Formula 1.

On the other hand, it's so important for the women that are in this sport to put their head above the parapet a bit, and to use their positions in order to encourage other young girls to come in through the ranks. It's not hard; anyone can do this. Being that we have to actively encourage that is really important. But, I’ve always been of the belief, like you mentioned, that gender doesn't really come into it. For this sport that we operate, you have to have the best people in the best jobs. You can't just put a women in a job because you're trying to reach quota. It's not going to work. We're the pinnacle of motorsport. We have to have the best people doing the best jobs. Because of that, because I've grown up with that kind of philosophy, for me, gender has never been a point of reference in this role. It's, “Was I the best person for the job?” the board thought I was, and that was it.

KO: Aside from that, what are your hopes for women in motorsport?

CW: I hope that one day we have a female driver in our sport, racing. I think that would be absolutely fantastic! I think it would encourage so many more young kids, young girls, to come up through the ranks in karting. I think that because we don't have that, the young girls without karting at the moment look at it and go “Well maybe it's too difficult;” “We haven’t had a female driver in Formula 1 since the '80s;” “Maybe it can’t be done;” and I'm kind of thinking, you have to have those role models in the drive, in the cockpits, in order to encourage the younger girls to come on through. To have more females in the engineering positions would be great. We have an in-house magazine and it tells you all the new staff that have joined Williams: half of them are women. They've all come into design roles, which is fantastic. To encourage more to come in, that would be wonderful.

KO:  And do you still have about eight female engineers at Williams?

CW: Yeah, it's something like that, but more and more are coming in so three of the four of the new staff just last month were women in those kinds of roles, which is fantastic, really fantastic.

KO: You’ve said that Williams has a very “family feel.” How does that fit in to all the different roles? How important is the family environment and how does it impact people working together here?

(Serendipitously, Gabriela Tarkanyi walks by at this moment with Victoria, her two month old daughter with husband and Williams F1 Team Driver Pastor Maldonado.)

CW: Good timing! It's so important. All of the teams up and down the Paddock all have different personalities and characteristics, but the Williams personality is that welcoming, family piece which we find so important. We're going through this transitional stage, a new generation coming in and helping to run the team. To maintain that feel is very important; that's one of the reasons why I was asked to do this job, because I am part of the Williams Family, the majority controlling shareholder, and one of the biggest parts of this team is the fact that it is family. When we talk about Williams, the people at Williams, we all talk about joining our families. When we signed Felipe Massa last week, it was, “Felipe is now part of the Williams Family;” “Pastor is a part of the Williams Family.” Even when drivers leave us, they remain a part of the Williams Family. There is a really lovely atmosphere here.

We all get to work in this amazing world: we get to make great friends along the way, we go out and enjoy each other's company, and we genuinely do! It's a real lovely, lovely place to work. That is so important because when you're working these really long hours, traveling away from your own families at home and your own friends, and you can create that small sense of family within your team, I think that helps people when they are feeling uprooted from home life; that's important.

KO: Finally, any advice for women pursuing a career in F1?

CW: Work hard, get your grades, work as hard as you can, and don't give up, because the doors aren't closed, they are open. It's a case of women that have to go and walk through them. It's as simple as that really: fighting for what you want and what you believe in. Hard work is what you normally get rewarded for at the end of the day. This is a wonderful sport to work in. If you want to do it, then pursue it big, because it will pay you back.