Mercedes strategist James Vowles’ ‘weird holiday’ takes him from pit wall to the cockpit

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Just one week on from the final round of the Formula One season in Abu Dhabi, and Mercedes’ chief strategist James Vowles was back at a race track. As if his day job of chasing on-track performance around the globe for 22 weekends a year wasn’t enough, Vowles took the earliest opportunity after the end of the season to book himself on what he calls “a weird holiday” in the south of France. The destination was the familiar home of the French Grand Prix, Circuit Paul Ricard, but the big difference on this visit was that he was behind the wheel.

In his role at Mercedes, Vowles is the voice of calm across the team’s internal radio communications during a race weekend. Very occasionally, usually if things don’t go to plan, you’ll hear him talk directly to either Lewis Hamilton or George Russell, but the vast majority of his commands remain on internal comms among Mercedes’ engineers as he oversees the strategy of both cars on track.

Although he’s modest about his role in the team, those calls, and the calmness with which they are delivered, have contributed to a total of 114 race victories for Mercedes in the last decade.

But with his role reversed from pit wall to cockpit at Paul Ricard last week, his voice wasn’t quite so calm as he approached the terrifyingly fast Signes corner in a Lamborghini GT3 car. The pit-to-car radio remained firmly closed as he prepared himself for the 160mph leap of faith, but he had a big grin on his face as he relayed the story later in the evening via Zoom.

“I had to really psych myself up by shouting at myself as I went through Signes,” he said. “I don’t have any idea if anyone else in the driving world does that, but I needed to properly psych myself up to go through it at that speed.

“For the record, I don’t think our F1 drivers do that.”

Driving at 160 mph through a fast sweeping right-hander may not seem like an obvious way to unwind after a long F1 season, but Vowles has become addicted to that feeling and a large part of his winter break will be dedicated to replicating it. He raced in the Asian Le Mans Series double header in Dubai and Abu Dhabi at the start of 2022 and plans to do the same in early 2023 if he can close a deal over the coming weeks with one of the teams interested in putting him in their pro-amateur driver line-ups. Like so many that have been bitten by the motorsport bug, including his team boss Toto Wolff who spent his twenties and thirties pursuing a racing career in GT cars, Vowles now wants to see how far he can go.

“Up until July last year I had never driven a GT car or even really considered it as part of my pathway,” he said. “Call it, if you like, a mid-life crisis — I’ve really come to terms with that and it probably is — but I decided that I didn’t want to approach this too late on in life and not have the physical fitness or ability to go out and do it.

“This year was the first year I competed in a proper racing series, the Asian Le Mans Series. I kept it incredibly quiet because in truth I didn’t know if I would be good enough — it is literally the best of pretty much every manufacturer that turns up and then there’s me!

“So what I didn’t want to do is do a tremendous amount of promotion for it, because you could just embarrass yourself. Now, as it turns out, and to quote Toto: I wasn’t shit.”

Vowles admits that his main reason for pursuing a racing career is driven by his desire to know how he stacks up against top level drivers in GT3 cars. Last year he was within two seconds of the “Gold” standard drivers, which is very respectable for a “Bronze” driver – one of which must be present in each driver line-up in the Asian Le Mans Series. He says the lessons he can apply to his day job are “probably not as many as I’d like to admit”, but the experience has given him a valuable insight into the mysterious world of driver psychology – both the good bits and the bad.

“When I’m doing this you are transported into a world where I completely forget about everything else — you have to,” he explained. “I did 300km today over about five hours, and during that time my brain wasn’t thinking about the smaller things in life that you worry about, it was just focused on what it is.

“It’s a very similar feeling to the one I get on the pit wall, where if you ask me how long the race was I couldn’t tell you — I couldn’t tell you if it was ten minutes or four hours — and it’s exactly the same thing. That’s the feeling and addiction I get with racing and why I got involved with it and will try and do more and more of it.

“Life changing is maybe too strong a phrase, but it is something that has now transformed the rest of my life in terms of pushing myself to a new level. There is nothing that really gets close to it when you are starting on a grid with 40 other drivers around you, every single one wanting to push their boundaries as well.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between an amateur racer like Vowles and the professionals is the fear factor while driving. At Paul Ricard he started the day 11 km/h off the quickest drivers in the fastest corners despite being able to match them in slow-speed sectors. By the end of the day, he was able to build up the courage to narrow that gap to 3 km/h, with the aim of being roughly a second off the pace by the end of the second day. Even so, it takes time for him to get to that point whereas the pros find the limit immediately.

At a tyre test in a Mercedes GT3 car in Valencia, Vowles had his confidence shaken when his brake pedal went to floor without slowing the car. He’d been warned by the pro driver he was sharing the car with that the brake pedal was “a bit long” but had not expected to enter the high-speed first corner without any brakes at all. It was a valuable experience for a number of reasons.

“I understand a lot more about why drivers struggle with engineers now,” he said. “I came on the radio to let my engineer know the brake pedal had gone to the floor — and by that time I’m clearly worried about my own sanity and my life. But the engineer’s response wasn’t ‘come back into the pits slowly’, it was ‘that’s fine. Twenty more laps, please’.

“At that point I realised the disconnect between drivers and engineers, because he can see the data, see that the pedal is long, but knows if you pump it twice you will probably be OK. Whereas from my perspective, I thought they were trying to kill me.

“I was a little bit torn in what to do in that moment, but I ended up doing three more laps, at which point I boxed because I didn’t want to hurt myself.”

The experience was at the front of Vowles’ mind this year when Hamilton and Russell complained about the awful ride and aerodynamic sensitivity of Mercedes’ F1 car. For the first half of the season a design fault with the W13 meant it would bounce violently at high speed, making the car’s behaviour unpredictable through fast corners, such as Signes at Paul Ricard.

Mercedes’ engineers, including Vowles, were 100 percent focused on finding a solution to the problem, but that often meant experimenting with more extreme setups that only made the problem worse. On certain occasions the drivers were unsure if they could keep the car out of the barriers during a qualifying lap and Hamilton also suffered severe back pain after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix as a result of his car’s ride.

Vowles said his respect for the drivers, which was already high before he started his own racing programme, has only increased as a result of his own experiences.

“It made me realise this year when the drivers were talking about crashing … it’s something you almost never here a modern Formula One driver talk about, and it’s not that we don’t pay attention to it, but we probably don’t give it the amount of attention we should because their life is on the line at the time.

“Our car has been difficult, to put it politely, at certain points this year. And our drivers came back from the track talking about how they are going to crash and hurt themselves — and that, for a driver, is a big red cross that worries you.

“Yet in the qualifying sessions they were extracting the most out of it, even though, in George’s words, at one point he didn’t know if he was going to go through a corner and crash or not. And yet they were still putting themselves in that situation and extracting every last millisecond, in a car that they don’t trust and isn’t looking after them.

“That’s what really impresses me, is that they can turn off the fight or flight rules that most of us all live by and get on with it.”

Vowles says his GT racing experience also helped him understand how a driver reads a racing situation from the cockpit and how easy it is for a lack of information from the pit wall to hamper performance.

“The thing with engineers is that data is everything for them. I’m a better engineer than a driver, but what I realised from it is that when you are in the car your world is just around you and you have all of these doubts about whether it’s you or the track.

“Today I had lap times that dropped by two and a half seconds and I basically went into a spiral over whether I have completely lost the ability. As it turns out, it’s not that, it’s just that the track had slowed down, but it’s why drivers are continuously asking what’s going on and where they are to their teammate and why they need reinforcement to what is going on.

“It’s not that the driver’s ability is fragile, and in our [F1] team we have the best two in the pit lane, I really believe that, but when suddenly you can’t explain why things have changed you need an explanation to put that in a box and put it away. The relationship with the engineer is the most fundamental one, they are your lifeline and their comments, positive or negative, can spiral you upwards or downwards very, very quickly. I had never really considered or understood that before.”

In Formula One, Hamilton is often heard questioning a tyre choice or pit call over team radio, and although Vowles has never taken those comments personally, his racing experience helps him put them into context.

“I completely understand why Lewis gets caught up the way he does, because the adrenaline rush you get from this is like nothing else,” he says. “And what you have control of is fundamentally the pedals and the steering wheel, so when something outside of your control falls away and you’ve done everything you can.

“I completely get why his frustrations come forward. Even without driving I could have told you that bit, but I can understand it even more after doing this because you really have to give it your all.”

The next step in Vowles’ GT racing career is to secure more race experience over the winter. The Asian Le Mans Series not only represents a chance to test himself against some of the best GT racers in the world, a victory for his car in the four-race series would also offer his team an entry to the most famous race of them all: The Le Mans 24-Hours.

“That’s definitely is [the goal],” he added. “The reason for starting this journey is because that’s where I’d like to end up.

“I think it’s a dream for many. I would be happy just to go there, as defeatist as it sounds, not with the intention to win, but with the intention to go there to finish.

“Which is odd, because in my day-to-day life, everything I do, everything we do within Mercedes, is there to win. Fundamentally, that’s why we get up in the morning. That’s why we do the work we do.

“But I’m also realistic enough that if I ever go to Le Mans it will be simply because I have the opportunity to compete, probably not to win. Not because of a lack of ability, although that is there, but to do it seriously you need to go on many occasions and I think it’s unrealistic to do that”

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