Claire Williams, Williams Martini Racing

March 2015

“Formula One isn’t male-dominated, there are just a lot of blokes working in it,” says Williams Martini Racing team’s Deputy Principal Claire Williams, who was in Melbourne in the week of International Women’s Day to try to steer her team to success in the first Grand Prix of 2015.

The daughter of racing legend Sir Frank Williams, Claire was the guest speaker at the Melbourne Business School Dean’s Leaders Forum to talk about her ‘Life in the Fast Lane’.

Claire Williams, Formula 1 team member, on campus at Melbourne Business School

(From left to right) Williams Martini Racing team’s Deputy Principal Claire​ Williams, William’s fans Aaliyah, Ryan and Tian, Amber Anderson (SEMBA 2014), MBS Dean Zeger Degraeve.

When MBS Dean Zeger Degraeve introduced Claire, he could barely hide his excitement at having a guest so intimately linked to the sport that glued him to the television as he grew up in Belgium. And he rattled off many famous names from that time – Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Belgium’s own Jackie Ickx and Thierry Boutsen.

Watch the interview with Claire Williams

“Yes, I’m a very lucky girl,” Claire said after the introduction. “I had a magical childhood. I got to grow up in the world of Formula One. When Mum wanted a break from the noisy children, she would pack us off with Dad, and we would hang out at the factory. That was wonderful for us as kids, hanging out around those wonderful racing cars and meeting racing drivers.”

The business, started by her dad in 1977, quickly became a force in Formula One. Williams has won nine constructors’ and seven driver’s championships, including the win by Australia’s Alan Jones in 1980.
It’s an impressive record, considering its one of the few independent teams, without a manufacturer to back it, in a sport that generates over $2 billion in revenue a year but costs a small fortune to take part in.
Claire says her team’s budget for 2015 is around $212 million, half of which comes from sponsors and the rest from prize money, given largely to constructors who finish at the top of the table each year.
Last year, not long after Claire took over as Deputy Principal, the Williams team finished third in the Constructors’ Championship, a huge improvement on the near-bottom ninth place of the year before.
The turnaround ended a decade-long slump that could have seen the end of Williams. But Claire isn’t just a team manager, she’s also Williams’ Commercial Director and understands the importance of sponsors.
“We have a great marketing team at Williams, and they all do a fantastic job looking after our partners, but they need to. They understand that our partners are our life blood.”

Sexism, a non-starter in Formula One

Claire told the packed forum of several hundred students, alumni and guests, including many from the motor and motorsports industries, that she hasn’t encountered any sexism in Formula One.

“I don’t know whether that’s because no one would dare be sexist because they know Frank would be so annoyed if he found out.”

But she agrees the sport is seen as male-dominated, for which, she says, there’s a simple cure.
“If you come to the paddock these days, you’ll see so many women working in so many different roles, which have traditionally been roles for men. We’ve got female tyre technicians, girls lugging tyres in 30-degree-plus heat on a race weekend.

“But it’s all about girls coming and putting themselves in those roles, and it’s really only women who should do that. When I’m recruiting, I don’t care whether the person I’m talking to is a man or a woman, I just want to know if you’re going to do the best job for my team.”

Claire says role models, such as Williams test driver Susie Wolff, are trail blazers and really important for encouraging women and a younger generation of Formula One enthusiasts. 

“We really leverage diversity at Williams, which is quite unique in Formula One, and work with our partners on a lot of diversity engagement programs and the promotion of women in the workplace.”
Claire’s biggest career obstacle.

If sexism wasn’t an obstacle to her assuming roles that she seems born to do at Williams, you might be surprised by what was.

“When our then head of marketing asked my dad if they could appoint me as his junior press officer, he said, ‘No bloody way.’ He didn’t want any accusations of nepotism. So, there were questions about my promotion into the Deputy Team Principal role. 

“But, for us, Williams is a family team, and it was very important to the board, to the people who work for us, and to our partners, that we keep the family spirit around at Williams, so I was seen as a good choice to put in there.”

If the family connection was her biggest career obstacle, it’s also what motivates her most to succeed.
“Williams started in 1977, but my dad started racing in 1969. He was an awful racing driver, and he would quite happily admit that himself. So, he decided to become a constructor. But it took him a decade of struggle. I mean considerable struggle, real hand-to-mouth.

“He didn’t have a home for 10 years. He would sleep at friends’ houses and hitch-hike to races. And he came from really poor beginnings to set up this team that we now have. When he met my mum, she was a bit richer than he was and put all her money into Williams. And they got through it together.

“But it was a hard slog and took many years to get to the point where they were comfortable again financially. They gave up an awful lot for Williams. Our family gave up a lot for Williams. For me, I don’t want to see that sacrifice wasted. 

“I don’t want this team to fall down. I want it to keep going for generations. I want my children to take over or my brother’s children, and for it to remain a true force in Formula One.”

When forum moderator Amber Anderson, herself a racing-car driver – and a lawyer, pilot, 2014 MBS Senior Executive MBA graduate and founding member of Women of Australian Motorsport – put an audience question to Claire about authority in an family-run organisation, Claire again suggested being Frank Williams’ daughter was not always easy.

“We have offices next to each other, so, if I’m trying to have a conversation with one of my marketing guys, and have some level of authority and respect, Frank (now wheelchair bound) will wheel past and say, ‘I love you. Isn’t she wonderful?’ It just shows, your dad can never cease to embarrass you, even when you're 38.

“But, seriously, of course we have the structures that you would expect – executive committees, senior managers, line of command – but we’ve always worked on the philosophy that no one is more important than anyone else. There’s a job to be done, you roll your sleeves up and get on with it.”

Changing times

While Claire’s move into her senior role at Williams is a natural progression for her, it’s also a sign of how Formula One is changing. Another woman, Monisha Kaltenborn, heads the Sauber team, and Formula One cars are now powered by sophisticated, petrol-electric, hybrid motors that sound much more restrained than the screaming beasts of the past. 

Claire says the move to hybrids is all about energy efficiency, an area Williams has invested in heavily to move beyond the race track and generate new commercial opportunities.

Flywheel energy storage technology, based on a kinetic-energy recovery system developed by Williams Advanced Engineering, has been used in renewable energy projects, Porsche vehicles and a supercar that stars in the new Bond movie, Spectre.   

“It’s basically got the emissions of a Prius and the power of a Bugatti Veyron.” Claire says. “We originally made some concept cars, and they loved them so much that they wanted one for their baddie’s car, and we made five more of them.

“The technology we’re working on really takes Williams out to a wider audience and will leave an even greater legacy for us.”

By the end of the evening, Dean Zeger was beaming with pride at the choice he had made to help highlight the School’s support for developing women as senior leaders through its research and scholarship programs, including the Dean’s Scholarship for Women and Management.

“Thank you Claire. Thank you for being such an excellent role model for our students, our alumni and the community, and for your real pearls of wisdom: Women have to get out there. No one is more important than anyone else. Just great. All the best for the race on Sunday and for the whole season.”

His comments were warmly endorsed by the audience.