Williams has had a spectacular fall from grace, but with new owners and esteemed leader Jost Capito now aboard, the future looks bright. We’ve been talking for an hour and Jost Capito, the boss of Williams Racing for the past 10 months, is displaying the fine personal qualities for which he is well known: positivity, generosity, modesty and good humour.
But something is missing: the racer’s edge. I start wondering how and when Capito will display the urge to win that has carried him and his teams to success over 30 years at BMW, Porsche, Sauber, Ford, Volkswagen, McLaren and now Williams.
In the end, it comes with a rush, just as Capito’s minder is getting restless about the time; the CEO must soon move to another meeting. I pose one of those questions that I’m pretty sure will elicit a non-committal answer: does Capito think Formula 1’s regulation changes for 2022, which have been partly designed to allow cars to race more closely together, will have the desired effect?
“I don’t know,” answers Capito flatly. “What’s more, I don’t care. The regs are the same for everyone; no one should blame them for their bad performance. If the regs mean you can’t overtake, you just have to build the fastest car. If you’re slow, you just have to do a better job. It’s that simple.”
This hard-nosed philosophy, given the genteel proceedings of the previous hour, takes my breath away for a few seconds, but Capito fills the gap with increasing relish: “Because our team is running at the back, people ask me whether F1 needs some kind of balance-of-performance system [such as in the World Endurance Championship]. Maybe we need to reverse the grids? I always say no. I say we have to do a better job. I wouldn’t be in racing if it were just a lottery, where doing the best job meant you still might not win.”
To complete the point, Capito recalls a very different situation, not many years ago, when people were saying his Volkswagen team was too dominant in the World Rally Championship: “Jean Todt, the FIA president, came to me and said we were winning too much. I told him to go and tell the others they were losing too much. You can’t blame people for doing a good job. That’s completely against the spirit of the sport.”
And there, laid bare, is the reason why this 62-year-old German has had such a stellar automotive and motorsport career – and why a year ago he was invited by Williams’ ambitious new owners, Dorilton Capital, to take over as CEO and team principal when Sir Frank Williams and his daughter Claire left the Oxfordshire base of their family team for the last time. If you want to win, Capito believes, you have to be good enough.
He began learning this valuable lesson in 1985 as an engineering undergraduate at Munich Technical University, where he fought hard for the chance to finish his final year under the tutelage of the legendary Paul Rosche at BMW. Engines for fast road cars were his thing, not motorsport.
Capito was invited to stay at BMW, and he was soon developing the engine for the original four-cylinder M3 and the M5 that followed. In 1989, he moved to Porsche’s motorsport department to establish and run the Carrera Cup and Supercup race series for 911s. Customers started to order Cup-specification cars for the road, so Capito convinced the Porsche board to build the seminal 964-generation Carrera RS (“I gave them my guarantee that we would sell the 1400 cars needed to make it profitable”), from which the GT2 and the whole Porsche performance car ethos was born.
In 1996, he was invited to join the Sauber F1 team, which was backed at the time by Petronas, the Malaysian-government-linked oil conglomerate – with the extra mission of founding a Sauber Petronas Engineering department to develop a road car engine strategy for Malaysia. The country’s leaders wanted to develop automotive technology first, then spread the know-how into other industries.
Capito loved the plan, which also provided a never-to-be-forgotten chance to work with Osamu Goto, the designer of McLaren-Honda’s legendary F1 engines. Then, after three years, he was invited by Ford’s European boss, Martin Leach, to develop a new line of ST and RS road cars – a job that soon resulted in his running motorsport as well (“I kept trying to have a normal life, but it wasn’t possible”). Three years in the US followed, during which the F-150 Raptor and the Mustang Shelby GT500 were born.
In perhaps his best-known gig of all, Capito joined Volkswagen as Motorsport boss in 2012, leading it to three WRC drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships in four years.
Then he was hired by McLaren to lead its ailing F1 effort. Despite a promising start, that job lasted only four months, because Ron Dennis, who had hired him, departed in a monumental management reshuffle. “After that,” says Capito, “I felt I had worked enough, so I headed for retirement, planning to ride my motorcycles and do the things I wanted with friends. I even bought back the old Maico motorbike I raced back in 1979 with a view to doing some classic enduro events.”
That plan died one day late last year when the phone rang and it was Dorilton Capital, asking Capito if he would like a shot at leading Williams back to greatness. New cost controls were coming to F1 and they felt Williams had a decent chance. “I met the owners in Portugal and we got along well,” says Capito. “I don’t think I would have taken any other job, not even in F1. And I would never have taken it without the controls on costs.”
What made the team so special? “The long history was a big part of it,” he explains. “And the fact that Williams had been so successful but was now having hard times. I like that they had never changed the name and didn’t intend to now. I had been a Williams fan since I was five or six. For me, the important grand prix teams were always Ferrari, McLaren and Williams. Colin Chapman was the designer, but Lotus was around no more.”
Capito says his plan to improve things at Williams comes mostly from his recent experience at McLaren, ironically. That appointment may have been short, he says, but he has since heard from McLaren people that he made an important difference, improving communication and bringing elements of the team closer together: “I thought: ‘If the changes worked there, maybe I can do the same here.’”
Williams’ improvement in the first half of the 2021 season is already a matter of record. As of the Hungarian Grand Prix, the team had 10 points (from none this time last year), all of them scored in a chaotic Hungaroring race that Capito puts down to much more than mere luck.
“Haas and Alfa Romeo were in the same position as us,” he explains. “What did it for us was brilliant teamwork, including co-operation between the drivers. George [Russell] said over the radio that we needed to prioritise Nicholas [Latifi]. That meant Nicholas had to go fast and George would hang back to create a window for Nicholas to pit. The communication was clean, clear and easy.”
He modestly attributes this to his removal of any hint of a blame culture in the team. “I told the strategy guys: ‘If you change things and it doesn’t work, there will be no problem,’” he says. “We have the ninth-fastest car [of 10]. We can only be better if we do things differently from the rest. That means taking risks. As a result, the strategy guys are proposing things they wouldn’t have before, and the improvement is starting to be obvious.”
Capito unashamedly uses examples from his own career to inform his own management principles, which he thinks about often, reading and analysing the biographies of effective leaders. He singles out two former bosses from his career for special recognition: the former Ford of Europe president Lewis Booth (“he was open-minded and would always listen to my ideas, and I always felt that if he said no, it was for good reasons”) and the late Petronas president Azizan Zainul Abidin (“he was a phenomenal manager who always treated people in business with great respect”).
Amusingly, Capito sees one clear sign of Williams’ improvement emanating from F1’s thriving driver market. Budding drivers are well aware of hints that Russell might leave Williams for Mercedes in 2022 and now see Williams as a much more ideal outlet for their talents. “Everyone sees the culture change,” says Capito. “They also see we are well funded and doing better. So they all call me. All of them. They want to know how I’m doing, if I’m well, if I’ve had a good holiday, that sort of stuff. It’s great having so many friends…”
Capito sees a clear relationship between Russell and the superstar who he discovered 20 years ago. “They’re very different in many ways, but they have the same raw talent,” he says. “Kimi [Räikkönen] is a rougher person; maybe he wouldn’t make it so easily today. But George has the determination, the professionalism and the focus to make it right to the top. He has just the right amount of ego, too.”
In the same breath, he praises Latifi, describing him as “not too far away from George” and “an excellent racer who absolutely deserves to be in F1”. Capito is optimistic about Williams’ long-term prospects but careful not to overpromise too much for the rest of the season. Success, he says, won’t be about points or position; it will be about getting the team to a place where there are no issues with decision-making, communication, accountability or responsibility when the new car arrives ahead of next season. “We’re close,” he says.
What about for 2022? “We want to establish ourselves as a midfield runner. This season, AlphaTauri is a midfield team: they have 68 points and we have 10. This time next year, we want to have 65 to 70. We still won’t feel the full benefit of the investing we’ve done in the late part of this year. As well as owning it, we have to make the new plant and software work. But I think we can promise a good step for next year.”
Can Williams truly reach the top again? “I absolutely believe we can,” says Capito. “I would never take a job like this unless I believe it. That’s why I declined certain job offers in the past. Now I believe we have a realistic chance.”
Jost Capito on…
His career plans
“I’m not saying I will stay here until we win the championship. My objective is building a team that’s long-term sustainable and works properly. Then I would feel my job is done. I’m not putting any time limit on it, but that’s my objective.”
The importance of F1’s new cost cap
“I didn’t believe it could work at first, and there are still grey areas, but you have to start somewhere. Without the cap, our new owners certainly wouldn’t have come in, and I probably wouldn’t have taken the job either. I don’t believe it would be possible for an independent team like ours to win without it. Of course, the big teams still have an advantage, because they start ahead on infrastructure. But it definitely helps us.”
Past dealings with Sir Frank Williams
“One of our Porsche VIP drivers cancelled, so I asked Frank if we could have one of his. He asked what I would pay. I explained that our principle was to pay nothing but to charge nothing if the car was damaged. Frank told me that I shouldn’t have principles like that. I asked him if that wasn’t a principle in itself. He said it wasn’t, and that was the end of the talk. Luckily, McLaren loaned us Mika Häkkinen, put one of their sponsors on the car and took the revenue, so we had a Tag Heuer car and everyone was happy.”
“Organising the Porsche Carrera Cup and Supercup helped me get pretty good at spotting good drivers. Every weekend, we had two VIP drivers to manage; I must have gone through at least 100 in four years. Seeing how the best of them beat their rivals mentally and bonded with the team made it pretty clear who was going to do the best job.”
The relative skill of F1 and WRC drivers
“I don’t make the difference. In F1, you have to do exactly the same thing, to get better by thousandths of a second. In rallying, you have to adapt to different situations, which is quite different. It helps to be older as a rally driver, too. You need to know the surfaces, the effect of altitude and how to adapt to rain, snow, sand and mud. That takes experience. Mind you, that Kimi Räikkönen was able to excel at both shows his extraordinary talent.”
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