To me, she has been the most prominent woman in Formula One in recent years. Having not had a driver on the podium since the 2012 season, many people believe that the down turn in form of the Williams team is down to Claire Williams. Many people, I believe, fail to see how inspirational, hard working and determined she was when she was in charge.
The role of a team boss is traditionally a man’s job in our beloved sport, but Claire Williams stepped into the shoes of Deputy Team Principal in 2013 when her father, Frank Williams, decided to take a step back from the paddock but retained his Team Principal role. Being the face of the team in front of a global audience and dealing with the difficult questions from the ever critiquing media, she always came across as having a strong fighting spirit.
Claire grew up in a world heavily orientated around Formula One. He father was the owner of one of the most successful teams in the sports history, and she very quickly became involved in the family business. After graduating with a degree in politics, Claire became a press officer at Silverstone race circuit to gain some experience before joining the Williams team as their communications officer in 2002. In 2010, she became Head of Communications and the following year, was promoted to Director of Marketing and Communications. When Frank stepped down from the Williams board in 2012, Claire took his place as the family representative.
She sometimes had the feeling that she was the odd one out. She was a woman, working in roles that traditionally belonged to men. She felt she needed to prove not only to herself, but to the critics, that she was worthy of the roles presented to her. Speaking to Vogue in 2017, Claire was very aware that being a woman in that position in Formula One would be tough.
“If you are talking in pure number terms, the sport is male heavy, but at this stage that is still something of an inevitability. I think it has always been that way- it’s been something that the blokes have done from when the sport was conceived back in the 1900s- and it takes time to change,” she explained.
“We are going to have to go through generations of change before we see the impact of females taking role in the workplace and Formula One is no different. But I have personally seen a big shift- a seismic shift I think- in the numbers of women coming in and the attitudes surrounding women in the sport, particularly in engineering, in the design office, in aerodynamics and simulator technology- all areas that are currently seeing an influx. Currently, eight per cent of our engineering workforce is female, which doesn’t sound like much until you take into consideration that seven years ago it was zero.”
She was blamed for the downturn in performance in the team under her management, and there were accusations from within the male dominated industry that becoming a mother had attributed to the decline in form. An accusation that is completely sexist. The amount of online abuse she received nearly destroyed her.
“As soon as you are not successful, some people put it down to the fact that I am a woman,” she told the PA news agency. “They maybe give me a rougher time because I am a woman. I have actually had someone say to me that a lot of people in the Formula One paddock think that the team started doing badly when I fell pregnant and I had a baby. How dare they.”
“There are nine other team principals in F1 and I am sure the majority of them have children. Would you ever level that criticism at them? Am I not allowed a child because I am a woman running a Formula One team? It is a disgraceful attitude.”
Claire was the catalyst that gave Susie Wolff the chance to become the first woman to participate in a Formula One weekend since 1992. The pair are now committed to welcoming more women into the sport. Claire was able to increase the volume of women applying for apprenticeships within the Williams team by 25 per cent and encouraged the female employees to take on ambassadorial roles in schools and colleges. Claire also became a role model and ambassador for Susie Wolff’s Dare to be Different initiative, set up in 2015.
However, when the all female single seater championship, W Series, launched in 2019, Claire was initially worried about the principle of a single gender championship, and that it could be a regressive step for women in motorsport. She thought it may segregate male and female racing, an opinion shared by many females that work in the industry. It wasn’t until she was invited to watch the inaugural race at Hockenheim, that her mind was quickly changed.
“The fact that they managed to get a whole new championship, regardless if it’s for men or women, off the ground in a short space of time was pretty impressive. Organisationally it seemingly went very smoothly,” she explained.
“And then just to see a whole line of cars on the grid, knowing that they’re all piloted by women, was a historic moment. I think it was fantastic, and it gives a platform for women that they don’t have at the moment, and if anything accelerates the process of promoting women in motorsport. That can only be considered a good thing.”
Claire resigned her post in September last year after the family owned team was sold off to Dorilton Capital. They will continue to race under the Williams name, however the Williams family decided to step back from racing altogether. The news was met with complete sadness. Not only for the loss of the whole Williams family in Formula One, but for a woman who led the team for the last seven years. A woman who fought, a woman who held her own in the eye of a storm.
Will we see another woman spear heading a team any time soon?
Image Credit: getty images, formula1.com
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