“FX” Demaison (Williams): “There are challenges that cannot be refused”

Centerpiece of the “Capito” chessboard, the Frenchman who built his reputation in rallying was entrusted with the racing team in addition to the design of the 2022 car. A combination of functions made necessary by the too many dissensions eating away at the famous British structure. He spoke to Paul Ricard.

Published on 30/06/2021 à 18:55

Pierre Tassel

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“FX” Demaison (Williams): “There are challenges that cannot be refused”

François-Xavier Demaison has a dual role at Williams. © DPPI / F. Gooden

It was your very first French Grand Prix. Even if your team is British, has the national fiber vibrated?


Obviously! Plus, I live nearby. I didn't come in 2018 for the return edition, because I was at Pikes Peak, but I was there two years ago to see some friends, like Fred Vasseur with whom I was at the school. Well, when we went there (laughs).

Your last experience in F1 dates back to the 1990s with Peugeot . Did you find the discipline very changed?

She no longer has anything to do with it. It was still the time of awnings (laughs). A stable was two semi-trailers and nothing for the engine manufacturer. The cars weighed 580 kg, whereas today they are 200 kg more. As for aero, it's another world.

Did you hesitate when Jost Capito asked you to join Williams ? By accepting, you took the risk of damaging your solid reputation acquired over 20 years of Rally...

It's true that it only takes five minutes, and sometimes even less, to go from hero to zero, but there are challenges that cannot be refused. This one is one. At no time did I ask myself the question of the risks for my career. I accepted, that's all.

Why did he come looking for you?

He wants to break habits, to try something else. A technical director from the ranks of F1 would have reproduced here what he was doing elsewhere, and that might not have been enough for Williams. We must not forget that they recently had a very experienced technical director who came from a top team (Paddy Lowe. Editor's note), and it did not work. It convinced them that they had to take another direction.

What brings an F1 team together and what separates it from a team of WRC ?

As there is more money in F1, there are more people in the team. We will further develop technical solutions. What brings them together is the need to work together to achieve success. If there is no cohesion, it doesn't work. If everyone works in their own corner, it doesn't work. Afterwards, it's the same type of operation whether you are 200 people like in rallying or 500 like F1.

Is it easier to go from rallying to F1 than the other way around?

It seems to me, yes. If I had only done F1 my whole career, I would probably have hesitated to go into rallying where each event requires a different car. In rallying, there is never the same specification of car, and that is what complicates the work. The asphalt of the Tour de Corse will not be the same as that of the Rally of Ireland, the dirt of Portugal is similar to that of Italy, but different to that of Finland. Finding the right compromise to make a good rally car that will work everywhere is complicated.

What have you discovered at Grove over the past three months?

That it couldn't continue to work the same way! We have started to review the structures of the stable quite a bit, to simplify its organization. At Grove, there are a lot of people who have worked together for a very long time, and the organizational chart was built around them. For me, who comes from the outside, it is much easier to fill in the boxes by prioritizing efficiency. Without making a clean sweep of the past, there are many things to review. You don't do the same thing for twenty years without getting into a routine. It is also the latter that must be broken, and I am working towards it. What worked twenty years ago no longer works!

What do you say to those who still need to be convinced?

Let the numbers speak for themselves! That the team's last victory dates from 2012 (Pastor Maldonado at the Spanish GP. Editor's note), and the one before that from 2004 (Juan Pablo Montoya at the Brazilian GP. Editor's note). That we have to go back to 1997 for the last Manufacturers' title. The team has not evolved at the same pace as F1, and that is its big problem. F1 has become very complex and people have settled into this complexity to the point, sometimes, of brandishing it as if to protect themselves from each other. I shocked them all a little by asking them to explain to me in five words what they wanted to sell me. Normally, a good engineer should be able to simply explain what he wants to do. If he doesn't succeed, it's because he doesn't master the subject. For them, it’s a culture change.

Does the Williams heritage give you wings or cut them?

There are no clear answers. Experience is important and cannot be bought, but it must be used wisely. We need to change certain methods, and this is where the exercise is difficult. When I arrived at Volkswagen, which was very geared towards rally raids with this very Germanic spirit where nothing is more important than reliability, it was not easy to change mentalities. We find a bit of that at Williams where the shadow of Senna looms. In Grove, a car has to be safe before it can be fast, when it should be both.

Restructuring of the team on one side, need to successfully complete this 2021 campaign on the other while working on 2022... Are your days 48 hours long?

This is why we must put in place an organization that holds up. My role is to spend time with everyone. Today, I talk a lot with people and it's a big investment. This year we have a car that is what it is. We test things to understand its flaws and not reproduce them, but there's only so much more we can do. We are too far away and all the developments will change nothing.

Has the fact that Jost Capito now combines the functions of CEO and Team Principal resized your position?

Yes. Basically, I just had to focus on the 2022 car and the race team was not in my scope. Jost changed this perhaps a little earlier than I would have liked, but there was such a lack of cohesion within the team that something had to be done as quickly as possible. Starting by reintroducing respect between everyone. An old-fashioned organizational chart was needed, not a matrix as was the case.

Even more than in rallying, is there a data dictatorship in F1? Is practical common sense sometimes lacking?

The customer remains the pilot! If you don't listen to it, it doesn't work. The data is important, but in the simulator, we put a pilot. Artificial intelligence has not yet succeeded in replacing it. The drivers have an additional sensor that we cannot model.

What does the team have to show you this season?

More smiles on faces, first! May everyone be happy, content and proud to be there. Show that we are all working together and that the war between the different departments is over.

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