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Vowles: I constructed Mercedes rules of engagement for Hamilton and Rosberg

James Vowles, now Williams Team Principal, revealed that during his time at Mercedes, he created a document which governed how Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg behaved with each other.

Hamilton and Rosberg, friends in their junior racing careers, turned into enemies during the time in which they shared the Mercedes garage between 2013 and 2016.

The relationship totally broke down in 2016 especially after both wiped each other out on the opening lap of that year’s Spanish Grand Prix, handing over the win to Max Verstappen, who was on his first race with Red Bull.

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Rosberg went on to beat Hamilton to the F1 Title that year, only to announce his retirement days after the season finale in Abu Dhabi.

Vowles reflected on those days when he and the Mercedes management had to deal with two ultra competitive drivers.

He told the High Performance Podcast: “It starts with being open and honest with the drivers, just simple as that. All too often we don’t actually go to the real truth behind the matter and we skirt around it. They are, after all, in many regards the best in the world at what they do, so it becomes difficult to have a direct conversation.

“You’ll see the way I am publicly, the way I am here and the way I am off camera is exactly the same – it’s open, honest, transparent, and it starts there. You have that open, honest conversation about it, which includes when their behaviours are ones that are hurting the team and hurting themselves, not helping,” he added.

At the start of the F1 Turbo-hybrid era, Mercedes nailed the new regulations both power unit and chassis, and there was not question that either Hamilton or Rosberg would win the Title as rivals scramble to catch up.

Hamilton and Rosberg knew they had no external competition for the Title

Rosberg Hamilton crash spa F1

Vowles recalled: “The biggest thing we got into with the drivers [in] 2014 was that both of them knew, both Nico and Lewis knew, that it was one of those two winning the year. They knew, by the way, before we turned the first wheel in the first race.

“It took quite a while, but my role in this was I constructed a document that created some very clear [guidelines on] ‘how we are going to work with each other, how we’re going to fight each other’, what at the time was called ‘rules of engagement’ – changed later to another term that was less military, but racing intent,” he revealed.

The Briton went on explaining the philosophy behind the document, he said: “Irrespective, it was some really clear boundaries on ‘this is how we’re going to behave and this is how we’re going to perform’, and there was a lot to do.

“It started with this, and it starts with an ethos I believe in today but the whole first page was about being a sportsman and, to explain it, you can win a world championship but if you’ve done so in a way that is not fair and sportsmanlike, you will have regret for the rest of your life. Yeah, you have a championship to your name, but it’ll be sullied, it will be muddied, it won’t be pure.

How do you want to win?

Rosberg Hamilton Spain crash

“We, at the time there, we want to win things by doing things just better than everyone else, not because we’ve found other mechanisms – we just want to be better than everyone else, and that applies to the drivers as it does to the engineers within the team as it does to the designers.

“And it was very much bringing them on that journey and making sure they’re aware that you can become the best sportsman in the world, which will create a legacy beyond many, many years, or you can win a race by doing something that has perhaps forced or hurt or damaged your teammate. Which one do you want to go down?

“And it’s a very simple choice when you present it to a sportsman – ultimately, they want the one that creates a legacy in many years to come. Michael [Schumacher], incredible man but still marred by 1997 in many regards [the year in which he was disqualified from the championship].

“It stands out in everyone’s mind, and we created the mindset that that’s not how I want to be remembered. I want to be remembered that we were a dominant force working together, and between the two of you, within these rules, the fastest driver across 20 races will win.

“Not the fastest driver on a weekend, not the one that’s done something that’s maybe benefitted them in the short-term – the fastest driver on 20 races, and we’ll construct it and make sure it’s built that way and we’ll give you each equal opportunity, and they bought into it and that created a good environment,” he clarified.

It didn’t work all the time

Rosberg Hamilton crash

However, and despite Mercedes’ diligence in managing their drivers, there were flashpoints, most infamous being the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.

Vowles said: “It doesn’t mean that in time we didn’t have a breakdown. Everyone will remember 2016 Barcelona. [It] still sticks in my mind today because you’re taking two elite sportsmen that were constrained within their boxes and just got frustrated.

“But actually, what you do at the time is you don’t back off – you double down and go, ‘this is how it’s going to be’,” the Williams boss concluded.

Vowles after going through the ranks with Mercedes, his last position being Motorsport Strategy Director, moved on to become Williams Team Principal at the start of the 2023 F1 season, where he currently faces a different challenge, not managing feuding drivers, but rebuilding the one-great team from scratch.