SUNDAY CONVERSATION: Claire Williams on motherhood, gender politics and leadership

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A chip off the old block – that’s how one might describe Claire Williams, who has taken to running her family’s team with all the gusto of her mother and father. In an exclusive interview with David Tremayne, she discusses twinning motherhood with leading an F1 squad, addressing the gender pay gap and why she feels “a responsibility and sense of duty to give something back to this team”…

Look closely at every Williams car built since 2013, and you’ll find a butterfly logo. It’s discreet, yet it tells a moving and hugely important story of the team’s heritage, and the steely determination of the woman who now effectively runs the enterprise begun by Frank Williams back in 1969, and reborn with Patrick Head in 1977.

A woman who, since October last year, has had to juggle motherhood and the rigours of that job.

“It takes quite lot of organisational planning,” Claire Williams admits readily when discussing her six month-old son, Nate, “but luckily I have some very good childcare arrangements and my husband Marc is around as well. But it is difficult. For me Williams, as everyone would expect, isn’t a job and I always said it’s like another child to me.

“A slightly more troublesome and difficult-to-understand child. I have a duty and responsibility to Williams as well, and home life has to take a bit of a back seat unfortunately at the moment. That wasn’t the plan, but that’s just the way life is. I know Nate will grow up and understand, because I want one day to be able to say, ‘Here you go Nate, here’s a great successful Formula 1 team.’ Like Dad did for me.”

Motherhood has added another completely different dimension, that makes all the rest worth even more than before, and she adds: “When you are having a difficult weekend, and you can think to yourself, ‘I can get on a plane and go home and have a cuddle with my little boy,’ that makes everything okay again.”

Like her illustrious father, she is as tough as tungsten beneath a benign exterior, but she also has a sentimental side. That symbol of hope represented by those butterflies is a memorial to her mother, Lady Virginia – Ginny to everyone in the paddock – a brave and outwardly formidable character who lost her battle against cancer on March 8th, 2013. Ironically, 27 years to the day since the accident which confined her husband to a wheelchair.

“Mum loved butterflies, and there were loads in the garden at home,” Claire reveals. “Mum loved her gardens and named sections after drivers; there was the Piers Courage garden and the Ayrton Senna garden, all done in their memories.

“At her funeral a butterfly flew into the church. It was the middle of winter, so that was extraordinary. It landed on a stained glass window then dropped on to someone and wouldn’t come off. It actually came back to the house with us, and only then started flying around. That was amazing, because Mum had a tattoo of a little butterfly on her wrist which she got done when she was 60, much to Dad’s horror.

“I had our graphics team create the butterfly logo for me. It’s like a sun, with the butterfly coming out of it. Mum was Williams’s number one fan and Dad’s rock – you know that phrase behind each great man there is an even greater woman… She was the first lady of F1, and brought such great class to the sport. We will never take those butterfly logos off the cars.”

In Formula 1 a woman often has to work twice as hard as a man to be thought half as much of. But when the subject of sexism comes up, Claire merely smiles. For her, it’s nothing like the hurdle she faces, as Deputy Team Principal of one of the sport’s best-loved F1 teams, of turning around their fortunes. In 2014 Williams were the surprise of the season, but ever since they have been on a downward glide.

“It’s such a difficult issue, but everyone is interested in the female element,” she concedes. “It’s really weird because I’ve never, ever considered it. I grew up in F1, so I’ve been surrounded by men all my life. So when I was put into this role I never thought, ‘Oh God, am I going to have problems, will people take me seriously because I’m a woman?’ I’ve never really found that it’s been more of challenge doing this role because I’m a girl. I don’t know whether that’s because I don’t recognise it, or because I don’t know what people say when I’m not listening, how people judge me. But it’s always been positive. I don’t really even think about it. The girl thing just doesn’t come into it.”

Recently, however, when the subject of gender equality was raised, she leapt on to her soapbox with a gusto of which Ginny would have been proud.

“Gender equality is obviously an issue that Williams have been looking at…

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