Inside Williams’ ruthless Sargeant call at the Australian GP – and why pressure remains

MELBOURNE, Australia — Williams’ call to give Logan Sargeant’s car to Alex Albon for the remainder of the Australian Grand Prix weekend is a classic lesson in Formula One thinking.

Is it fair that Sargeant had to sacrifice his weekend for Albon, even though it was Albon’s crash that left his own chassis beyond repair at a time when the team did not have a spare? No.

But F1, as with many sports, rarely focuses on what is fair. Sometimes, ruthlessness is necessary to achieve results.

Williams team principal James Vowles was very frank about the matter when he addressed the media for the first time on Saturday morning in Melbourne. He admitted benching Sargeant had been one of the hardest decisions of his time at Williams but made the call with nothing but performance in mind.

“Every point will make a difference between now and the end of the year,” Vowles said. “You therefore put your money on the driver who this year has been slightly ahead of the other one, which is Alex.

“So I’ve reset everything. (I’ve) taken a view from Bahrain, taken a view from Saudi and taken a view from here of which of the two drivers was more likely to score a point.”

The statistics fully support Vowles’s decision. Albon has outqualified Sargeant in all 24 races together as teammates and scored 27 of the team’s 28 points last year. Albon qualified five places ahead of Sargeant in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. He may well have snared a point in Jeddah without Kevin Magnussen’s aggressive defense to aid Haas teammate Nico Hülkenberg.

The gap between the top five and bottom five teams in F1 this year means those small-paying points are more valuable than ever. Haas is sixth in the championship right now, thanks to Hülkenberg, and the feeling in the ‘B-tier’ teams is that early points could already prove decisive come the end of the season. Given each extra constructors’ position is worth around $10 million in prize money, a lot rides on every single score.

The fact Williams didn’t stick with Sargeant in his own car could be viewed as a lack of faith – that he wouldn’t be able to deliver if a points finish became possible in Australia. Vowles denied that was the case. “The fact I re-signed him (for 2024) shows you I have faith in him,” he said. “This year, I think you’ve seen he’s been closer to Alex than before.”

Vowles admitted that Sargeant took the news “as you would imagine,” particularly after spending over 24 hours traveling 10,000 miles to the other side of the world only to not qualify or race. Instead, through no fault of his own, he watched final practice on the monitors in the Williams garage. But Sargeant’s reaction impressed Vowles.

“The maturity he displayed immediately afterwards, both understanding it and in his commentary, shows where he’s at,” Vowles said. “He wants to be successful within this organization, and he wants us to be successful as a team, and that overrides his personal ambition of being in the car today.”

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The damage to Albon’s car was so extensive that Vowles said he could put his finger inside the chassis. (Xinhua/Sipa USA)

Albon has grappled with uneasy feelings in the past 24 hours, with Vowles saying his driver was “conflicted” about the situation. “He knows that he’s the reason why Logan isn’t able to race today, and that frustrates him,” Vowles said. Albon will face additional pressure not to make any mistakes through the rest of the weekend, given Sargeant’s sacrifice and the fact that Albon is driving the only remaining chassis.

Vowles has been open about the lack of a third chassis being the result of Williams’s tough winter when resources and attention went into areas he felt needed significant change. “We were going through an inefficient structure and making transformation at the same time, which started to cause problems,” Vowles admitted, with the creation of a third chassis — something he’s had at every single race since the cash-strapped Brawn operation in 2009 — being delayed as a result.

Albon’s car is already beginning its journey back to the UK and should return to Williams’s factory in the early hours of Monday morning. The damage is so extensive that Vowles said he could put his finger inside the chassis — “which you shouldn’t be able to do, just for clarity” — and he plucked a figure of “half a million” when valuing the damage, albeit without wishing to give a currency. It will have a knock-on effect on both the team’s budget cap allowances and its upgrade plan for the short term.

Vowles was optimistic the chassis would be repaired in time for the next race in Japan, ensuring the team could return to a two-car entry. “Based on the evidence that we have so far and the work that’s completed overnight, everything looks completely feasible,” he said. “I’ve seen chassis in worse states come back from this. One hundred percent is a difficult number to give you, and as a statistics man, I wouldn’t say 100 percent. But I would say there is a very high probability it will all be fine.”

Yet a third chassis will not be available for Williams until the race after Japan (the Chinese Grand Prix) in four weeks’ time, meaning it will remain exposed until then.

Suzuka is a high-speed track that punishes mistakes, meaning crashes are rarely minor. Sargeant found that out last year when his qualifying crash forced a chassis change — something the team cannot afford to happen again in two weeks. “I’m pretty sure after yesterday, they fully understand that there’s no risks that we can be taking at this stage,” Vowles said.

This decision has been Vowles’s toughest test since taking charge of Williams at the start of 2023. He’s spoken many times about the need to change the way racing is conducted, and this unfortunate episode serves as proof.

“We should never be in a situation in the top tier of motorsport where we’re not able to produce two cars to go to the grid,” Vowles said. “But I’ve always said all along that this catalyst of change that we need to do—the change that we’re doing within Williams at the moment—is not one that will take place over one month or one year but many years to start resolving all these issues.”

It may make Williams stronger down the line, but in the short term, Sargeant — a driver with a point to prove in his sophomore F1 season and another contract year — has lost out as a consequence of the team’s winter dedicated to change.

Top photos of Alex Albon, James Vowles and Logan Sargeant: Kym Illman, Bryn Lennon, Clay Cross/ATP Images via Getty Images

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