His boss might be famed Mercedes F1 chief Toto Wolff, but Ian James is bringing his own “passionate” approach as head of the marque’s fledgling Formula E team.
The Briton has been tasked with turning Mercedes, the dominant force of Formula 1, into the front-runner in the electric racing series.
Five races in, the rookie outfit lies in fifth place, with its ex-McLaren F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne twice finishing on the podium.
Its appearance in Formula E is down in no uncertain terms to a dramatic and very public U-turn by Wolff, who was an early skeptic of the series.
He even said at the team’s unveiling he “didn’t believe that Formula E could make it.”
Now, though, Wolff is a fully fledged convert, and he turned to James to lead Mercedes’ venture into electric motor sport.
James shuns comparisons with Wolff, but also aims to copy his boss.
“It’s brilliant to work with someone like Toto,” said James. “At a race weekend, we speak on multiple occasions. His focus is Formula 1 but he is still very much involved in the Formula E programme.
“What I try to do is the same as Toto, which is holistic. I’m passionate about racing and making sure we’re always moving in the right direction. He does that very well.
“He’ll leave us to it but he offers great advice when it comes to drivers or analyzing what went wrong at a race and what could have been done better.”
Wolff v Wolff in Formula E
Despite Wolff’s split interest and direction, James is adamant it will have no bearing on Lewis Hamilton or Mercedes’ continued ambition to remain No.1 when the F1 season gets under way in Australia next month.
But the Austrian is not the only Wolff James has to deal with. Toto’s wife Susie, team principal of the Venturi team, is a partner in using the Mercedes EQ powertrain but also a grid rival.
James laughs at the idea he might be caught in the midst of a Wolff vs. Wolff on-track battle. “It’s certainly a unique position to be in,” he said. “But it’s great to have Susie on board as she’s someone I can have a very open dialogue with.
“We know if we take the right approach and work collaboratively, we can develop both teams faster together. And it would be a dream if all four drivers are fighting for the top spots. Then it gets serious.”
Like Wolff, James’ passion for motor sport growing up lay in F1, first getting hooked at the age of five or six.
For him, the standout early moment was spilling onto the circuit at Silverstone when Nigel Mansell won the 1991 British Grand Prix and famously gave rival Ayrton Senna a lift back to the pit lane after he ran out of fuel at the finish.
After studying mechanical engineering at university, James’ first job came at McLaren working on the Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren for three and a half years before a switch to Mercedes where he has worked for the last 15 years.
His roles have been multifarious: part of the team behind the introduction of KERs in 2011 and helping the returning Mercedes to a first victory the following season with Nico Rosberg. But he was also heavily involved in the powertrain development which led to the first world titles in 2014 and the ongoing dominance.
“I’m a jack of all trades, master of none,” he said. “I’m an engineer by trade but genuinely a bad one. I’ve had time in finance and marketing, in program management. It’s been a mixed bag.
“And with this, I was lucky – it was genuinely too good to turn down, not just getting back into motor sport which is a passion of mine but also the opportunity to start up a business.”
And like any motor sport business, the primary goal is winning.
“Internally, there’s enough understanding and empathy that expectations are kept in check in our rookie year in a complex series,” he said. “But externally we’re the team with the three-pointed star, one linked with great success in F1 and DTM before that.
“It takes time, look at F1 for example. But we want to win the competition as we’re racers. The mid-term goal is to get into championship contention but we’re aware how challenging that will be.
“Of all the things I’ve done, this will be very hard to top. We’re at the start of this journey and making sure we bring the results and build up the business to make sure that it’s ready for the future.”