Formula 1 chief retires “impossible to navigate” Excel spreadsheet



The big picture: When James Vowles took over as team principal for the Williams F1 crew in early 2023, he knew they lagged behind the competition in several key areas. Pat Fry joined the team later that year as chief technical officer, and the two quickly determined that Williams’ use of Microsoft Excel to manage its car build workbook was a problem.

As Ars Technica highlights, the colossal Excel file tracked roughly 20,000 individual race car parts. Vowles described it as impossible to navigate and impossible to update, further noting that it was “a joke.”

Adding to the complexity was the multiple states that each component could be in – ordered, backordered, inspected, or returned, for example. Vowles said the intricacies often meant humans had to work out the details.

“Once you start putting that level of complexity in, which is where modern Formula 1 is, the Excel spreadsheet falls over, and humans fall over. And that’s exactly where we are,” he said.

Over the winter, Williams migrated the Excel spreadsheet to a new digital system while simultaneously upgrading the car’s “technology base.” It was a “viciously expensive” endeavor, Fry said, and one that Vowles said pushed the entire team to their absolute limits.

As overwhelming as the situation sounds, Excel may very well be the right tool for the job. The problem, then, would lie in the structure and foundation of the file. If it wasn’t set up properly from the beginning for maximum efficiency, you ca not be surprised when it comes up short at scale.

Rather than spend a fortune on migrating to an entirely new system, it is at least plausible that Williams could have instead hired an Excel expert to reconstruct the file or build a new spreadsheet from scratch. Then again, this is a major F1 organization that we’re talking about, so you have to think they explored every possible avenue before deciding to ditch Excel in favor of whatever new system they are using now.

As The Race notes, it could take some time for the team’s changes to translate to the track. After two races, Williams is one point behind where it was a year.

Image credit: Mika Baumeister


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