James Allison has had a long and illustrious career in Formula One. He has played a key role in the creation of 13 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship winning cars, encompassing stints with Ferrari, Renault, and since 2017 the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team.
Now, however, for the first time in his career James faces a challenge outside of the world of motorsport, taking on the additional role of Chief Technical Officer (CTO) at INEOS Britannia’s 37th America’s Cup Challenge, alongside his existing role of CTO of Mercedes F1. For James, it’s a challenge he couldn’t wait to take on.
“We had a small involvement in the team’s 36th America’s Cup campaign which whetted our appetite. It was immediately clear to us that the America’s Cup is a very exciting, and very difficult, challenge. Now we are one team, INEOS Britannia, with the team’s design base embedded in our Formula 1 HQ, and the clear goal to bring the America’s Cup back to Britain. We feel very lucky to be involved in this opportunity and we can’t wait for the challenge ahead, it’s a mouth-watering prospect.”
Whilst James’ entire career to date has been in Formula 1, that had not always been his plan. As a child, in fact, he dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a RAF fighter pilot. Unfortunately for the young James, however, that ambition was swiftly put to an end owing to the fact that James is colour-blind. He therefore opted to instead study engineering at university.
“I chose to study engineering because I was OK at Maths and Physics. It was at university that it first became clear to me that I wanted to be an engineer, I loved it, but I wanted to work in a form of engineering that would be fast-moving, challenging and be a really strong team environment. It was therefore natural to seek a sporting-based challenge, and being a big F1 fan, that is where I first sought my career. I joined the F1 world straight from university and have done nothing else since.”
James’ motorsport career started in 1991, straight out of university, when he joined the Benetton F1 Team as a Junior Aerodynamic Designer. It was at Benetton with Michael Schumacher where James was first part of a Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship winning team. Further success followed when he swapped Enstone for Maranello and the role of Trackside Aerodynamicist with Scuderia Ferrari, playing an important role in a period when the team won six Constructors’ Championships between 1999 and 2004.
After six years in Italy, James returned to Enstone, now under the Renault name, taking on the role of Deputy Technical Director. With Fernando Alonso at the wheel, Renault were the team to beat, taking top honours in the Constructors’ Championship in 2005 and 2006.
James was promoted to Technical Director in 2009 and remained with the team as it became Lotus Renault and later Lotus F1 Team, fighting back to the top step of the podium in 2012 at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix with the team’s first win in four years.
In 2013, James headed back to Ferrari, this time as Technical Director. After a fruitless year in 2014, James’s influence was crucial as Sebastian Vettel claimed three wins the following year, when the Scuderia emerged as the closest challenger to the title-winning Mercedes team.
James departed Ferrari midway through the 2016 season and returned to the Formula One grid in early 2017 as Technical Director of the Mercedes AMG-Petronas F1 Team. He has since been a key part of the team’s successes and has won a further four Formula One Constructors’ Championships since he joined. James transitioned to the role of Chief Technical Officer in 2021, helping the team to meet the strategic challenges of the sport’s next era.
For James, who has now spent 30 years in the world of Formula 1, entering the America’s Cup has been what he describes as a “dizzying challenge”.
“What is quite different coming into this world from F1 is quite how much of the design space is broad and unexplored”, James explained. “In F1 we have rule changes year-to-year but those are small compared to the America’s Cup where the campaigns are often three or four years apart. That means the space you need to explore, the number of variables in the design challenge, are really large. We would be completely lost were it not for the fact that this team has a great group of seasoned America’s Cup engineers who are able to guide the team through that design space, only spending the effort in the areas that are likely to give us the most performance on the boat.”
Whilst there may be notable differences between Formula 1 and the America’s Cup, there are of course many overlaps and James is confident that he and his fellow Mercedes F1 team members who are joining INEOS Britannia’s challenge, including Technical Director Geoffrey Willis, will have a significant amount to bring to the table.
“An America’s Cup team may only be about 10% the size of a major Formula 1 team, but there is a lot of similarity in the difficulty of the challenge. Everything has to be right, or nothing is right. There are a lot of areas where we can contribute strongly from the beginning. We’re not bad at aerodynamics here, and it’s not a huge stretch into hydrodynamics. We’re also pretty good at structural design, structural engineering and we have a wide range of material science backing up our work here to date. There’s so many areas of overlap where we will be able to contribute to this campaign working alongside our experienced America’s Cup colleagues and hopefully at the end, we can produce something we will all be proud of.”
Throughout his career in Formula 1 James has been no stranger to success and winning trophies. Winning the America’s Cup and bringing it back to Britain for the first time in its history, however, is something that has never been done before. That history, 170 years of pain, is part of what attracted James to the challenge, and something he is very much determined to now help correct.
“It would be an enormous deal if we brought the Cup back to Britain. I’m very aware of Britain’s maritime history and I’m certain that if this team can muster what we need to get the competitive boat and get this Cup brought to Britain, the country will go nuts for it. From my perspective it will feel fantastic because I can see already how tough it is and how hard it will be to get everything right on time. I’m thrilled by the prospect of playing my part and putting my shoulder to the wheel along with my colleagues. This will be a fantastic experience for all of us.”