The changing face of Williams

The Williams F1 team has announced the end-of-year departure of the team’s technical director Sam Michael and chief aerodynamicist Jon Tomlinson, who have both resigned from their positions, the team announced today.

Furthermore, the former World Champions announced that Mike Coughlan has been appointed to the new post of Chief Engineer, starting in June. F1 fans will recall that Coughlan was a central figure in the ‘Spygate’ scandal that rocked the sport in 2007.

On the back of the team’s worst start to a championship season in its history, both Michael and Tomlinson have tendered their resignation to take effect when their respective contracts run out at the end of the year.

Michael took over from team co-founder Patrick Head as Technical Director in 2004, but the team has remained winless since the end of that season as the outfit has gradually slid down the pecking order over the years, losing its works engine deal with BMW and a host of blue-chip sponsors.

“Both Sam and Jon are talented and driven people who have worked hard for Williams over 10 and five years respectively,” team owner Sir Frank Williams is quoted as saying in the press release.

“Nonetheless, they have recognised that the team’s performance is not at the level that it needs to be and have resigned in order to give the team the opportunity to regroup and undertake the changes necessary to get back to the front of the grid.

“Both will continue to work in their present positions through until the end of the year to ensure that the team maintains focus and momentum during the 2011 season. We are very grateful to Sam and to Jon for their professional approach.”

Coughlan’s appointment is particularly curious given his reputation was practically destroyed after he received – and then proceeded to appropriate – design documents of the 2007 Ferrari F1 car in an act of industrial espionage by Ferrari’s then-chief mechanic Nigel Stepney.

His role in the scandal saw McLaren fined a record $100 million and the team stripped of its Constructors’ Championship points, which were both decisions that led to the departure of team founder Ron Dennis little more than a year later.

After serving a two-year ban, Coughlan later cropped up in the world of NASCAR and was also a key figure in the aborted Stefan GP Formula 1 concern.

In spite of his rather muddy conduct, Coughlan is perhaps an ideal man for the role, coming with plenty of experience with outfits such as Team Lotus, Tyrrell, Ferrari and Arrows before he joined McLaren in 2002 as its chief designer. His experience will undoubtedly fill a massive gap at the Williams team that has seemingly been present since Adrian Newey left the squad in 1997, the same year as the team’s last Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship titles.

Coughlan’s title of ‘Chief Engineer’ is equally interesting, as it would indicate that Williams has other plans – and people – in mind to fill the roles of technical director and chief aerodynamicist.

“Mike Coughlan is a fine engineer with extensive experience across Formula 1 and both civil and defence engineering,” added Williams.

“He left Formula 1 in 2007 because of conduct which he acknowledges was wrong and which he profoundly regrets. His two year ban from the sport expired some time ago and Mike is now determined to prove himself again. Williams is delighted to be able to give him the opportunity to do this and we are very pleased to have one of the most talented and competitive engineers in the sport helping us to return to the front of the grid. This is the first step in re-building and strengthening our technical group. We will announce the next steps as they develop.”

Coughlan added: “I am grateful to Williams for giving me this opportunity. My experience in 2007 was life-changing … I am looking forward to returning to a sport which I love and to joining a team that I have admired for many years. I will dedicate myself to the team and to ensuring that we return to competitiveness while respecting the ethical standards with which Williams has always been synonymous.”

Williams Chairman Adam Parr – who reportedly offered to tender his own resignation in the wake of the team’s disastrous 2011 season to-date – has confirmed that Coughlan’s primary remit will be the design of the 2012 campaigner, the FW34.

“[He] will be driving forward our engineering process and ensuring systems are in place for success. He will be responsible for the FW34, next year’s car, and how that develops,” Parr is quoted as saying.

“[At the end of the year] we will make a decision about whether Mike becomes technical director, or remains as chief engineer and we bring someone alongside him as technical director.”

In many ways, a restructure within the team was seemingly inevitable, and the outfit’s enormous winless streak was obviously playing on the minds of many who pull the strings in the team.

However, in some ways, the appointment simply serves to treat the symptoms – rather than the illness – at Williams, which is fundamentally its lack of manufacturer backing and lack of external investment. Unless these changes can start to bring in some serious results, and quickly, it’s very hard to see how Williams can ever escape from midfield mediocrity.

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.