Formula One - On and Off Track week 18

Formula One - On and Off Track week 18

By: Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent

Story Highlights

  • Radical shake-up for the Williams team
  • Patrick Head to retire after 34 years
  • Scot Paul di Resta in hot demand

Radical shake-up for the Williams team

The floor of the Williams factory in Grove, UK, must have been shaking after the team announced a radical change in their technical staff. Although the changes were not entirely unexpected, it was nevertheless a great surprise to learn the ousted by McLaren Mike Coughlan, who was involved in the McLaren/Ferrari Spygate affair, has joined the Williams technical staff.

Sir Frank Williams, always present in the team’s garage
Sir Frank Williams, always present in the team’s garage

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Coughlan’s exact role in the spy affair has never been completely disclosed, what is known is that he was directly involved in the theft of technical information, he was certainly not an innocent pawn that was sacrificed for the greater good of the McLaren team. The controversial affair cost the Woking-based McLaren team 100 million Euro, the biggest fine ever given in the world of sports, and must have been a big financial blow.

He was banned for two years from the sport, and had a short liaison with the by now infamous Zoran Stefanovic of the illusive wannabe Stefan GP Formula One team, but much to his delight Coughlan has now found a new employer. “I am grateful to Williams for giving me this opportunity. My experience in 2007 was life-changing. Since then, I have endeavoured to put my skills to good use in the design of the Ocelot [military] vehicle whose purpose is to transport soldiers in safety. I have also enjoyed my time with Michael Waltrip Racing: they are an excellent race team and I wish them well for the future,” Coughlan said in a statement.

Coughlan is a fine engineer with extensive experience across Formula One

Frank Williams

The 52-year old Coughlan has decades of experience, he worked for Tyrrell, Ferrari, Arrows and McLaren. Although Coughlan was involved in the Spygate affair, team principal Williams is convinced he is a top engineer who has many qualities. “Coughlan is a fine engineer with extensive experience across Formula One and both civil and defense engineering,” Williams said. About the Spygate affair, Williams was clear, “He left Formula One in 2007 because of conduct which he [now] 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.”

With Coughlan reinforcing the troubled Williams team, Williams will try to fight its way back to the top 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,” a confident Williams said.

Sam Michael, WilliamsF1 Team, Technical director
Sam Michael, WilliamsF1 Team, Technical director

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But the most important news centered on the ones who are leaving the team, Technical Director Sam Michael and Chief Aerodynamicist Jon Tomlinson, have resigned and will leave the team at the end of this season when their contract expires. It was also announced that Patrick Head, who once owned the team together with Frank Williams, will retire at the end of this season.

Williams has gone through its worst season start ever since Williams Grand Prix Engineering was founded in 1977, and Technical Director Michael has been criticized for the chronic lack of progress. Rumors about his resignation have been circling the internet for weeks, and yesterday Williams’ final decision was announced. Michael became Technical Director after Head took a few steps back in 2004, but since Juan-Pablo Montoya won the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix, Michaels was not able to guide Williams to the highest step of the podium again.

The 40-year old and born in Canberra, Australia, Michael studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of New South Wales, and is a specialist in data acquisition systems for race cars. After a short period at the Australian Formula Holden series he was hired by Lotus in 1993. After the demise of the Lotus team at the end of 1994, he was hired by the Jordan team and worked with Gary Anderson, another top Formula One designer. He initially worked at the Jordan factory in the research and development department, but got his real taste of the sport when he in 1998 was promoted as race engineer of Ralf Schumacher.

Michael joined the Williams team in 2001 as Senior Operations Engineer, and finally was promoted to Technical Director in 2004. As said, he did not succeed in bringing Williams back to the top, but it also must be said it is not just Michaels who is responsible for the poor results. Williams has been struggling for the past three years, and over the years have lost the financial backing of important sponsors.

Last year Williams dumped the very talented German Nico Hulkenberg, who has won about every race series he participated in, and was replaced by Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, who brings about 15 million Euro to the team from his Venezuelan sponsor oil company PDVSA.

Sam Michael and Ralf Schumacher in 2003
Sam Michael and Ralf Schumacher in 2003

On top of that Williams decided to go to the stock market and although Sir Frank denied the flotation was set up to bring in extra cash, it was clear for everyone the Williams team had huge financial problems, which even threatened the very existence of one of the oldest privateer teams in Formula One.

With Michael and Tomlinson leaving at the end of the season, Williams has plotted another route which should lead to more success in the future. Team principal Williams about the changes, “Both Sam and Jon are talented and driven people who have worked hard for Williams over ten and five years respectively. 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.”

He wants to recover his name and his reputation and prove what he can do

Adam Parr

Williams Chairman Adam Parr about the changes, and specifically about Coughlan’s new role, “He's got unfinished business in Formula One, he wants to recover his name and his reputation and prove what he can do." And added, “At the end of the year we will make a decision whether Mike becomes Technical Director or whether he remains as a Chief Engineer and we bring in someone else alongside him who can further strengthen the team.”

And last but not least, the departure of Michael and Tomlinson certainly doesn’t mean they are not good engineers or are not capable of doing their job, as said financial problems is also a reason why Williams is now struggling, unfortunately for them, Formula One is just like soccer, if the results are bad, the trainer gets the sack.

Patrick Head to retire after 34 years

Frank Williams and Patrick Head
Frank Williams and Patrick Head

Regarding Head, with his retirement the longest lasting partnership in Formula One comes to an end, Head was hired in 1977 by Sir Frank and designed his first Williams in 1978, the FW06. He was the Engineering Director for more than 25 years, and was responsible for many technical innovations. In the early 1980s he became more a Technical Director, overseeing the entire design and production process of the Williams Formula One cars.

In 1982 his team of engineers tested a revolutionary six-wheel car, unlike the famous Tyrrell six-wheeler it had four driven rear wheels and not four front wheels. Later they also tested the CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) which had to replace conventional transmission systems. Unfortunately, the FIA changed the technical regulations which banned six wheel cars, the CVT transmission was not a success and both concepts would never make it to the race track.

In 1990 Williams hired Adrian Newey and soon Newey and Head were the top designers tandem in Formula One. The revolutionary 1993 Williams FW15C with its computer controlled active suspension and traction control systems was their brain child, and Alain Prost won his fourth World Championship in the FW15C before the Frenchman retired after the 1993 season. Again, technical regulations were changed and the active suspension was banned when Ayron Senna took over the wheel from Prost in 1994.

Alain Prost and Damon Hill in 1993
Alain Prost and Damon Hill in 1993

From 1991 to 1997, Williams won 59 Grands Prix, won the Constructors’ title four times, and four different drivers, Nigel Mansell, Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve won the Drivers’ Championship in a Williams designed by Head and Newey. The 64-year old Head was in charge of the engineering department until he in 2004 handed over his position to Michael.

Head was also the co-founder of Williams Grand Prix Engineering, in 1977 he owned 30 percent of the team, while Williams himself owned the remaining 70 percent. Over the years his stake in the team decreased to 23.5 percent, and when Williams launched their stock flotation in March, Head’s stake was reduced to 5.8 percent, and it was already anticipated Head would retire at some point this year.

With Head’s retirement, the sport will say goodbye to one of its most impressive top designers who dominated the sport for decades, and despite the fact Head was always very blunt and outspoken, he was always one of the most respected and popular figures in Grand Prix racing.

Editor’s Note:

Shortly after Week 18 was published, Patrick Head ‘angrily reacted to Adam Parr's report he is definitely set to retire in 2011’. To the UK Guardian he said, “What you [Adam Parr] are telling me is news to me. He wasn't in a position to make that statement. My plans are not in the public domain and they will only be when I make my own statement later in the year.”

Scot Paul di Resta in hot demand

Once his team mate Adrian Sutil was in hot demand, but now rookie and 2010 DTM champion Paul di Resta has caught the attention of other teams, and it seems Mercedes GP in particular is charmed by the excellent performance of the Scot, who only took part in three Grands Prix.

The 25-year old driver started his career in single seater racing in several Formula Renault and Formula Three series, but was brought into the DTM championship in 2007 as a Mercedes protégé. In DTM he also immediately recorded some very impressing results, he became fifth in the championship in his first year, second in 2008, third in 2009 and finally won the championship last year.

Paul di Resta already a winner in DTM
Paul di Resta already a winner in DTM

He was already Force India’s test driver, and after the departure of Vitantonio Liuzzi was promoted to regular driver. Team owner and principal Vijay Mallya is certainly happy with di Resta. “Paul has driven superbly and has adapted very quickly to Formula One,” the Indian said. Mercedes Sport Director Norbert Haug is, not really surprising, also a fan of di Resta. Haug and is impressed with his debut, “I think it is exceptional and remarkable what Paul has done so far.”

And the German added, “To be in his third race and take eighth on that grid -- that is very good, and very, very impressive, especially considering he did not get a lot of running in second practice. We always knew he was a very good and very talented guy, and when he gets in the right groove -- we saw it in DTM -- it can be very special for him.”

Although di Resta is obviously flattered with the latest compliments, he remains with two feet firmly on the ground. “Obviously I am close to Mercedes. They have had a huge influence on my career and I’m very grateful to them. It is great that people are talking but at the same time I have got to keep progressing,” he told the UK Telegraph. About the confidence Force India has in him and vice versa, he was clear, “Force India have given me a great opportunity and delivered what they said they would. Hopefully I am delivering what they hoped I would deliver for the team. I’ve given it as much as I have been able to.”

This year is a learning year for the Scot, but he really feels at home in Formula One, and he is for a rookie, very mature, a fast learner, and has without a doubt enough natural talent to be very successful in Formula One. “There are times when I could have taken more risks but I want to learn, and to do that you have to finish races. It’s a massive thing to have finished your first three Grands Prix and almost to have been in the points in all of them,” he said.

A bright future for Paul di Resta
A bright future for Paul di Resta

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But he remains very modest about his excellent performance. ”I don’t really want to say what level I’m at, but all I will say is that I am progressing and I’ll continue to work at bettering my performance level.” His performance has not gone unnoticed, and the legendary Formula One commentator Murray Walker said last week, “One of the big teams is going to be signing him up before very much longer -- maybe Mercedes.”

Which of course further fuelled the suspicions di Resta could replace Michael Schumacher at Mercedes GP next year, as the start of the German’s second career in Formula One has been troubled to say the least. Meanwhile, his manager Anthony Hamilton, father of Lewis, is happy with all the positive reactions, and thinks a move to one of the top teams next year is a realistic possibility. “Certainly he will make a great replacement for someone at a top team,” Hamilton said. But he denied Mercedes had contacted him about a possible future drive. And if di Resta improves his performance as fast as he did in DTM, he will certainly be on the top of the Formula One ladder.

Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and off track”

Formula One - On and Off Track week 17

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About this article
Series General , Formula 1
Drivers Michael Waltrip , Ralf Schumacher , Michael Schumacher , Jacques Villeneuve , Nigel Mansell , Norbert Haug , Alain Prost , Damon Hill , Patrick Head , Vitantonio Liuzzi , Paul di Resta , Frank Williams , Pastor Maldonado , Adrian Sutil , Nico Hulkenberg , Adrian Newey , Anthony Hamilton , Gary Anderson , Adam Parr
Teams Force India , Williams , Michael Waltrip Racing
Tags coughlan, di resta, force india, head, michael, parr, tomlinson, williams