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Williams makes controversial appointment as Michael resigns
Williams makes controversial appointment as Michael resigns
Posted By: James Allen  |  03 May 2011   |  1:43 pm GMT  |  124 comments

Williams has announced details of the long expected changes to its technical department, with the controversial appointment as chief engineer of Mike Coughlan, who was centrally involved in the McLaren/Ferrari Spygate scandal of 2007. Williams chairman Adam Parr said that the team needs “a fresh approach”.

Sam Michael has resigned after 11 years as Technical Director and will leave the team at the end of the season. His short term role will be to oversee development of the 2011 car to unlock its potential, which has not been seen to date. The team will evaluate Coughlan’s suitability to become Technical Director during the year.

Also falling on his sword after a start to the season which Frank Williams described as “not at the level that it needs to be” is Jon Tomlinson, who was chief aerodynamicist.

Meanwhile Parr has indicated that Patrick Head will retire at some point this year.

Michael resigned a few weeks ago and is likely to find a role elsewhere in the pit lane as his skills are well known, but it is the appointment of Coughlan which is remarkable and controversial.

His role in the scandal whereby Ferrari technical secrets were passed to McLaren ahead of the 2007 season came to light when his wife took a dossier of Ferrari technical information to a copy shop in Woking and the manager alerted Ferrari. It led to McLaren receiving a record $100 million fine while Coughlan and his co-conspirator Nigel Stepney at Ferrari were banned from F1 for 2 years.

Coughlan popped up again at the start of last season with the abortive Stefan GP team, which tried to get an entry along with other new teams using Toyota chassis.

Ferrari have no official reaction to the news. Ferrari’s reaction at the time to the reappearance of Coughlan at Stefan GP was, in private, one of fury and they will not be overjoyed to see him reappear now. However it would have been far worse for them if Stepney had reappeared.

Frank Williams says, “He (Coughlan) left Formula One 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.”

Coughlan himself says, “My experience in 2007 was life-changing.”

Parr said that team thought hard about Coughlan’s past before making the appointment but he believes that everyone has a right to move on in life once they have paid the penalty for their misdemeanours.

“My view is quite simple: you do something wrong, you get a penalty, you serve your time and you acknowledge what you did was wrong. Everyone has the right to move beyond that – otherwise, what was portrayed as a two-year penalty is a lifetime penalty, and that is not right, ” he said.

Speaking to reporters this morning Parr also confirmed that Patrick Head, who has been centrally involved on the technical side for over 30 years would be retiring this year, “Patrick has made it clear that he will be retiring this year, so at some point this year that will happen,” he said.

“That’s nothing to do with the restructuring, it’s just the fact that he’s turning 65 and had already signalled that it’s time for him to move on to his next set of interests in life.”

So what do you think? Should Coughlan be allowed to take up such a high profile role after what he did, or is everyone entitled to take a punishment and be rehabilitated?

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sam michaels sacking was way overdue williams havent won a Gp since 2004 when michael replaced patrick head as technical director….he was always more of a talker than a doer


I remember one F1 driver said “F1 is basically a war, in war everything is fair”. I guess those who get caught suffer more but what if that’s what everyone is doing?


I admire Williams reasoning for hiring Coughlan but the big questions is will it be a distraction to the team as they try to turn their sow’s ear into a silk purse. They took a big throw of the dice this year with all the innovations which got them plenty of ooohs and ahhs but didn’t pan out. No matter, there won’t be any quick fix or magic bullet, just a lot of retracing of steps.


He and stepney should have been banned for life. What they did was a disgrace to F1.


To spy or not to spy: that was the question. The answer was “to spy” in a more direct manner and I’m sure monsieur cough-cough-Coughlan learned not to do it again. I never really followed all those spy scandals because they were pretty boring. The man deserves a second chance in the sport, while Williams need a new direction.

I suppose all F1 teams have their own photographers in the pit lane who – especially during winter testing – are busy taking shots or rival teams’ cars as they pass by and I always assumed it was for their love of photography and not spying. Don’t tell me I was wrong, my poor heart won’t survive that!


I guess he’s done his time. Schui deliberately tried to crash rivals out of races to win, and how we talk about him as one of the greats. Most of all I just hope Williams can get back up the front, but this appointment tells me they are desperate.

Quick Nick Rules

He served his time and like others have pointed out, Briatore and Symonds’ crimes were worse. He could be good for Williams, he always designed decent slippery cars at Arrows. He was just let down by a low budget and crap drivers (apart from Jos The Boss obviously, he was mega!). The ’02 car was great in the hands of HHF, if only they’d had Jos The Boss in the second seat instead of that donkey Bernoldi they could have had podiums. I seem to recall that car was 2 seconds quicker than the Jaguar with the same engine, and look where that team is now….

Dylan Reynolds

In my view, which I am sure is a lot of peoples view, his actions were totally unacceptable. BUT he served his penalty and everyone should be given a chance to make up for their mistakes. Williams is a really high profile team to work with after being out of the sport for his misdemeanors but its not like he wasn’t willing to prove himself from the very bottom wrung of the ladder again; case and point his willingness to be associated with a team like Stefan GP. Not that Stefan GP would have been bad necessarily, but going on how the new teams are performing it would be a safe assumption that it would have been a test of character for MC, hence showing his determination to learn from his mistakes and to reinstate some trust to him. I can live with that.


It is wrong to continually rake over past events without reason. We all make mistakes and should be given every chance to learn from them. Some mistakes are such that they require a road to Damascus type of moment for everyone to be able to move on.

Coughlan has brought this matter up – for a second time – by coming back into F1.

One point I would like to take up: you do not ‘repay your debt to society’, society in this case being the whole F1 circus, fans and all, by serving your punishment. All that has happened is that you have been punished. What about the £100 million, the harm done to Dennis and his team, the damage to the credibility of the sport? Has all this suddenly become settled because two years are up?

Coughlan’s actions were merely a catalyst to the political events that were generated and we have to say that the main culprit was not him. However his degree of involvement, given it is a little clouded, was probably substantial.

We have all heard of Stepney’s touting of the current Ferrari specifications and designs to the pitlane but what has never been made clear is what Coughlan, as his partner, brought to the pot. The obvious answer, that of similar details of the current McL, would have taken the legs away from the prosecution of Dennis’ team.

But it is all over now. Without all the information there is little we can conclude.

The real question is not what Coughlan did and whether or not three years is enough for absolution but Williams’ actions in employing him. Given the behaviour of Ferrari at the time and since Stepneygate this is a bit of a slap in their face. It has not, let us face it, been done from a position of strength.

If it was me, I would have to be certain that he brought something to the team that made the resentment caused worth the outlay. He’s good, of that there can be no doubt. But McL were able to replace him quickly without apparent trouble.

And then there is the knowledge that he’s been tested in the past and found wanting. It is easy enough to suggest that he has learnt his lesson but only time will tell. He is like a Cat D write-off. It is a risk taking one on. You never know.


I don’t see how Coughlan’s appointment is in any way controversial?


I voted yes, i dont have a problem with his return. He needs to do a lot to restore his reputation though. I cant see McLaren or Ferrari welcoming him back with open arms.

Still i wouldnt begrudge him a second chance in F1.

Sterling Mindenhall

What the heck happened to Williams? Chávez, now Coughlin? Who’s next?

Frank Williams must be disappointed he can no longer get bin Laden in his ranks.


Just wondering how hands off Frank William and Patrick Head have been in recent years? Williams’ aero dept seem to have been struggling ever since the walrus nose FW26.

Obviously a trade sale would have been preferred but the IPO seems like a mistake & distraction for any F1 team (aside from giving Patrick Head a very well deserved retirement plan) – are there many teams that actually make money & pay dividends for their shareholders? Most successful teams are primarily subsidized PR vehicles to drive sales for their owner’s mainstream businesses – Red Bull – drinks; Ferrari – road cars; Mercedes – road cars, etc. If Williams don’t get this right, you will see the regular typical change of CEO & management announcements that plague other listed companies.


Wow, looks like a desperate move after only 3 races into the season. Have to wonder if the team is being run on results or share price. If you were a big sponsor would you have confidence in going to Williams or would you be looking somewhere else?

Pit straight weaver

The shakeup buys them time, which is probably what it’s really all about – now they can ‘do a Mercedes’ and tell everyone, including shareholders, they’re writing off this season to concentrate on next with the new team members, so a run of mediocre results for the rest of this year won’t be picked over by the press as they would without the changes. But they will have to deliver sooner or later, and I personally don’t think they will – time will tell. They need new drivers for a start – two.

As a Brit who grew up in the 80s and 90s in Oxford with Williams as the local team I was a massive supporter until about six years ago (despite Frank’s sometimes absurd treatment of his established, championship-winning drivers) when it became clear they were becoming a bit of a mess. I still have a soft spot, but the young today don’t know the history – they think of Williams as I used to think of Tyrrell and Lotus – midfield runners on the whole, making up the numbers, with a vague idea that there’d been a more gloried past.) It’s quite sad, but Frank and Pat haven’t exactly been making the best decisions for the past 15 years or so, so you reap what you sow, I guess…


Really hate to say it, but I wonder if anyone has overlayed the last 14 years with the last 15 years of Tyrell — too many points of similarity to count — really makes me sad.

Maybe Frank can talk Fiat into rebranding a Ferrari lump as a Chrysler, al la the Lambo Chrysler back in the day…

Dougie Smythe

Coughlan has served his punishment as meted out by the sport’s body, and it’s been two years since the end of the ban.

EVERYONE (Coughlan, you, and me) deserves a second chance. I think Coughlan should be given a chance at redemption.

I’ve always been a McLaren fan, but I do have a soft spot for Williams when Senna was there. I hope they get a chance to improve their cars’ performance.



Everyone should be given a second chance except Flav and Osama Bin Laden. Oh, hang on…


Sam Michael was never really the true Technical Director at Williams and this is the real problem. Prior to Williams, Sam was one of the most respected engineers in the pitlane. He was hired at Williams as a Technical Director but the real Technical Director at Williams has always been Patrick Head. Sam was never given the freedom within the rigid structure of Williams to make a difference. Look back to when Adrian Newey left to join Mclaren in 1997, he left because he was NOT allowed to take the car in the development direction he wanted, he always had Patrick Head watching over his shoulder. Newey realised this would never work and moved on. The only mistake that Sam Michael has made is to wait 11 years to realise this. Good luck in the future Sam this next move will prove you are in the elite…


it would be interesting what he comes up with given how long hes been away from the sport, but i suppose that is what we said about kenny dalgleish and liverpool fc


Sorry, you lost me with the last bit . . .



I don’t have a problem with mike coughlan coming back. If anyone is going to believe espionage is not commonplace they’d probably be mistaken.

He’s served his time. I hope he can help williams maximise the potential of this years car.

Good to see Sam making an appearance tonight at the senna movie (but kept a low profile after a busy press day).

And thanks James for taking the time to say hello as i picked up my tickets. The fact you recognised my name shows how much time I spend commenting on this site, much to my wifes disgust 🙂

Like many others I enjoy the informed debate on here. Some first class commenters on here too.



Why make such a big deal about Coughlan when Alonso was a guilty player in Spygate as someone who admitted his role to Max in return for an amnesty and is now a hired employee of Ferrari!

Are we not guilty of hypocrisy treating drivers with kid gloves because they are seen as the stars of F1 while making scapegoats of the engineers?

If we want to make an issue of this, why not comment on Pat Symonds or Briatore, serving bans in F1 for arranging a crash compared to something more trivial? Pat Symonds is now a consultant to Virgin Racing and Briatore a frequent visitor to Maranello.


Did I miss something or is James’ article not about Couglan and Williams.


Not controversial in my view. As Williams say themselves, he’s served his time and if he was not meant to work in F1 again it should have been a lifetime ban.

…I didn’t hear so much issue being taken with Pat Symonds being contracted to work for Virgin this year, and he asked a young driver to deliberately risk his life by crashing a car in a sanctioned F1 event!


Any tech head who so openly favoured Ralf Schumacher over the fabulous JP Montoya was well past his used by date anyhow so all the best Sam,only thing is now they’ve gone from one who couldn’t pick the winning ticket in a one horse race to one with questionable ethical standards,hmmmmm.


Well the BBC reports that Parr did submit and was refused his resignation – which I think is fair, after all he isn’t involved with the technical side. As for Coughlan – yes he made a mistake and paid the price. He now has an opportunity to do some good, what he does bring to Williams is the knowledge of how Mclaren were organised internally, how they operated and how they reacted to the endless development race – that in itself may be invaluable; fair enough it is not current knowledge but he has been involved with demonstrably far better race winning cars in the relatively recent past than Williams itself has. Also Coughlan is going to be out to prove that he can still do the job. Next big signing for Williams – Pat Symonds when his ban expires perhaps? Why not – he knows how to manage a technical team with limited resources and win. Place your bets.


I voted no but have just seen the story that Ferrari are trying to buy F1! You couldn’t make it up.


That will never happen


Well they may as well make it formal lol (joking!)


lol! nice one

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