The mystery over where outgoing Williams technical director Sam Michael would end up was resolved today when McLaren announced him as their new Sporting Director. The post has been vacant since Dave Ryan stepped down from the job at the Malaysian Grand Prix of 2009.
The role of Sporting Director can mean many things in F1. For some teams it is a kind of glorified team manager role, for others it can been more engineering-led. Usually the Sporting Director is the senior person who is required to know the FIA Sporting Regulations rule book inside out and back to front. So when something happens in a race, where some interpretation is required, the Sporting Director will be the one liaising with the Race Director and arguing the toss. They need to have an understanding of all areas of the racing business, from engineering to strategy to rules to logistics.
At Mercedes the vastly experienced Ron Meadows holds the role. Dave Ryan was a similar kind of Sporting Director.
Sam Michael comes at it with a background as a race engineer to Heinz Harald Frentzen at Jordan, when he was winning races. Then he became a senior operations engineer and took that role to Williams. When BMW parnered with Williams he was promoted to Technical Director in his early 30s. As Williams has adjusted to life as an independent team, Michael has worked with the resources available, not always with happy outcomes.
His switch from being in overall control of all things technical at Williams to Sporting Director at McLaren will also take in responsibility for operational matters at the race track. So it is a return, in many ways, to the role in which he was most effective with Williams and Jordan; playing to his strengths essentially.
Of the options open to him, which are believed to have included Force India and even a Ferrari role was rumoured, Michael has taken the most obviously appealing. He will no longer have responsibility for overseeing the design and build of the cars, but only of making them as effective as possible at the race tracks.
This will add strength to McLaren in an important area, not least in getting the best from the drivers at every race, but to beat Red Bull they need to be sure to build a fast car from the outset of 2012. The McLaren has rivalled the Red Bull for pace lately, but was well beaten for speed in Monza. Getting it right between now and winter testing next February is the key.
“He’ll bring a very valuable blend of experience and expertise to our pitwall, and will also enrich the technical management we provide for our drivers, ” said McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh. “I’m certain he’ll work extremely well with our senior technical management team, which I firmly believe will now become the strongest in all of Formula 1.”
“Being a racer my whole life, I know that McLaren is one of the all-time greats of Formula 1.” said Michael. “I already know and respect many of the team’s senior technical management figures, and becoming a member of that excellent working unit was one of the prime attractions of this new position.”