Williams seek to end cycle of decline
If the idea was to attract attention, Williams certainly succeeded. Choosing Mike Coughlan, one of two men at the heart of 2007's 'spy-gate' scandal, to spearhead your attempt to reverse a cycle of decline is guaranteed to get you headlines.
This, after all, is the man who, when he was employed as McLaren's chief designer, sent his wife to photocopy nearly 800 pages of Ferrari technical information in a local shop. Unsurprisingly, the assistant got suspicious, phoned Maranello, and the rest is history. McLaren were ultimately fined $100m and thrown out of that year's constructors' championship.
Coughlan was banned from F1 for two years and has filled his time since designing a vehicle for the army, working in the US-based Nascar stock-car series and, briefly, for the still-born Stefan Grand Prix team.
Now, though, he is back, following a decision by Williams to employ him as chief engineer in a reshuffle of their technical department aimed at recapturing the glory days of the third most successful team in F1 history.
As part of the changes, Sam Michael, who has been technical director for seven years, and chief aerodynamicist Jon Tomlinson have both resigned, although they will stay in their current roles until the end of the year.
And in perhaps the most significant change of all, Williams co-founder Patrick Head will retire from his role as director of engineering later this year, although he will remain involved in both the F1 team and specific other Williams sister companies as a shareholder and board member.
Head is one of the most experienced and widely respected men in F1 so, for the many both inside and outside F1 who care about whether this iconic team can recapture at least some of their past form, his continued involvement is reassuring.
As these changes have made clear, though, those hopes can no longer be invested in Head or even, to some degree, team founder and owner Sir Frank Williams, who formed one of the most remarkable partnerships in F1 history.
The man who has been given the reins is the chairman Adam Parr, who was formally named as the man in charge of the day-to-day running of Williams last summer.
The wheels have been coming off at Williams for some time. Photo: Getty
Since then, Parr and the seven-man Williams board have certainly been ringing the changes.
Judging by their careers so far, Maldonado is not Hulkenberg's equal on ability, but he came with a sizeable and lengthy sponsorship deal from his country's state oil company.
The decision to hire him, then, was an effective admission that long gone were the days of Williams being successful enough to choose their drivers on merit and let their performance on track deliver the necessary sponsorship resources. That particular equation had been reversed by the tide of declining results.
A second controversial decision was floating the team on the Frankfurt stock exchange, making it effectively the only F1 team to be a publicly listed company - although of course Mercedes and Ferrari are indirectly listed through their parent companies.
It has not gone especially well so far. The shares fell on their first day of trading and recently had lost a third of their value. They rebounded, though, on Tuesday following the news of the changes at the team.
The fact that there was a resurgence is interesting in itself - it's not necessarily what you would expect in the context of a decision to employ a man at the centre of one of the two biggest scandals in F1 over the last four years.
But while Coughlan's return was certainly a surprise to many in F1, perhaps that reflects an essential truth about his appointment, one voiced by Williams and Parr themselves. Spy-gate was a long time ago, he has served his punishment, it is probably time to move on.
That certainly seems to be McLaren's view of the matter. "The events that led to our decision to terminate Mike's contract occurred nearly four years ago," a spokesman told BBC Sport. "He's an experienced engineer and Williams are a famous team which we would all like to see recover to better fortunes."
The reshuffle at Williams follows the worst start to a season in the team's history, with drivers Rubens Barrichello and Maldonado failing to score points in the first three races. But unacceptable as that was, as Williams have themselves described it, what really prompted the changes was the difference between on-track performance and pre-season expectation.
For a number of years now, Williams have started each F1 season proclaiming that their new car was the one that would deliver a return to form. The difference in 2011 was that this time they really believed it.
The new FW33 is quite a radical design, featuring a remarkably small gearbox, the intention of which was to free up as much airflow as possible to what is now the critical area at the bottom of the rear wing.
"This year, we really thought we'd come out fighting," said the team's head of communications, Claire Williams, Frank's daughter, on Wednesday. "We thought we had the potential for more podiums only to find the reality was we had regressed further. After however many years, that wasn't acceptable any more."
In the short to medium term, it is Coughlan who has been charged with turning the team's fortunes around. The 52-year-old is to be considered for Michael's soon-to-be-vacant role. And even if they ultimately appoint someone else as technical director, Coughlan is responsible for next year's car and will clearly remain a key figure in the technical department for some years to come.
He is a man of vast experience - he has been in F1 since 1984 and has worked for Lotus, Benetton, Ferrari, Arrows and McLaren. He is regarded as very bright, enthusiastic and hard-working, even if he is, as someone said to me on Wednesday, "not exactly Adrian Newey".
That was a bit harsh. Newey, the man responsible for Red Bull's current period of domination, is a genius, one of the greatest engineers in F1 history. The problem for all the other F1 teams is that he is one of a kind. But you can see why the comparison was made - their shared history means it is Newey's shadow that hangs heaviest over Williams.
The team's spell at the very top of F1 ended with his departure for McLaren. The final car he had an influence on, the 1997 FW19, was the last Williams to win a title. And they have never been the same since.
Frank Williams has admitted that letting Newey go, not acceding to his demands for more involvement in the running of the team, was his biggest mistake. But expecting a return to those days, of the fastest car in F1, of seasons - entire eras - of domination, is a pipe dream, as Parr himself admits.
When I asked him on the eve of the season why Williams had not won a race since 2004, he turned the question back at me. "Let's just switch it around," he said. "Why would you expect Williams to beat Ferrari?"
It was a fair point. Years of lack of performance have produced a vicious circle of decline. Lack of results makes it harder to attract the best drivers and sponsors with big money. Lack of resources makes it even harder to produce a winning car. And not being able to attract a man who can transcend it - a Hamilton, an Alonso - makes the results even more elusive. So it goes on.
Even Barrichello's vast experience and highly regarded technical ability, which was instrumental in helping Williams recover from a poor start last year, has not helped them produce a competitive car in 2011.
Coughlan's job, then, is not to return Williams to its previous heights, but to restore respectability, get them back on an even keel. Only then can they think again about going further.