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Williams seek to end cycle of decline

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Andrew Benson | 14:27 UK time, Wednesday, 4 May 2011

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.

A Williams returns to the pits with a shredded tyre

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.

The first was the decision to drop the promising German Nico Hulkenberg, who impressed increasingly in the course of his debut season in 2010, and replace him with Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado.

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.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I would have thought that Williams wanted to win. But no, they are a shadow of their former glory days.

  • Comment number 2.

    Throughout its history there have been peaks and troughs in the fortunes of Williams Grand Prix Engineering, the troughs usually post losing a decent engine supply (viz. Honda, Renault and BMW) or associated with a weak design team.
    During the glory years Sir Frank Williams, Patrick Head and the team have always been 'racers', never mollycoddling drivers, always being innovative in car design, being totally focused on winning and valuing their independence from the big manufacturers.
    Williams had huge success with Patrick Head at the design helm and then during the Adrian Newey era. Yes, letting Adrian Newey slip through their fingers all those years ago was indeed a big mistake - star designers don't grow on trees. In my view, the strength of the design team has been a core issue ever since. Yes, they did win a few more GPs when BMW was their engine partner, but did they reap the success they should have done and which was the weaker link - engine or Chassis?
    Easy to say, but it was 5 or more years ago when they should have been heavily investing in the design team. The design team is crucial to the fortunes of any F1 team.
    The Williams Board obviously felt that floating part of the equity on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange was the right thing to do. We shall see. But, in the past maybe the team's staunch independence has not worked in their best interests. The word was that they could have got closer to BMW, but instead the latter bought Sauber. In the current environment, unless an independent has a strong budget and design team (e.g. Red Bull and Mclaren), surely joining forces with a major manufacturer or other major motorsport engineering company must have its attractions.
    I have always been a massive Williams fan and a frustrated one. Williams is still a great team and I for one wish it all the best for the future. Nothing would please me more than to see it work its way back up the grid. The latest announcement regarding Mike Coughlan is welcome. But, don't stop there. Buy the best design people possible.
    Did someone say that other manufacturers (viz VW Group/Porsche) were thinking of entering their own team in F1. A tie-up with a team such as Williams would be mouth watering.
    Surrey911

  • Comment number 3.

    It's not clear to me if Williams have really discovered why they've slipped so far down the grid. I agree something radical had to be done, but it seems to me there is something more fundemental to Williams' problems. I hope they can return to winning ways soon, but by the sounds of things this is a long way of.

  • Comment number 4.

    It is a real shame to see a team of Williams' pedigree slipping down to the back of the grid while a "glorified drinks company" locks out the front row more often than not, but I guess that's just how the world turns. Maybe 10 years from now Williams will be back on top and Red Bull will be back in the midfield. Who knows?

    N.B. I say that as a long-standing RBR fan, and of Webber in particular.

  • Comment number 5.

    I would like to see Williams get back to winning ways again but I just cannot see it happening anytime soon. One thing in the blog worth commenting on is:

    "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 FW17, was the last Williams to win a title. And they have never been the same since."

    I'd consider that partly correct - but not fully. Yes, Newey is the best designer and should not have been allowed to leave but lets not also forget Williams lost the best engine in F1 at the same time when Renault pulled out of F1 in 1997 (as did Goodyear if I remember correctly).

    Williams did not sort out a deal with a good engine supplier so ran 1997 spec Renault until the end of '99 by which time the fall was well under way and the resurgance of Ferarri & McLaren also had an effect.

  • Comment number 6.

    Sorry to be a pedant Andrew, but the 1997 Williams was surely the FW19, not the FW17.

    Very entertaining article otherwise.

    To all those who say Newey was the sole progenitor of their success, I direct you towards the mid-80s when the team won everything going.

  • Comment number 7.

    Really is a shame to see Williams fall to these depths. Too slow and too unreliable this season - the latter an achilles heel that seems to have worsened in recent years. For a team with their past success (2nd best ever) to go 6.5 years w/o a win is simply shocking. Hope their demise is not a) permanent and b) not indicative of privateer teams in general.
    Problem is that they no longer seem to have resources to continue at the very highest level regardless of any sort of spending regulations. Moves over last 6 months seem to prove where problem lies: a) Brazil polesitter Hulkenberg replaced by Maldonado and sponsorship and b) floating team on stock exchange (unsuccesfully as it turns out - http://tiny.cc/ygky8)

    For more on reshuffle - http://tiny.cc/1bxgw

  • Comment number 8.

    The ruthlessness of the recent restructure seem unsurprising. I have thought for some time that it is such a ruthlessness - but with the historical treatment of their drivers - which has cost them later successes.

    From recollection, they have failed to renew contracts for a number of high profile drivers (including reigning world champions) which surely wound not inspire the confidence of current or upcoming stars whose attention these matters would attract.

    So despite their downturn in form, with the two dragons in charge, who would want to drive for them?

  • Comment number 9.

    Re point 6 - yes, thanks for pointing out that oversight, it is now amended.

  • Comment number 10.

    As a true privateer outfil, Williams' chances of success are slim to none.

    The good times will only return if the team can once again hitch its wagon to a class-leading engine - and it may be the case that one or more of the Japanese efforts wouldn't mind being back in F1 (even though burned by their own teams' experiences), showing their mettle....

  • Comment number 11.

    Can anyone tell me what the red "P" is for on the timings listing on BBC F1 coverage? Sometimes it shows the checkered flag instead

  • Comment number 12.

    Williams have needed this technical shakeup for a very long time. Sam Michael has been a weak link really and it is a pity the team has taken this long to realise this. He hasn't been able to get the right people to work under him. Patrick head going upstairs is also a good thing. Personally I think they could benefit from the return of Geoff Willis too on the aero side, his talents are wasted at HRT.

  • Comment number 13.

    In reply to Molliana's question; the red 'P' denotes the driver is in the pits i.e. not out on track whilst the 'chequered flag' show that the driver has finished his qualifying session i.e. they passed the start / finish line after the clock reached zero and therefore are out of time to start a new lap.

  • Comment number 14.

    After the way they treated Damon Hill they deserve everything they get

  • Comment number 15.

    Is it possible that the BBC team do a piece on the Logistics of how these F1 Teams get from one track to another. I would love to see this happen Please Jake make it happen....

  • Comment number 16.

    The solution for Williams is simple..change and re invent like other teams...the new hot team for Williams would be Rubens,Paul D'resta,and Ross Brawn.we all know that Williams is poised on the edge of decision which has not been taken.Thats why its not going places even with the talent of Rubens.

    I have some slots in my diary soon if you want an expert to come on board.

 

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