Having been at pains to deny that his position was under threat, Williams has today (Tuesday) confirmed that technical director Sam Michael is to leave the team come season's end, in company with chief aerodynamicist Jon Tomlinson – as controversial 'Spygate' protagonist Mike Coughlan prepares to come on-board next month in the role of chief engineer.
There has been considerable speculation over Michael's future at Williams in recent weeks, ignited by what has been the former multiple world champions' worst start to an F1 campaign in history, with no points from the opening three grands prix, four DNFs and a best qualifying position of just 15th. The Grove-based outfit's winless streak now stretches back some 111 races, with not so much as even a podium finish since 2008.
The only time the disappointing new Cosworth-powered FW33 has displayed any real flashes of pace was during the curtain-raising F1 2011 Australian Grand Prix in the hands of an inspired Rubens Barrichello – but that has not been enough to save Michael and Tomlinson's necks.
The ultra-experienced Brazilian has defended Michael – who turns 40 on Friday – telling Speedweek
magazine that 'the problem is not that he is the wrong man for the job, but that he has too much to do', fuelling suspicions that the softly-spoken Australian has simply been made a convenient scapegoat.
“Both Sam and Jon are talented and driven people who have worked hard for Williams over ten and five years respectively,” underlined team principal and founder Sir Frank Williams. “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.
“Both will continue to work in their present positions through until the end of the year to ensure that the team maintains focus and momentum during the 2011 season. We are very grateful to Sam and to Jon for their professional approach.”
In a significant restructure of Williams' technical department, it is Coughlan who will step into the breach, beginning in June. The 52-year-old has formerly worked in the top flight for the likes of Lotus, Tyrrell, Ferrari, Arrows and McLaren – although it was his role with the latter for which he gained the greatest notoriety, following the explosive 'Spygate' scandal regarding leaked Ferrari data in 2007 that precipitated his departure from the paddock under a cloud of shame.
Since then, he has been involved in the development of the Ocelot Light Protected Patrol Vehicle and with NASCAR operation Michael Waltrip Racing – and he admits that he is honoured to have been handed a route back into F1.
“I am grateful to Williams for giving me this opportunity,” confessed Coughlan. “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 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.