In 2007 Mike Coughlan was working as a senior designer and engineer at McLaren. The car he’d helped create was fighting a fierce world title duel with Ferrari, one that would go right to the wire. Professionally, he had reached the top of the F1 ladder, employed as he was by the super slick Woking team. But something was wrong; he wasn’t happy.
Less than three years later he was ’employed’ by non-existent, joke team Stefan GP; they didn’t even have a car. How far the Briton had fallen.
Now Coughlan is back in the sport, hired by a Williams team in the midst of their worst start to a season since 1979 as their new chief engineer. But whilst the British squad may not be at the top of the sport right now they do have a a rich heritage, and still possess the potential to run at the front. After four years in the F1 wilderness Coughlan has landed a pretty sweet gig particularly if, as is expected, he replaces the team’s outgoing technical director Sam Michael at the end of the 2011 campaign.
Beginning his F1 career on the design team at Lotus, Coughlan was involved with the team’s mid-eighties renaissance. He remained onboard through the 1990 season before wondering between Benetton, Tyrrell and Ferrari and finally landing at Arrows in 1997.
Here he was impressive, and was particularly involved in the tidy racers the British squad produced in their twilight years. The A21, armed with a Supertec powerplant, took a strong seventh in the 2000 constructors’ standings; that the 2001 car fared less well was more down to Arrows switch to an Asiatech engines.
McLaren were impressed enough to give Coughlan a job when Tom Walkinshaw’s squad folded, and he remained there through to ’07, working alongside Adrian Newey on the design of cars such as the fast-but-fragile MP4-20 in which Kimi Raikkonen fought for the 2005 title, missing out to Fernando Alonso.
But in the summer of 2007 it was revealed that Coughlan, along with Ferrari engineer Nigel Stepney, had stolen technical information from their teams. A search of Coughlan’s home turned up Ferrari documents; the pair were seeking to take the data to a different team, with Honda confirming that Coughlan and Stepney had approached them seeking work that summer.
McLaren claimed they had not made use of the Ferrari details in their ’07 car but were nevertheless excluded from the constructors’ championship, and there can be little doubt that the destabalizing effect of the episode contributed to both Lewis Hamilton and Alonso narrowly missing out on the drivers’ crown. Coughlan meanwhile paid the penalty with a two year ban that has effectively become four, and was hit with a €180,000 fine for his troubles.
Since then he’s worked at NASCAR squad Michael Waltrip Racing and been involved in designing armoured vehicles for the British military, but F1 was always where he wanted to be – he wouldn’t have gotten involved with Stefan if that wasn’t the case.
Have Williams made a good call in brining him onboard? And did his past actions affect their decision making process? Team chairman Adam Parr has admitted that it did.
“Obviously it was something we had to think about,” he said of Coughlan’s past. “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.
“One thing I will say, is that that experience makes you a better person. If you skate through life with one success after another, then it is hard to change and learn to become a better person. Whether that is my experience or his experience, you learn from it.”
Parr is right: Coughlan deserves another chance. He’s worked at the very peak of Formula One only to tumble down thanks to his own deeply foolish mistakes. You can be almost sure that, upon his return, he will be on his very best behaviour and working hard to make up for the time he has lost. He is an extremely talented designer – you don’t land that McLaren gig if you’re not – and should be ascend to the technical director job at Williams would make a very capable replacement for the departing Michael. In the long term, this could be a real coup for Sir Frank’s troubled team.