GROVE, England, March 8 (Reuters) - If Williams come good this season, much of it will be down to a man who says he is “not a great fan of motor racing” and rates designing a five tonne armoured patrol vehicle as a career highlight.
Mike Coughlan’s arrival as chief engineer at Williams in June 2011 was a crucial step, if controversial given his chequered past, in turning around the fortunes of Formula One’s faded former champions.
Now technical director, Coughlan hopes the team’s new FW35 car - the first under his full guidance - is good enough to move the winners of nine constructors’ titles back up the grid and into the top five.
The team that won four drivers’ championships in six years during the 1990s - through Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve - scored just five points in 2011 and finished ninth in a performance that ranked as their worst since the 1970s.
Last year they won the Spanish Grand Prix with Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, finishing eighth overall, and now they hope to make further progress.
Much of the credit must go to Coughlan, the former McLaren chief designer who was banned from Formula One for two years in 2007 when a 780 page dossier of leaked Ferrari technical information was found at his home.
He has expressed remorse for involvement in that spy scandal, describing it as ‘life changing’, and Williams were happy to give him a chance to prove himself again.
“I have never in my career looked back, I have always looked forward,” the interview-shy Briton told Reuters at the mention of a scandal that led to McLaren being dealt a record $100 million fine, although the sum was later reduced.
”I‘m always keen to get on, to do well. I‘m very competitive. I‘m not a great fan of motor racing but I am highly competitive. I enjoy engineering, I enjoy working at Williams, I am very aware of the history of the family and name and team.
“I talk to (co-founder) Patrick (Head) almost daily and I‘m desperate for us to do well.”
Between leaving McLaren and joining Williams, Coughlan led a design team working on an armoured military patrol vehicle for use in hostile environments such as Afghanistan and also spent time in NASCAR with Michael Waltrip Racing.
The experience allowed him to see the sport in a more dispassionate light.
”If I look back at my period in early motor racing, there was so much emotion,“ he said. ”We are much clearer now.
”Motor racing and Formula One especially has been guilty of being very insular, believing itself to be highly sophisticated almost to the detriment of every other sport. But I spent three years developing a military vehicle that was survivable and I learnt a lot doing that.
“When (former Williams chairman) Adam (Parr) first approached me I said ‘I guarantee you I am a much better engineer than I was three years ago’ because I’d seen other environments and how other people work.”
Working on the military project and competing against rival bidders for the tender, he said, gave him “as big a buzz as motor racing”
“The highlight of my career was when a major-general said to me ‘What you have done in terms of surviveability will save 200 kids lives’.”
Arriving at Williams, with the engineering side in some disarray, Coughlan said he had tried to keep things simple.
“I didn’t look at what was wrong. I just didn’t have the time. I just said this is the way we are going to do stuff because this is what I know works,” he recalled of his immediate approach.
”I am not fussy on everything we do, don’t get me wrong, but there are a few key things which are important to me and which I know make performance.
“I don’t have the time to sit here and go through whether your system for doing it is better than my system. I just said we’re going to do it with my system because it’s my arse.”
The new car is a progression from the FW34, with the lack of major rule changes allowing the team to effectively see 2012 and 2013 as one extended project.
Maldonado was able to show the car’s speed in testing, which was largely problem-free despite an initial flurry over ‘illegal’ exhausts that the team have since replaced.
“He was very comfortable in it... So I think generally we are optimistic about the progress we’ve made, we’ve made significant aerodynamic progress, and I think we look forward to the season,” said Coughlan.
“I certainly feel more comfortable with this year’s car than last year‘s.”
Williams, through driver error and other failings, squandered points last season and they are determined not to repeat those mistakes.
At last year’s Canadian Grand Prix, as one example, Maldonado picked up a five place grid penalty for a damaged gearbox after brushing the ‘Wall of Champions’ in qualifying. He could have been in the top 10 but instead started 22nd.
Coughlan said the team had spent a lot of time working on ways to protect the gearbox against such impacts in future.
“We felt as a team that there were several opportunities that we passed by on. It was actually some of the silly things in qualifying and also some of the engineering of the car, which we’ve addressed this year,” he added.
”We believe that probably a true reflection of our car pace was fifth in the championship but the bottom line is that we didn’t deliver on it. That’s what we need to do.
“I think fifth is certainly achievable and that’s our aim. we want to move into fifth and break into the top five.” (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)