Interview: Sam Michael
Honda F1 website
Honda website

MAY 10, 2011

Interview: Sam Michael

Sam Michael
© The Cahier Archive

Last week, news broke that Williams technical director Sam Michael had tendered his resignation but will stay until December 31. At Istanbul Park he gave his thoughts on both team and personal issues.

Q: Has it been a help to you and the team that the future direction is set rather than coming to another race with uncertainties?

Yes. It gives you clarity and helps you focus on the car, which is the right thing. I'm quite encouraged by the performance because if we'd had all the new parts on the car both cars would have been easily into the top 10. We were only out by .02s with Rubens anyway and I know what's coming over the next couple of races. We've had it planned from some time now and if that all works properly we've got a new exhaust blown diffuser for Barcelona, we've got another front wing coming for Monaco and both of them are pretty substantial steps, so we're pretty encouraged that if we keep focusing on that we'll be pretty respectable very soon.

Q: How well did your Turkey upgrades work?

The main ones were new front wing, new rear wing and new rear brake ducts. The only part that we raced on both cars was the brake duct, we only had two front wings and Pastor damaged his on Friday and Rubens raced his. We reverted to the standard rear wing after we had some signs of stall and separation from the new one. It's quite a big step, it gives about 6kph on top of the other one and is worth about three tenths in qualifying but if it separates then you're in trouble. It's a similar situation to what happened to Mercedes at the first couple of races -- you get an environmental change by the wind or something, or you get some tyre rubber on it and it gives up. We'll get on top of it very quickly but it was too risky to take it into the race weekend because obviously it's only worth that step in qualifying and in the race it's not worth anything but it's a little bit more of an overtaking tool. I think we can fix it for Barcelona.

Q: Rubens said that from a selfish perspective he was looking forward to you being able to develop the car through to the end of the year without having to worry about 2012. Do you feel the same?

That's true but right now I am doing 2012/13 because the structure hasn't changed yet until new engineers start. Naturally I want to focus on this year's car because it's the most important one for me. And I guess anyone new who comes in won't want to focus on this car and will want to focus on 2012, so it's quite a good fit when it happens.

Q: Was resigning a decision taken with a heavy heart or did you have frustrations?

I thought that if the board of the company wanted to review the technical group, it was wholly correct that I should be part of that because I employed the engineers at Williams that were part of the review and I was not prepared to exclude myself. If there are going to be changes it was quite straightforward for me to take responsibility for the car -- that's my job. That was pretty straightforward. You do the emotional bit, deal with it and crack on.

Q: Drivers like Rubens and Mark Webber have commented that you were overloaded by not having the support below you to do the job properly. Do you feel that and what needs to change so that your successor doesn't suffer the same fate?

To be honest I think that's more of a question for Williams rather than me, in terms of what they are doing and how they are structuring. I don't have any part in that at this point. My involvement, purely at the beginning, was helping Adam (Parr) identify some key people, get contacts and things like that, then I had to step back because of a conflict or interests.

Q: But do you feel you've been overloaded?

All F1 teams are structured differently and it's clear you can't run one like you did 20 years ago and in 20 years time you won't be able to run it like it is now. I guess it's a subjective view to say that. I don't really know what to base it on. Ultimately you have the job that you've got and the people around you, and you make the most of them.

Q: You seem really immersed in F1 and to love it. Do we presume you'll keep going in F1 and not return to Australia for example?

Oh no, you can have no doubt about that. I'll be in F1 next year.

Q: You said before you didn't expect to be at Williams 11 years and although this situation might not have been planned, is it a good thing to go and do something different, like Ross (Brawn) did after 10 years at Ferrari?

I guess so. But I guess Ross had better closure than me because of all the races that he won! If things had been more successful then I probably would have seen myself staying at Williams but having now gone through this process I'm not actually sure that it's not a good thing for both myself and Williams. Not being Williams specific and going back to the example with Ross, sometimes it can rejuvenate both the company and the people, so it's not always negative. The biggest thing when you have change is to make sure you go to things that are better.

Q: So do you have some idea where your next move might be?

No. I'm not going down that route. All I'm thinking about is FW33.

Q: Are you going to be wearing red or silver?

What, underpants?

Q: Without going into detail, do you have a gardening leave situation after December or could you go somewhere fairly quickly?

I have a contract until 31st December and then I have the two month restrictive covenant, which means that I can't work for another team until March 1, but that's fairly standard with most team senior personnel contracts.

Q: So you couldn't get involved with someone's 2012 car?

Not until March 1, no way.

Q: Is it not possible that if you are going elsewhere Williams won't want you hanging around learning about their 2012 situation?

That's quite possible but that's their decision, not mine. The most important thing for me is that I leave professionally and respectfully because that's what you live with for the rest of your life. You remember these times and think, how did I deal with things when they weren't going well. It's very easy to lose your temper or say something silly but you'll always look back on it and regret it and it's just not worth it. You'll get much more out of life if you don't do that.

Q: Were you involved in any consultation process about Mike Coughlan?

No, that's got nothing to do with me.

Q: Would you expect to continue in a similar role in F1, would that be the ideal?

I really can't talk about it.

Q: Rubens was pointing the finger pretty much at the wind tunnel and aero programme. Is it difficult to get good young aero people? Or is it your tunnel?

I think the tunnel to the track results are pretty good. What Rubens is talking about is the diffuser that we took to Shanghai. We had a degradation in performance with that but it wasn't really based on what the tunnel said. The numbers were quite strong on that. It degraded because it burnt the floor. But in terms of correlation the last issues we had were probably about 12 months ago when we brought some front wing parts to Shanghai in 2010. Since then the correlation between track and CFD and tunnel has been pretty strong. Correlation is one of those things that's ongoing and keeps changing with new tyres and all the things which affect wakes and principal flow structures. But even evidenced by this weekend - the front wings work, the rear brake ducts work, the rear wing did what it was meant to do and was on the limit just as the tunnel said it would be. I think Rubens was disappointed about the floor not working at the last race.

Q: Do you think the resource, funding and infrastructure are there for Williams to get back to its glory days?

Absolutely. We have a good tunnel, good CFD, good production facilities, there's nothing plantwise that Williams doesn't have and I think if you look at the aerodynamic staff that we've got, there's some very good aerodynamicists from top to bottom. They've come up with a lot of good concepts. If you look over the last two seasons at the significant new concepts on the cars, such as double diffusers, F-ducts, the final drive, the Toro Rosso double floor, and exhaust blown diffuser that Red Bull came up with, out of those new concepts Williams has come up with two of them, Red Bull with two, McLaren has come up with one and Renault has come up with one, the full blown exhaust. That tells you that the conceptual ability -- and by that I don't mean seeing something on another car, but growing it in-house - is there. There's some examples and the exhaust blown diffuser is a very good one: Red Bull came out with that for the first race last year but we'd had it in our tunnel four month before that. That's our own fault for not being able to mechanically get it to the track but the idea was in the tunnel. It was a practical matter of exhaust systems and burning and all of that. That means that as a team we're not good enough because Red Bull did get it and we didn't, but it doesn't mean that we didn't conceptually think of it. F-duct, for example, we didn't think of at all and neither did anyone else except for McLaren. But then McLaren didn't pick up double diffuser and Red Bull didn't think of F-duct or double diffuser. So if you sit and look at the top five big concepts over the last two years, Williams has thought of two of them, which is a pretty good hit rate because it's the same as Red Bull. I don't mean little tweaks to wing end plates or barge boards, that's what you call normal iterative development, I mean concepts where you take a step change. That, to me, is how you judge your creative ability inside the company. Any if you have that, then you have to look and say how do you get the product to the track?

Q: So there's a problem at Ferrari?

I'm not even going to say 'no comment!' Because you'll turn that into something else...

Q: So the Williams problem is elsewhere if you couldn't accelerate those programmes?

In some cases that's true, but double diffuser it wasn't.

Q: By staying to the end of the year are you making yourself less attractive to other teams?

I don't have a choice because I have a contract but I don't think that matters. That's life. Formula 1 now is about growing teams and building people and getting them to work together and especially because 2011-2012 there's no big rule changes and so to be honest anything I learn here helps Williams but it also helps me because it's all going to work on another car for 2012. In a way it's the best time for it to happen.

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