After last year's whitewash of both Championships by Ferrari, few people had any hopes of anyone taking the fight to the red corner this year, and with Williams losing some key personnel, their chances were being written off from the start. When McLaren made the running early this year, with Ferrari and Renault following in their wake, Williams were seen as being adrift in the rough waters of Formula One, with many suggesting that the team would never achieve the heights they've raised in the past. The unexpectedness of their comeback has made it all the more beautiful to watch.
At the same time, the focal point of the team, particularly from a media standpoint, seems to be shifting, with Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head stepping back from the front line, allowing Chief Operations Engineer Sam Michael to speak for the team. For example, he represented Williams at the recent FIA hearing in Paris, where the appeal over Ralf Schumacher's penalty from the German Grand Prix was heard. It was particularly remarkable, given than the hearing was televised for the first time.
"The FIA were very open," Michael commented on the experience in Hungary. "The judges were very passive and allowed everyone to say what they wanted to say and present all the evidence that they wanted to present. It was a good process really."
More importantly, Michael is fast becoming Williams's main man in the circuit - whether it's during a Grand Prix weekend or in testing. In the last few days, Michael oversaw the critical test at Monza, ahead of this week's race. On the first day of testing Williams suffered a setback as Ralf Schumacher's car ran off track at the Lesmo section, somersaulting spectacularly into the Armco and resulting in the driver spending the night in a local hospital. For a lesser team this would have been a huge blow, but Williams was able to salvage the session. "We still completed our planned test schedule," Michael says. "This was helped by doing another half a day on Friday morning. However, it did have an impact as we lost one days testing preparing the spare car."
The tests were even more vital, given the recent controversy surrounding Williams's Michelin tyres. Williams enjoyed an undeniable advantage since the Monaco Grand Prix with no small thanks to the Michelins, so the FIA's new stance on tread width could have been seen to serve a blow to their Championship chances. "No," Michael says. "The morale is high. Michelin's tyres are legal and always have been." In fact, Michael agrees with Renault's technical director, Mike Gascoyne, who announced after last week's test that Michelin's new tyre is in fact an improvement over the previous one. "Mike is correct. The new Michelin front mould profile is faster and more consistent than the old profile. They are a slight improvement. We expect this to be the same at Indy and Suzuka as well," Michael sums it up.
And all this responsibility, all this attention coming from a guy who is only 31 years old.
A Foot in the Formula One Door
Like most people in the Formula One paddock, Michael was a big motor racing fan from a young age, but whereas most start off wanting to be a driver he always knew the engineering side was his calling.
"I think I decided very early on that the chances of me becoming a good driver were quite slim, and I hadn't started driving karts when I was six years old or anything like that, so I didn't have anywhere near the grounding to do that," he explains. "And I didn't come from a motor racing family, so I quickly decided that wasn't what I wanted to do."
Q: Did you always have an interest in engineering?
Michael: "Yeah, always - I was always interested in mechanics and engineering. I've always been interested in motor racing, and at a very early age I was interested in motorcycles, but then from probably the age of about 12 or 13 I was interested in Formula One, and decided that if I wanted to work in Formula One I would need an engineering degree to go and do that, so I went to study mechanical engineering and that was it."
Q: How did you actually get your start in Formula One?
Michael: "I was doing mechanical engineering at Sydney University and I went to the Adelaide Grand Prix in 1992 and 1993, and in 1993 a friend of mine who lives in Sydney, Greg Siddle, knew some people who worked in Formula One. He introduced me to the guys at Lotus, including (then team manager) Peter Collins, and I started working there. Funnily enough, Peter Wright - who is now the FIA technical delegate - was the technical director of Lotus when I started working there."
Q: So you hadn't even finished your degree?
Michael: "No, I just finished - when Adelaide was on I had about three weeks left of my degree, I'd done most of the course work before so I only had about one or two exams to do after that race, because I went away with a racing team so I wasn't just there - I was also working there with a racing team. Not a Formula One team though; an Australian team, a Formula Holden racing team. When I finished my degree I left straight away - I didn't go to my graduation or anything like that next year; I went straight to Europe and started working with Lotus. I only had about five hundred Australian dollars!
"I bought a one way ticket there with Aeroflot, I had to go through Moscow and Bangkok and it took me about two and a half days. When I got there I had about A$150, and that was enough to get me to Norwich, which was where Lotus were. I remember the people who let me stay at their house for about a month without paying rent, because I didn't have any salary for a month, and that was it really."
So at the age of 21, Michael had his foot in the door of Formula One. He joined Lotus as a junior design engineer, splitting his time between vehicle dynamics, design work in research and development, and simulation and data engineering out of the factory for the first six months before moving on to test and racing engineering. At the end of 1994 the Lotus team finally folded under the weight of debt, and Michael hitched his wagon to the up and coming Jordan team in a carry over role from his former team.
In his first year at Jordan, Michael held the role of data engineer, doing simulation programmes as well as working on the racing and testing team. "After about a year and a half I came off the race team and set up research and development, because they didn't have an R&D programme at that stage," he recalls.
"I mean, we did R&D, but we didn't have such a big department that had rigs; we worked on seven post rigs and got all that done there, the power steering system, worked on the active differential, active brake balances. You could do a lot more things back then before they banned them as well. And I did all those type of design projects, commissioned them and signed them off and all the rest of it until about 1997."
The Way to the Top
Michael became Jordan's test engineer in 1997, and by the next year became Ralf Schumacher's race engineer, followed by another couple of seasons as Heinz Harald Frentzen's race engineer. Interestingly, his period as race engineer at Jordan coincided with the team's most successful years to date, and the experience he gained came without the added pressure of being with a top-three team and the scrutiny that comes with that. His experience grew with the success of the team, and the next obvious step was to move to one of the big three so as to push his experience to the next level. When Williams inquired after him in 2000, he leapt at the chance.
"I think at that stage I was looking to go beyond being a race engineer," he says. "Because although I'd been a race engineer for three years, I'd been on the racing team for six or seven years, and although I love racing and testing I thought it was time to take the next step up. And it was a job that Williams offered me; it was a good opportunity to work within the team and with people like Frank and Patrick who have so much experience and knowledge. The amount of things I've learnt was very significant because it's something that you know that it's in your head for the rest of your life, and there's no doubt that it's been the right decision."
Q: And you still think you're learning things?
Michael: "Oh, of course you do. In this game even people who have been in it for thirty years still learn things, because the game changes as well - the cars change, the tyres, the tracks, the regulations. So because it keeps shifting you're always learning something new all the time."
Q: What does the position of Chief Operations Engineer actually mean?
Michael: "I'm responsible for the racing cars at all tests and races, so that means I'm responsible for the preparation of the car at the factory, and making sure all the right parts are on it - I don't mean physically going down, although I do anyway. There are plenty of people that do that job for me - the team manager Dickie Stanford and Carl Gaden, the chief mechanic - and they work to make sure that that's fulfilled.
"But basically my job is to make sure that when we come to the track that the car has a setup on it, that the race engineers are doing the best job they can, they're supported properly with data engineers and equipment that they need, that we've got the right strategy - anything to do with running the cars."
Q: So if there's a mechanical problem or the car stalls on the grid, that would be your problem so to speak?
Michael: "Yeah, it would be in terms of operations of what we do, but I wouldn't go and physically start the car myself - the mechanics would do that for me. So yeah.:"
Q: Is that why we always see Patrick Head yelling at you on television?
Michael smiles. "A lot of time he's not yelling at me, he's yelling to me, if you like; so he's not telling me off, he's just telling me his opinion! But the thing is Patrick's really animated, so sometimes it can look as though he's really angry with you, but he's not really angry with you - he's just trying to tell you something!"
The Best Drivers Pairing
Williams probably have the best driver pairing among the teams in Formula One, and there is no question that Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher are, personality wise, poles apart. But how different are their driving style?
Says Michael: "the driving style and the set up they use are almost identical, to be honest - it's really not that different. Both of the drivers drive the same set up all the time. During the sessions they obviously drive with different things, whatever's on the programme, but inevitably they always come back with the same responses - it's very rare that you have a big difference in the set up between them. Normally the most you'll have is, say, half a millimetre in ride hight between the cars, or at most one spring difference in terms of rear end.
"So the differences are tiny, and that's a pretty significant help because it means you can start with anything that's found on one car and transfer it to the other car - if Juan finds that a particular damper setting is good we know that Ralf will as well, so he just takes it and doesn't have to test it, we can just stick it on the car for the race weekend, and vice versa. It's very helpful in terms of evaluating tyres as well - they both have a similar driving style and they both use their tyres the same and it makes it much easier to make a tyre choice."
Q: That is really surprising - they certainly appear to drive the cars differently. There's a perception that Juan is more aggressive and Ralf is more…
Michael: "Are you sure that you're not subconsciously seeing something because of someone's personality? The way that they analyse the car, and the way they talk about the car is quite different, but the end result of the way they drive and the setups they're on is the same."
Q: Is it something you would see in their telemetry, between their throttle and brake?
Michael: "Yes, exactly - if you compare speed traces and the way they gain and lose, it's why they're always within half a tenth of each other. Unless one of them has a specific problem they're normally very close to one another."
Q: Has it always been that way?
Michael: "More or less, yes; it's always been fairly similar. Maybe not in Juan's first six months in Formula One, because he didn't know anything about the cars and was exploring different things on the cars, but definitely for the last year and a half to two years it's been like that."
Q: When Montoya was in CART he would drive it in a different way, and I remember him stating he adapted his style to Formula One - was it just a case of him looking at what Ralf was doing and copying that?
Michael: "Yes. Ralf was a very good yardstick for him when he first came into Formula One to see what he should do and shouldn't do. The main thing is the cars are very different if you look at the Indy cars and the Formula One cars, and the tyres are significantly different. You can't just jump into that and not make any sort of adjustment time - you have to adjust to that. That's normal I think."
Q: There are certainly days when one or the other is noticeably better on the race track - is that just a matter one having a bad day and the other a good day?
Michael: "Yes - it can come down to them having a bad day, and not getting it together as much as they should. It's not as common as it used to be, though; it's not very common that they have a bad day."
Q: That's when Patrick has a little word with them, I guess?
Michael laughs. "Maybe, yeah!"
Q: You know Ralf better than anyone else in Formula One, but to most people he's a bit of an enigma - certainly he's as good as Montoya, but Montoya is seen as the star.
Michael: "I think that both drivers are very good drivers, and they're very close to each other, but to be honest the difference in their personalities is what comes out in the press more than anything - it's not from them trying anything different really or being different; they're very similar guys. They have very different characters, but they're similar guys when they are driving racing cars.
"On their personal sides and how they are portrayed to the fans and all the rest of it, is less interesting to us, as long as they can get the results - and when their results are that similar it tells you that you have a good package. I don't see Ralf as any less of a racer than Juan or vice versa - they're both very competitive, and want to win as much as the other. If that's portrayed or comes out differently, then that must just come from their personalities, and it's not to do with their racing or their skills in the car."
Q: But if you ask the fans who had the most passing over the year, it's Juan…
Michael: "Yeah sure, maybe you'd have to say Juan is very good at overtaking, but… Look, I don't want to say anything against either of our drivers because they're both committed individuals."
Q: OK, but would you say they compliment each other?
Michael: "Yes they do, yeah - very much so. The two of them do have pluses and minuses, but together they are a very good combination. The best thing about our combination is when they are pushing each other, and that comes from how fast they are - if Juan was in a situation where he was much quicker than his teammate or vice versa, then it becomes too easy for them. It's very good that they're so quick because they're always pushing each other. And if you look at the combinations in Formula One right now they're definitely the best combination for the team, because they are scoring the most Constructors' Championship points out of all of them."
The Importance of Being Champions
Which brings us to the thorny issue of the Championships. It is commonly noted that Williams focuses more on the Constructors' title than the Drivers', and with good reason. "The main thing is that from a financial point of view the Constructors' Championship is very significant," Michael explains. "The prize money that the team receives; your position in the pitlane; the size of the garages; your status in the paddock - and I don't mean from an ego point of view but in terms of the decisions you can make and the input you can make into Formula One. It all comes from the Constructors' Championship, nothing is based on the Driver's Championship.
"This may all sound like small things but inside Formula One it's very important. If you listen to all the teams saying 'oh, we're targeting third in the championship' they're not talking about Drivers', they're talking about the Constructors' - you know, 'we want to be top five in the Constructors' this year'. Your result matters in the Constructors' Championship, whereas in the Drivers' Championship all that matters is the guy that wins. Who cares about the guy who comes second? The world doesn't care, the press doesn't care, and the fans don't care. Whereas in the Constructor's it's different.
But Michael rejects the notion that the Constructors' Championship is all his team cares about.
"I think there's a misconception that we don't care about the Drivers' Championship at all, which is not true," he says. "It just means that the Constructors' is more important to us, that's all. I would say personally that the Constructors' is the most important thing for the team, and the Drivers' second. But it doesn't mean that the Drivers' doesn't count; it's very important to us, and we want to win both Championships - it's very important to us to have a World Champion win in our car."
Q: So what do you do when you get to the situation - and Williams was in that situation in 1986 - when you have two drivers fighting against each other at the top and they are canceling each other out?
Michael: "Then you lose, just like in 1986."
Q: And it's worth it?
Michael: "Yes, because I don't think you can ever underestimate the effect you have inside a team if someone has a priority, particularly if the other driver is as fast as him. If we had a situation where Juan was always half a second faster than Ralf, all the time, and beat him, had more points, more wins, and was always five tenths faster and Ralf never beat him, or vice versa, then it's slightly different.
"But if both of them are equal and you applied some sort of rule or priority to one half… because it's not just the drivers - there's a garage of people in there that work on those cars, and there's engineers and people in the factory that work as hard as they can. And if one half of that garage always knew we're going to play second best then you'd have a very different group of people, and a very different team mentality. Williams have never been like that, and as you can see Williams have won a lot of championships even if they've lost the occasional one, like '86."
Q: You used to work with Barrichello at Jordan. Given what you just said, do you ever feel sorry for the position he's in?
Michael: "No. I like Rubens, and he's a good friend and also a very solid driver, but it's his decision to drive for Ferrari. He loves to drive for Ferrari, and he made that decision. You'd have to say that looking at his performance he's the best teammate Schumacher's ever had in terms of number of wins and his pace and always keeping his head up, and he's done a very good job. I think over the last twelve years he's been Schumacher's most competitive teammate.
"But also it is slightly different because Michael has built that team around him, and you can't forget that Juan and Ralf have come into this team - maybe Ralf to a lesser extent - but Williams have built their own team. Ferrari is built around Michael; when Michael went there they were nothing - well, not nothing but certainly not like they are now. They were qualifying in the top five and winning the odd race once a year or something, but he has turned them into a Championship winning team.
"So it's slightly different - if you look at Rubens it's very difficult for him to ever get into a team that is run by, effectively built by, Michael because they have so much respect for him there. And that's not disrespecting Michael, because the guy has put so much effort into his job that he deserves to be rewarded like that. But here it's a different situation because Juan and Ralf did not build Williams - the team is built by the people that work in the factory."
Q: I think it's every driver's dream to be in the position that Michael is, where he has the team rallying behind him.
Michael: "Yeah, but Michael built it - Michael went to Benetton when they were not winning and he made them win, and then he went to Ferrari and made them win - he didn't walk into Formula One and get these contracts for millions of dollars and number one status - he earnt it. People could see that he was good enough to demand this because he was fast, and he always has been."
Q: Could you ever see a day where a person like Michael comes to Williams and rallies the team around him to that extent?
Michael: "Oh definitely - the start of that happened with Ayrton Senna, didn't it? Senna would be the same type of person as Michael. Yeah, I could see that, but as I said because of the downside of operating like that, with the people in the garage and the engineers and the mechanics, you have to have a significant number of upsides before you do that - which Ferrari do have with Michael, so they can afford to take a penalty in some areas in terms of people's esteem and morale that are always having to give way to someone. And remember it's a lot less so now because of the banning of team orders, so it's a lot less likely that Rubens has to get out of the way for Michael."
From day one it seemed as though there has been a very good fit between Williams and Michael, as though he was created in a factory somewhere for the role of working with the team. He is very much in the mould of the senior staff at the team, and from the outside it seems there's a grooming process in action to push Michael through the ranks and take on more and more responsibility. The two senior men at the team are not getting any younger, and Michael knows he is being crowned as the next Head - by the media at least.
"At the end of the day I enjoy what I'm doing at the moment," he says dryly, "and my job as Chief Operations Engineer does cover quite a wide range of activities, and although Patrick is Technical Director a lot of the jobs that normally a Technical Director would do Patrick leaves in my responsibility, and there's a lot of things obviously that he does that I don't do because that's his role. Patrick's also a shareholder in the company, so whether he's Technical Director or not he still owns quite a lot of the company.
"But I think for the future I'm quite happy doing what I'm doing at the moment, and we'll just have to see what happens down the road - being Patrick's successor is something that I definitely aspire to in the future, but when that happens we'll have to see. I wouldn't say at any point that I would ever be a replacement for Patrick, because that would be quite a big… you know, he's spent a lot of his life developing his character and his knowledge and all the rest of it, so it's probably not right to say that to be honest."
Q: He's got some pretty big shoes to fill, obviously
Michael: "Yeah, and I don't know if you ever do fill them properly, or would ever need to do that - if you look at the way modern Formula One teams are, they're quite different to how they were when Patrick started racing, so the job's changed slightly. If you look at Ferrari and Ross Brawn, who is technical director there, fifty percent of his job is what I do at the track, but he also does things that cross over with what Patrick does in the factory."
Ten years in Formula One can seem like a lifetime - the teams are always working on making the cars faster, and this necessitates a lot of time away from home for those who run the programmes. Michael has two young children (Toni is four, and Jack is two), and for a young man it must be difficult to be away from his family for such long periods.
"It's probably harder for my wife Vanessa, to be honest, because of the fact that I'm not there," he says. "That's one of the penalties that you pay really, not seeing them - I mean I still see them regularly obviously, but four days every two weeks you don't."
Q: You came into Formula One because of your love of racing - what was the last race you sat with a beer or whatever and enjoyed as a fan?
Michael: "Probably the last race I ever watched sitting down with a beer was in 1993 in Adelaide when Senna won, the last race that Senna won."
Q: Are you able during the race to actually watch it and go 'wow, great move' - like we do?
Michael: "You can do to a certain extent, but it depends on the position of your own cars because if you're looking at a lot of things with your cars in relation to data and where they are position-wise to other cars, then you don't have time to actually watch the race as a whole."
Q: So only when they retire, then?
Michael: "Yeah, but even then it's only when they both retire because anything can go wrong - even at the last race in Hockenheim, when Juan was winning by so much, you were still waiting for something to go wrong, because that's what your job is."
Q: Do you still enjoy racing, though?
Michael: "Of course, yeah. This is a hard business, and you have to do a lot of hard work and hours and travel, and it's very demanding on your social and family life, so you have to make sure that you love every bit of it otherwise it's not worth doing it. Really, the day you realize that you don't like racing - you should just stop.
"But I'm nowhere near that day."