Equipped with a degree in mechanical engineering from Brunel University, he entered the world of motorsport with Tiga Race Cars – a British racing car constructor – founded by former F1 drivers Tim Schenken and Howden Ganley – who competed in various junior Formulae in the 70s & 80s.
Coughlan made the step up to Formula 1 with Lotus in 1984 aged 25.
There he remained until 1990 when he left to join Benetton as design lead and race engineer for Nelson Piquet. A short spell at Tyrrell followed before he joined John Barnard’s design company, where he was instrumental in the design and build of chassis for Benetton, Ferrari and Arrows.
When Barnard parted company with Arrows in 1998, Coughlan remained with the F1 team, being promoted to Technical Director for 1999. He stuck with Arrows until their collapse in 2002, whereupon he joined McLaren.
Whilst at McLaren, Coughlan was implicated in the ‘Spygate’ scandal whereby he was found to have colluded with Nigel Stepney of Ferrari to have obtained confidential documentation relating to that year’s Ferrari car.
(Incidentally they were rumbled when Coughlan’s wife took the 780 page dossier to a local photocopying shop where an employee spotted the clearly confidential documents and reported it to Maranello. Oops!)
Ahead of his court case, Coughlan struck a deal with Ferrari to drop the case in return for full disclosure of everything he knew on the matter.
McLaren insisted Coughlan worked alone and that nobody else in the organisation had access to the dossier, but when a disgruntled Fernando Alonso threatened to send emails that proved otherwise to the FIA, Ron Dennis had no alternative but to concede that his initial claim that Coughlan worked alone was not the case and McLaren were hit with a $100m fine and excluded from the 2008 World Championship (their drivers were not).
Coughlin was out of a job, and out of pocket to the tune of 180,000 Euros, but escaped a ban from Formula 1, allowing him to join the doomed Stefan GP project in 2009.
After the demise of Stefan GP he pursued activities away from Formula 1 until in 2011 Coughlin returned with Williams as chief engineer.
Williams’ first win in eight years followed in 2012, however, Coughlan’s inability to master the must have technical development of 2013 – the blown diffuser – for Williams’ FW35 left the team languishing in 9th position in the championship, and Coughlan was replaced mid-season by Pat Symonds – himself no stranger to F1 scandal.
This time Coughlan would not return to Formula 1, and instead joined NASCAR with Richard Childress Racing.