As to what a Sporting Director does for the team; the Sporting Director operates in the "Race Team" Manager position, whether purely as manager or to include the engineering side also. Their prime duty would appear to be to make the cars and team operate as effectively and efficiently as possible during a race weekend. They are also the guys on the pitwall who have total knowledge of the rules and strategy so they can make authoritative calls in respect of how the team respond to issues that arise throughout the weekend.
Nielsen was Sporting Director at Benetton during Fernando Alonso's term with that team, from where he moved to Renault. His decision to leave may have something to do with the recent appointment of Cyril Abiteboul taking up the position of Team Principal following Tony Fernandes stepping down.
From Sporting Director it might be considered that Team Principal would represent the next logical step on the ladder, given that the Technical Director's position relies on design skills, and Steve Nielsen has operated as Team Manager prior to this at Tyrell in 1995 and at TWR Arrows in 1999.
It will be interesting to see where he is moving to and what position he'll take up with his new team.
Earlier in the week it was announced that Mark Gillan is leaving the position of Chief Operations Engineer with Williams, wishing to spend more time at home. The Chief Operations Engineer role is to collate all of the various different elements of the race operation, from information from the FIA, the race engineers' updates, and from the race strategist. Having all of this information the COE oversees the management of the race strategy and makes any decision to alter the plan as circumstances on-track change. He then instructs the rest of the team on the pitwall who tell the drivers. After each session he leads the debrief and plans the next session.
He is one of the three credited with bringing the race-winning FW34 to the grid last season alongside Mike Coughlan and Jason Somerville. It is anticipated that his loss will be keenly felt at Williams.
And then last week Norbert Haug announced that he would leave Mercedes at the end of this year. He's been the public face of Mercedes F1 since they came back to F1 in 1994 and with his famous early moustache, along with his job title, I used to call him Boss Haug (though I never saw Roscoe, Cletus or Enos hanging around).
He came fully into the limelight when Mercedes bought the Brawn F1 Team and raced in 2010. Their results since then have been mixed with only the one win, last season in Malaysia, and 5 other podiums over the three seasons. Haug stated that he took
responsibility for for not having been successful enough in three years.and on 2012 said:
We were quite OK with our pace in the first third of the season - but then we dropped back. So we need changes, and I fully accept that. We should have done a better job. We changed to the 60 per cent windtunnel in the middle of the year; we suffered a little bit with the RRA and personnel numbers, but I don't want to have any excuses. My job was not good enough. I take full responsibility for that. Even if I don't build the car, I am in charge and if I was responsible for the victory in China, I also have to be responsible for everything else that happened.Apparently he's looking forward to having some time off before deciding what he'll do in the future.
Mercedes took on Niki Lauda in September last as a non-executive chairman. One of the roles associated with that position is to review and evaluate the performance of the CEO and the other board members and, Haug, being Motorsport Director, would have been one of those under scrutiny.
There is a sense of the old-guard being pushed out at Mercedes F1 with Norbert Haug and Michael Schumacher both having succumbed to unseen pressures, but Haug's job is one which Mercedes may struggle to fill given the number of different motorsport commitments which they undertake which include Formula 1, International V8 Supercars Championship in 2013, DTM, and as an F3 engine supplier.
I'm sure any number of rumours will appear online over the coming weeks, with Schumacher and Berger already being mooted along with Niki Lauda himself, but such a specialist slot in the organisation will be hard to fill and harder to keep.