For someone who will only just turn 24 on the after the Brazilian Grand Prix, David Coulthard is blessed with remarkable sang froid. We caught up with him on the eve of his first full World Championship season
There were few moments of levity in international motor racing last year. If you looked hard enough, you could find oases of good news, but generally even the bright points tended to be hidden beneath a blanket of tabloid sensationalism.
Example: David Coulthard is selected by Williams to take over from the late Ayrton Senna… and certain elements of the British national press focus less on the fact that we might just have a future world champion on our hands than they do on the possibility of a spat between Coulthard and team-mate Damon Hill.
The Scot simply smiles resignedly when the subiect is raised. “There was a lot made of that last year. Obviously, there were a couple of races when we had disagreements, Canada and Spa. But we were both under a lot of pressure, and in those circumstances it was perhaps inevitable. Damon was under pressure to establish himself as number one in the team, and as a valid championship contender. I was trying to prove exactly what I could do, that I could stay in Formula One.
“We both had very separate interests, as well as doing a job for the team. It was something that was all done and dusted at the time. We sorted it all out back then, even though talk about it has lingered.
“This year, I think we’ll make a strong pairing. I was quicker than him in some races last year, he was quicker than me in others. Surely I can’t be any worse than I was last year? I can only get better.”
There are some who confuse Coulthard’s cheerful confidence with arrogance. To do so is to err. He is simply an articulate young man who is acutely aware of his own abilities. He doesn’t force it down your throat; he just discusses it matter-of-factly.
That his life should have turned around completely in the past 10 months, for instance, does not strike him as being all that unusual in the overall scheme of things.
“The fact is that that I’ve always believed, and it’s an easy thing to say once you get there, that I’d get to Formula One somehow. Even when it got difficult, when I was struggling to find Formula 3000 budgets for Pacific and Vortex, all that sort of thing. Ill had done a full year of F3000 with Vortex, then I’d probably have spent the winter talking to teams outside the top 10 qualifiers, maybe even outside the top 15, to race in F1 this year, and I’d be convincing myself that I’d be able to move up until I was in a position within the top four. That’s the sort of conviction you’ve got to have.
“The bottom line is that you see the likes of Christian Fittipaldi going off to do Indycars, and the top four guys from F3000 last season haven’t got F1 race deals… you see things like that and then you think, ‘I have been almightily fortunate that I’ve got my opportunity with Williams.'”
Let’s recap. Coulthard monopolised junior Formula Ford racing in 1989; showed promise in Formula Vauxhall Lotus the following year, though his season was interrupted when he broke a leg at Spa; he was narrowly pipped to the 1991 British F3 title by Rubens Barrichello; and then came two encouraging seasons of F3000. He won one race for Pacific in 1993, and remained in contention for the title until the final race.
By April 1994, however, he was facing the prospect that he wouldn’t be racing at all during the season. An F1 test deal with Williams softened the blow, of course, but, as he said at the time, “Above all I want to be racing, and frankly I can’t see how that’s going to happen.”
In the end, a private investor offered backing to Vortex Motorsport, conditional upon Coulthard driving its car. It was a last-minute reprieve, and in the opening race at Silverstone, on the afternoon following Senna’s fatal accident, he finished second.
Not long afterwards he received a call from Frank Williams…
The next test he attended, at Jerez, was not just a part of his contracted workload. For one thing, he had to miss an F3000 race. Compromising his F3000 title hopes was deemed to be worth it, on this occasion. His performance at the southern Spanish track would gauge whether or not the team felt he was ready for his Formula One race debut.
A week later, Coulthard lined up ninth for the Spanish Grand Prix, worked his way into sixth place on the opening lap and, but for an electronic malfunction which brought him to a premature halt, he would most likely have finished third.
The often insular world of Formula One, unsure quite what to expect from the Scot, took notice. David, as is his wont, took it all in his stride.
“It’s difficult to talk about my performances, really. If you say, ‘I expected that’, you sound kind of arrogant. I’m a confident person when I’m in the car, when I’m out there racing. I’m not fazed by the fact that it’s Formula One, or that there are a lot of famous and talented drivers there. They’re only human beings, like me. We’re all just trying to do the same thing. So it didn’t surprise me. A race is a race, it was just I was in a different car and it was a more competitive environment.”
There could have been podium finishes at Monza, where he ran out of fuel within sight of the flag, and Hungary, where he crashed. In the end, he enjoyed only a solitary champagne ceremony, in his final scheduled race at Estoril. Thereafter, he had to sit and watch Nigel Mansell drive ‘his’ car, the consequence of a deal that had been struck before it came apparent just how useful an ally Coulthard was going to prove to Williams and Renault.
So did watching Mansell win the Australian GP cause him any remorse?
“Not at all. What’s for you won’t go by you. That wasn’t my race, wasn’t my car. I’m not a person who sits around going, ‘If this, if that… It’s a waste of energy. It was fantastic for the team. We won the constructors’ title. I was a part of that. It was very satisfying. I’m a Nigel Mansell fan, and have been since I was a young boy racing karts.
“I just think it’s the most amazing story that he’s back and he’s able to win Grands Prix. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to, but it’s just an amazing story. F1, lndycars, and here he is back in F1 again. It was as interesting for me to watch that as it was for the rest of the world.”
During the winter, of course, Coulthard found himself at the centre of another media speculationfest. Would he be preferred to Mansell as Williams sought a team-mate for Hill? Had he really signed a contract with McLaren?
The machinations are something he prefers not to discuss. The fact that the Contract Recognition Board had to convene to decide whether McLaren or Williams had first call on his services was evidence that he had signed something with Ron Dennis, although the precise details will perhaps never be known. In the end, the CRB found in Williams’s favour, and despite talk that the Didcot team would subsequently ‘sell’ him on to McLaren, it wasn’t long before he had been confirmed as Hill’s future teammate.
“I never really doubted that I’d be able to get a drive somewhere. I was in a fairly good position in that I had reasonably good results in the races I finished. I knew fairly early on that Frank wanted me, but then there was all the business with the Contract Recognition Board. When the whole thing was finally sorted out and I knew that I’d got the drive, it was very satisfying, but the whole thing had taken so long that there was also a mixture of relief and fatigue. The first thing I did was to go back to Scotland to relax.”
While Coulthard’s ability as a racer has never been in question, he was noted in junior formulae for his capacity to win races from what, on paper, appeared to be unpromising grid positions.
“No, I don’t agree,” he chuckles. “The best place to start any race is from fifth on the grid… Actually, it is the weak link in my race weekend, the strong point being, I think, my racing ability. I can’t put a finger on it. If I could, I’d solve it. Qualifying is not something which I find impossible to do, but by my make-up, the way I set up cars, I’m always thinking ahead, thinking about the car doing 20 or 30 laps rather than just the one. I’ve always been a racer, so you always tend to think about the race above all else. I think that’s just the way my mind works. I need to try and find a balance between the two, and I think that’s possible. You’ve got to crawl before you can walk, and I haven’t really rushed into these things. I didn’t qualify in karts, and I’ve had how many races in cars? It seems like a lot, but it’s probably not that many, really. It’s something that I’m sure will improve.”
The new generation of cars, he reckons, will be more user-friendly in a racing situation, which should suit him. Testing the new WIhams FW17, he has been matching his teammate’s times, give or take a few hundredths.
“I’d like to think I can win a Grand Prix this year. That’s really my aim, plus of course to score points in as many races as possible. I’ve just got to play it by car. I’m the least experienced guy in the top four teams. I just want to go out and find out what I’m capable of doing.”
He may be moving in similar circles to those he inhabited 12 months ago. It’s just that his priorities have changed, somewhat.