Matters of Moment, August 2013

He won as many World Championship Grands Prix as the great Alberto Ascari, and is only one short of Jack Brabham, Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi. Behind him on the list are Mario Andretti, Carlos Reutemann and Alan Jones, while contemporaries such as Jacques Villeneuve, Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa and Mark Webber also lag in his wake. And yet David Coulthard always makes a point of playing down his abilities as an F1 driver. He does himself a disservice.

Our cover star, who shows his historical chops this month in an enthusiastic test drive of a Jim Clark Lotus 25, raced a string of competitive Adrian Newey cars at Williams, McLaren and Red Bull, and was usually kept in the long shadows of Mika Flakkinen and Michael Schumacher during his prime. But like Jose Froilan Gonzalez, whose death we mark in this issue, Coulthard was one of those ‘on his day’ drivers: he could be unbeatable when his stars were aligned. Nowhere near consistent enough to become world champion, but those 13 GP victories included all the blue riband circuits: Monaco (twice), Silverstone (twice), Monza and Spa.

For those young enough not to remember, he was better than he lets on.

There were times late in his career at Red Bull where he would sometimes appear uncharacteristically tetchy, as if he’d lost patience with the out-of-cockpit demands of being a Grand Prix driver. After 15 years under the intense spotlight, who could blame him? But today, four and a half years after his retirement from F1 and fully immersed in life as a broadcaster of growing stature, Coulthard finds it easy to reflect on his racing career with an honesty that, for his breed, is disarming. He joined us a couple of days after the Canadian GP to record our latest website podcast and offered some fascinating audio snapshots.

As Mark Webber can attest, team orders remain a point of contention in 2013 and it’s a subject David knows all too well from his own career. During his McLaren days, he was instructed to give up two GP victories and in consecutive races: the last of 1997 at Jerez and the first of ’98 in Melbourne. He talked about both, the Spanish story in particular pricking our ears.

As a backdrop to the Villeneuve/Schumacher title decider at the GP of Europe, Frank Williams and Ron Dennis cut a deal. “I knew nothing about it,” DC says. “We now know there was an arrangement that, as Ron hadn’t won a race for a while, he’d said to Frank ‘If we help you, can you help us?’ Frank must have said ‘Right, thank you’.”

After Schumacher’s failed attempt to barge Villeneuve out of the race and the championship, Jacques stuck by the deal and allowed the McLarens to pass, third place being enough to secure his title.

The FIA later investigated a possible case of collusion between two teams to fix the result of the race, but found no cause to take action.

As for Coulthard, running ahead of Hakkinen, he was about to get a nasty surprise. “Late in the race I get a call from [team manager] Dave Ryan,” he says, “telling me I should let Mika through I immediately said, ‘I don’t see why I should’. They worked on the basis that I was running behind Mika before the first stop and then in front of him after the stop. I have never looked at it closely enough to know if this is factually correct or not, but Ron told me pitting Mika had compromised him and that’s how I got in front.

“I argued for about 20 laps until I was told that I was compromising my position in the team. I translated that as ‘you will get fired if you don’t take the instruction’. So I moved over and Mika won the race.

“I had an American girlfriend at the time who had a great gift for one-liners. She went up to Ron and said, ‘You’re a f****** asshole’. I thought, ‘Oh well, I’m really fired now’. He didn’t argue, so I thought he must agree!

“That night we had a party. When Mika got up to say a few words — literally, and they didn’t make any sense! — I pulled out a tape and said, ‘If anyone would like to listen to the full and unedited version of what was said on the radio…’ Obviously I was doing it jokingly, because it was a blank, but Ron was saying ‘Get that tape off him!’— because they used to record the pit wall. I daresay that tapes from that particular race were burned…”

As you’ll hear if you download and listen, David clearly made peace with his team-orders frustrations years ago. Others might have been tempted to claim such stories defined their destinies, but Coulthard treats us — and himself — with more respect.

“Those races represented a period that gave Mika some momentum,” he says, “but the bottom line is Mika was very quick over a single lap and I didn’t have that consistency in my career.

“Personally, I don’t think it was the trigger between me having multiple championships or not.

“Mika was destined at the right time to be the guy in the team, in the way Fernando [Alonso] is just a bit quicker than Felipe [Massa].”

His verdict? There was no way he could have admitted it at the time, but: “Mika was the more complete driver.”

Eloquence, honesty, perspective — and a track record most would covet. No wonder the BBC loves him. Add to this a genuine appreciation of Jim Clark and motor racing history, and there can only be one conclusion: David Coulthard is a true sportsman of the finest kind.

Damien Smith