Let’s deal with the statistics first. David Coulthard’s 13 Formula 1 victories never won him the world title, but he was runner-up in 2001, and took third place in the table no fewer than four times. In his 247 Grands Prix he finished on the podium 62 times — a remarkable hit rate of 25 per cent. And, until the new scoring system came in last season, his career total of 535 championship points was more than any other British driver in F1 history.
But mere figures paint an inadequate picture of the intelligent, thoughtful racing driver known to everybody in the sport as DC. Since 1995 he has lived in Monaco — his long career in modern F1 has put him well into the multi-millionaire bracket — and for 10 years one of his business interests was a hotel chain which included the posh Hotel Columbus in Monte Carlo. He sold it last year but still uses it for meetings, and that’s where we sit down to a healthy lunch of pumpkin soup, sea bass with plenty of spinach and green beans, and mineral water.
He’s 40 now, still wiry and slender, still lantern-jawed. “When I was in F1 I would do cardio every morning, cycling hard around the mountains, then in the afternoon a couple of hours in the gym, mixed with swimming in the sea in the summer and skiing in the winter, based at my chalet in Switzerland. Today I still train, but it has to fit in around everything else. In fact I’m lighter than I was — F1 neck muscles weigh heavy — but I’m racing in DTM now, and those cars are hard work. The cockpit heat is high, and you lose a lot of fluid in the car.”
David admits that as a karting youngster he became obsessed by his weight, getting on the scales several times a day and swimming or skipping for an hour to burn off every increase, even making himself vomit if he thought he’d eaten too much. His father ran the family transport business from the little Scottish village of Twynholm, near Kirkcudbright, and with an elder brother and a younger sister he had a happy middle-class childhood. He was karting seriously by the age of 11, and success came quickly, with three Scottish Junior titles and then a punishing schedule all over the British Isles: leave school on Friday afternoon, into the motorhome with his parents and helpers, drive all night, a hard weekend’s racing at one of the circuits down in England, back up the M6 during Sunday night and back at school on Monday morning. Monday evening clean out the motorhome, Tuesday evening strip and clean the kart, Wednesday evening clean the helmet and leathers, Thursday evening pack up the motorhome again in time to hit the road on Friday evening. It left no time for kicking a football around with his mates and all the other things normal kids do.
“But I never felt I was missing out on anything. It gave me something extra, a discipline at an early age, a focus. I spent hours ensuring my kart and turnout were spotlessly clean, and I kept a notebook in which I recorded every race I did, giving myself marks out of 10. I never gave myself a 10, even if I’d won all my races that weekend, because in my mind I felt I’d made a small mistake or missed an opportunity somewhere. I always thought I could have done better. I suppose it showed I had the right make-up. There were probably better drivers than me, but driving is only one element. There’s also preparation, determination, resilience — the ability to pick yourself up when things go against you. I was learning all those lessons. Crucial in this was Dave Boyce, who tuned my karts, but also gave me a lot of guidance. He’s a legendary figure in karting: he looked after Allan McNish before me, and now he’s helping young Harry Newey, Adrian’s son.”
As David progressed up the karting ladder he raced all over Europe, and even in Australia. “When my father said it was time to move up to Formula Ford I was reluctant. I was comfortable in the karting environment, and I needed to be pushed into the next one. At first FFs seemed soggy and imprecise after karts, but in the end I really enjoyed it. Like Allan McNish before me and Dario Franchitti after me, I came under the wing of the Leslies, father David and son David. It was a wonderful way to take my first steps into the world of car racing. I’d travel to their base in Carlisle, work on my car, go testing with them. Father David was a man of few words, but what he did say meant a lot. Son David’s death in 2008 in that tragic air crash with Richard Lloyd was just a dreadful, dreadful thing.”
David’s first car season was pretty sensational. As well as having the most highly polished car and the shiniest helmet on the grid, he scored 22 wins out of 28 starts, winning both the Star of Tomorrow and P&O Ferries titles, and then scooping the first McLaren/Autosport Young Driver award. He was still only 18. “That first year the Autosport Award wasn’t a proper shoot-out, it was just decided by a judging panel, and if I’d had six or seven other young drivers to compete against it might have been a different story. I was still a naive lad from a Scottish village, very shy, very green. The first time I took a flight alone, from Glasgow to London, I came down the escalator at Heathrow in my little sports jacket and tie thinking, what is this big scary world? Some 18-year-olds are street-smart, they’ve been ducking and diving for years, but that wasn’t me. I took time to adapt.
“Then Jackie Stewart phoned up with an offer to join Paul Stewart Racing. Jackie was tremendously helpful to me, and he, Helen, Paul, Mark, they’re all close friends to this day. But I didn’t have a good first year with PSR. I was in Formula Vauxhall Lotus, and I lacked maturity and experience: I no longer had my family around me, plus I had a very smart team-mate in Gil de Ferran. At Spa I got nudged into the barrier and was hit by another car, which broke my leg. That’s the only time I ever missed races because of injury. When they cut off my overalls in the medical centre, with Jackie and my parents looking on, my lucky underpants were exposed to view, which was hugely embarrassing. I’m not particularly superstitious, but since my karting days whenever I won I seemed to be wearing a particular pair of pants. So I’d taken to wearing them for every race. By now they were full of holes, and no longer doing the job underpants are meant to do. After that I stopped wearing my lucky pants, but I have to admit I continued to take them to every race, in a little black bag along with a four-leaf clover somebody gave me, and a gold coin. Years later, when I was at McLaren, somebody was getting my stuff together for me, discovered the pants and threw them away. Just as well, probably.
“In 1991 I was doing F3 for PSR and battled with Rubens Barrichello for the championship. In the final round I tried a half-hearted move on Hideki Noda and he turned in and bent my front wing, and I lost the championship on that. It was silly, because I could have passed him later. But I won more races than Rubens, including the F3 Masters at Zandvoort and Macau, which meant a lot on that round-the-houses circuit against really international opposition.
“My year in Formula 3000 with PSR, 1992, was terrible. We tested well all winter, but in the races our Judd engines never seemed very strong, and the results weren’t there. PSR wanted over £500,000 for 1993, and there was no way I could raise that, so I went to Pacific, a much lower-budget set-up. I had to go round borrowing bits from Reynard and Cosworth. I was still shy and no way was I a hustler, so that was difficult for me. But I won at Enna, and going into the last round I was in the running for the title. But the throttle pedal broke on the first lap. That left me third in the championship.
“Also in 1993, I got a last-minute call from Tom Walkinshaw to do the Le Mans 24 Hours in one of his Jaguar XJ220s, with David Brabham and John Nielsen. During a pitstop the car fell off its jack onto David’s foot, so it was down to John and me to do the rest of the race. I was used to driving flat-out everywhere, but we had to hold to a set lap time to conserve fuel, plus we had a gearbox problem. I found it quite boring, because I was too young to appreciate the opportunity and the history of it all. But we won the GT class and had the podium thing, with the crowds and the British flags waving for Jaguar. So I always say I won Le Mans, and only if you push me do I admit it wasn’t an overall win! We were disqualified a week later anyway, because Tom had left the catalytic converter off the car. But I’ve still got the trophy.
“By now I was doing F1 testing for Williams, working with the driver I’d always admired most, Alain Prost. That winter I tested with Williams’ new signing, Ayrton Senna, and later with Nigel Mansell. I had so much respect for those guys, it was a case of ‘speak when you’re spoken to’, but it was fascinating to watch how they worked. Prost would be out of the car after every run, having an espresso and talking to the engineers. Nigel was all about setting a time and then heading for the golf course. Ayrton wanted to get into absolutely everything, every smallest detail. Our first test together he did a couple of days and I was told to turn up for the third day. When I got there early he was already there, so I thought he’d decided to do the third day after all. But he just wanted to listen to what I thought of the car, to know if my impressions accorded with his. I was going to be testing a lot of elements with the car, and he wanted to know whether he could trust my judgement. Once he felt comfortable with that, he left.
“My time with Williams taught me how to approach testing for the rest of my career. In those days we did massive amounts of testing and, whenever there was a test, I wanted to be in the car. For two reasons: I wanted to influence its development myself, and I wanted to stop somebody else getting in and showing potential.
“For 1994 my F3000 ride was with Vortex, run by Ronnie Meadows: he’s team manager at Mercedes F1 these days. By now I had no money left. The first round was at Silverstone on May Bank Holiday Monday, and I qualified third and finished second. But we had no budget for round two, so my season would have run into the sand after that. But that weekend Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola, and the world changed.
“By now I’d done a lot of testing with Williams, I was familiar with the car and the team. I’d done it for nothing in 1993, and in ’94 they were paying me £20,000. At Monaco, two weeks after Ayrton’s death, they ran a single car for Damon [Hill] and then they summoned me to Jerez for a test. The press were touting Patrese, Barrichello, Comas, even Johnny Herbert for the drive, and I turned up at Jerez expecting lots of them to be there. But it was only Damon and me. And, just as Frank Williams arrived, I crashed the car. There was a silly little tyre chicane where Martin Donnelly had his accident, and I clipped it, spun into the gravel and damaged the rear wing. That’s blown that, I thought. But back in the garage Frank said, ‘I’m not going to hold that against you. I’m here to tell you you’re driving for us in Barcelona next weekend.’ The deal was on a race-by-race basis shared with Nigel Mansell, who had an Indy contract. I was paid £5000 per race — not what you’d expect to get as a Grand Prix driver, but of course I didn’t care about that. I was just delighted to have the drive. I learned later from Julian Jakobi, Ayrton’s manager, that Ayrton told Frank and Patrick [Head] he liked what he’d seen of me as a test driver, and said, ‘This guy needs an opportunity.’
All my testing had been in the ’93 car, and in Barcelona there was a drivers’ strike and Friday practice didn’t happen. So qualifying was my first run in the FW16, and it certainly felt more difficult to drive. I qualified ninth, and I was running sixth when an electronics problem put me out. In Canada I finished fifth: I got terrible cramp in my back and lost all feeling in my right foot, so I wasn’t very strong there. Mansell was in the car for France, and at Silverstone I finished the race stuck in sixth gear, but got in the points again. During that race my radio crackled into life: ‘Dave?’ Yes?’ I shouted, waiting for a key piece of strategic info from the pitwall. ‘Dave, can you do a 2.30 pick-up at Towcester?’ Somehow a local mini-cab firm’s radio had got onto the Williams frequency…
“By the time we got to Monza, my seventh race, I was starting to go well. I wanted to secure my place in the team, Damon wanted to win the championship, so our approaches were different. He must have been under immense psychological pressure: he was 10 years older than me, a family man, he’d been number two to Prost, number two to Senna, he’d seen his team leader killed, and now here was a young team-mate showing no respect. Well, not that, because I like to think I showed respect to all my team-mates, but a young team-mate on a different agenda. My engineer, whom I’d inherited from Senna, was David Brown, who’d engineered Mansell and Prost to title wins. When I arrived at Monza I was told that my engineer was now John Russell, because Damon had insisted that, as number one driver, he should have the number one engineer. It wasn’t a problem for me, because John was also an excellent engineer. Anyway, at Monza I was leading after the mid-race pitstops and I got the call on the radio to move over for Damon. I didn’t think he was close enough, but of course he was challenging Michael Schumacher for the title — Schumacher was serving a two-race ban at that point — so I did as I was told. Then my car ran out of fuel in the Parabolica on the last lap.
“I was second to Damon in Portugal, having led, and then for the last three races Mansell came back. I was in the TV commentary box at Jerez when he spun, and [BBC director] Mark Wilkin tells the story that when I saw him in the gravel I found it hard to contain my delight.”
That October, as David was negotiating a two-year deal with Williams for 1995/6, Ron Dennis made a determined approach to get him to McLaren. Then, just as the Williams contract was about to be signed, Frank Williams reduced his offer to one year. Disappointed, David signed a letter of intent with McLaren, and Frank referred the matter to the Contracts Recognition Board in Geneva. The upshot was that David remained with Williams for 1995, on a retainer of £500,000, but committed to McLaren for 1996/7 at roughly four times as much per year. “My racing career up to that point had saddled me with about £300,000 of personal debt, and my father’s overdraft with his local branch of the Bank of Scotland had to be cleared. I really needed to get things balanced out.” At this point he decided to move from a shared house in Chiswick to become a Monaco resident.
The 1995 season, David’s only full year with Williams, brought him his first victory at Estoril — with pole and fastest lap — plus seven podiums. “I felt I fitted in well there. Frank is a remarkable individual. I never knew him before his accident, but the way he leads the organisation, makes the decisions that he does, his focus and clarity of thought, is extraordinary. I always found him straightforward to deal with, and I had enormous respect for him. His sense of humour can be disconcerting: he said to me once, pointing to his feet, ‘You as a Scotsman will appreciate this. I’ve made this pair of shoes last me 15 years.’ It amused him that I looked shocked when he said that. And Patrick I loved working with, because he has so much energy and enthusiasm. With Patrick there’s no such thing as a discreet conversation. He’d come up and boom: ‘Keep this to yourself, David,’ and his voice would carry through office doors or across the garage.”
So for 1996 David found himself in the very different atmosphere of McLaren, where he was to remain for nine seasons. For six of them his team mate was Mika Hakkinen. When David arrived Mika, after five years in F1, had yet to win a Grand Prix, and was just recovering from his dreadful accident in Adelaide. “There’s no question that Mika was the favoured son at McLaren. Ron Dennis is an honourable man and utterly loyal, to his team and to the people in his organisation. But I think he’s better at the honeymoon than the marriage. Within a team you can give both your drivers equal equipment in every way, but if one is given a little bit more psychological support it does make a difference. I’m only human, and it did erode my selfconfidence. You need to be in an environment that allows you to perform to your ultimate.
“You could argue that Ron made the right judgement, because Mika won the team two World Championships, and maybe he was less susceptible to variations in performance during a season than I was. But you couldn’t have argued that with me while I was there. After all, it was me that broke McLaren’s long drought. They’d gone 49 Grands Prix without a victory until I won in Melbourne in 1997, and then I won again in Monza. When Mika finally did win in Jerez, it was only because I was told to move over for him, which at the time I was very unhappy about. To be honest, my personal preference would be to drive for a single-car team, so that all the energy within the team can be used positively. Whenever you have a World Championship battle fought out between teammates — like Senna and Prost at McLaren, Mansell and Piquet at Williams — it’s destructive.
“That’s why Fernando Alonso left McLaren at the end of 2007. Some thought he behaved like a spoiled child, but I admire him for having the strength of character to leave. He joined the team believing he’d be the number one and the whole team would be behind him, and suddenly Lewis was the rising star and Fernando felt like a sort of negative distraction.
“As an individual Mika was very clever. He realised early on that the less you say, the less you have to explain afterwards. He would never publicly be involved in any controversy, he kept his thoughts to himself and didn’t expend energy unnecessarily. He was incredibly energyefficient. While we were team-mates it was very much a cool business relationship. We both lived in Monaco, we’d leave at the same time for each GP, get in our separate private aircraft, take off, land within minutes of each other, then go in separate cars to the circuit. It wasn’t because we had a bad relationship, it was just what we did. We had a couple of disagreements down the years which I see as the normal sporting speedbumps that you have, but we never actually fell out. Now we get on really well as neighbours; in fact we share an office down here with [Hakkinen’s long-time manager] Didier Coton, and we do a number of things together.
“Financially I was a lot better off at McLaren than at Williams, of course, but from sitting on the Adelaide front row in November ’95 to 13th on the Melbourne grid in March ’96, that was when the penny dropped that I’d opted for money over performance. There was a lot of unreliability at McLaren then, and I seemed to pick up more of it than Mika.” So David’s first season with Ron’s team was fairly fruitless. But the next year, helped by those wins in Australia and Italy, he was third in the championship, two positions ahead of Mika. By now Adrian Newey had arrived from Williams, and the first McLaren that was entirely his own project, the MP4/13, was devastatingly quick for 1998.
There was more controversy in Melbourne, when three laps from the end David was again ordered to move aside for Mika, who’d lost the lead after mishearing an instruction to pit. “Two races later, in Argentina, I put it on pole, led from the start, and Schumacher got inside me at the hairpin, hit me and spun me round. I have a photograph of the incident on my office wall, and Michael has all four wheels on the grass. I said to him afterwards, ‘You were off the track.’ He said, ‘No I wasn’t.’ He won the race, I got going again and finished sixth.”
Then at Spa, when Schumacher was leading in heavy rain and David was running well down after earlier problems, the Ferrari crashed into the back of the McLaren and tore off a front wheel. “A lot of people still think that was a deliberate attempt by McLaren to finger his race, but we weren’t that devious, or that smart to work out exactly where he was on the track. It was raining hard, visibility was bad, and I knew he was about to lap me, so I moved off-line and lifted off, which was when he hit me. After the race he came storming into my pit, with little Jean Todt and Stefano Domenicali trying to restrain him, shouting, ‘You tried to f***ing kill me!’ It was nonsense, of course, and it’s the only time I can remember Schumacher losing his cool. At Monza two weeks later we shook hands in front of the cameras, and then we talked about it in private. He still said it was my fault, so I remarked, ‘Michael, have you ever been wrong?’ His reply was, ‘Well, not that I remember.”
All of which made David’s win in the French GP in 2000 all the sweeter. “Michael and I were first and second on the grid, and I got away better than him, so he turned across me, chopped me. I had to come right off the throttle.” David recovered, got past Rubens in the other Ferrari and then caught and passed Schumacher to lead. After the stops the Ferrari was back in front, but the McLaren was soon challenging. “I got alongside him at the hairpin and he drove me off the road. I was as angry as I’ve ever been in a racing car. I got alongside him again a few laps later and we banged wheels, but I got the job done. I gave him the finger from the cockpit — which was a bit ridiculous, because he couldn’t see me from where he was sitting, but it made a good photo. Michael was a lot more aggressive than other drivers have been — you could say Senna was cut from the same cloth — but there are rules for a reason and you have to follow them. I’m always getting on my high horse about driving ethics, and there may be times when I’ve done things people don’t agree with. But driving standards, sporting conduct, call it what you will, all that was important to me.
“Actually, I’ve got two of Michael’s helmets. He has a helmet collection, and in 2006 he asked to swap signed helmets with me. And in ’96 at Monaco I had a problem with my visor misting up, and we have the same-sized heads, so he lent me his spare. Look at a picture of me at Monaco that year and you’ll see I’m wearing Schuey’s helmet, with the sponsors’ stickers covered up.
“McLaren were a hugely innovative team. The second brake pedal, for example: it was on the 1998 car and nobody knew about it until a photographer, Darren Heath, popped his camera into the cockpit after Mika had stopped on the circuit and walked away. It allowed you to work one rear brake individually, selecting left or right with a solenoid switch, so in a corner it could help turn the car, the way a tank turns. It was tricky to use, because you had to power through it, accelerate at the same time, otherwise it could flick the car sideways. Mika and I never discussed it, but we ended up using it independently: you could see it on the data. We used it all the time, even coming out of hairpins to control wheelspin. McLaren’s technology and innovative thinking were on another level from Williams.”
David never owned his own aircraft, but during his F1 career he usually travelled by chartered executive jet. On May 2, 2000 he was flying from Farnborough to Nice in an eight-seat Lear 45 with his girlfriend Heidi, his trainer Andy Matthews and Heidi’s Maltese terrier, plus a crew of two pilots. Over France the plane had an engine failure and diverted to Lyon. The emergency landing did not go well and the plane crashed heavily and caught fire. Both pilots were killed. Somehow David, Heidi and Andy escaped the burning wreckage with only minor injuries, and the dog survived too. Two days later David was in Barcelona for the Spanish GP. With broken ribs he qualified fourth, and finished second to Mika — only after being chopped again by Schumacher when he got alongside him on the pit straight. He passed the Ferrari a lap later.
“It sounds silly, but all through my teens I never thought I’d live past 30. I didn’t necessarily think I’d die in a racing car, I just thought something would get me. So when I was sitting in the plane aged 29 and two months and it was going down, I thought, well, there you go. Not until I was in bed in my apartment in Monaco that night did it really hit me. After that dreadful experience I did think, briefly, about reshaping my life altogether, but — and this is where Ron Dennis showed his true colours — he was just fantastic, very protective, very understanding. The next day we went to his house in Mougins, north of Cannes. He had a medical specialist check us over and a physio, and he said it was up to me whether or not I raced in Barcelona. But there was never any doubt in my mind.
“Ron never lets his drivers keep any trophy they win, it’s a contractual obligation that they all go back to McLaren. But after I finished second Heidi said to Ron, ‘You should let David keep that trophy.’ Ron couldn’t bring himself to give it to me, because that would have created a precedent, but he gave it to Heidi, who gave it to me. For all the others I had to get replicas made.”
At the end of 2004, after nine seasons, McLaren replaced David with Juan Pablo Montoya. “At the time I was struggling with one-lap qualifying, and maybe I’d been with the team too long.” But the Columbian’s time with the team lasted only a season and a half before he left Fl for NASCAR. David refers to Montoya as “the chubby little fella” and keeps his affection for him well under control. “As a competitor he wasn’t always respectful of others. But I’m sure he’s a wonderful chap, and that he’ll make lots of money, live his life, be happy and put on more weight…
“When I knew I was out of McLaren I wanted to remain in F1. I felt I had more to offer, but I wasn’t going to stay at any cost. I talked to Frank Williams and Sam Michael, and I was already negotiating with Jaguar when Red Bull took it over. So I met with [Red Bull boss] Dietrich Mateschitz. He told me what he wanted to achieve and what his financial commitment was; I told him where I was at, and how I thought I could help with the team beyond just driving. Then we shook hands. He is a remarkable guy. He delivered on everything he said he would, and I believe I delivered on everything I said I would. I knew Christian Homer from karting — he’d come along a couple of years behind me — and had seen what he’d done with his F3000 team.
“In Red Bull’s first race, Melbourne 2005, I was fourth, and the hug Christian gave me when I got back to the pits — I don’t think I’ve ever been hugged so enthusiastically. In ’06 we had a lot of car problems, particularly with the cooling system, but I got the team its first podium at Monaco. And I got involved in a lot more than just the driving. Adrian Newey was on Christian’s hit list of people he wanted to bring into the team, but as Adrian and I had worked together so much I made the initial contact.
“One race I won’t forget was Fuji 2007. I’d never been frightened in a racing car, but that was scary. You were driving into opaque balls of spray with no way of knowing what was inside. Visibility was zero. The standing water was shocking too, rivers running across the track, and when the race started behind the safety car most of the drivers were of the same mind. We were on our radios saying, ‘You can’t run this.’ Massa and Raikkonen spun on their way to the grid. Alonso, Wurz, Vettel, Webber, Heidfeld, they all went off. I started 18th and finished fourth, which was my best result that season, and I was proud of it. Colin McRae had died two weeks earlier in a helicopter crash with his son Johnny, and the memorial service was that day, so I raced wearing one of his helmets. I got all the Fl drivers to sign it and sent it to [Colin’s wife] Alison as a mark of respect from all of us.”
David’s last F1 podium came in Canada in 2008, and that November in Brazil he raced his 247th and final Grand Prix. “Life as a retired F1 driver is very different. When I was racing, the dishwasher, microwave and oven at home were never used, because I never ate in. Now I have a normal family life. I met Karen [his partner Karen Minier] in 2003 when she was covering Fl for the French TV station TF1, and we got engaged in ’06. At first, because of her 12-year-old daughter’s schooling, she was living in Belgium and I was in Monaco, but now we’re all together down here as a proper family. Our son Dayton Coulthard — he’s DC too! —was born in 2008.1 have various businesses to take care of, including a TV production company with Sunil Patel and Jake Humphrey, which is fun and interesting. But I did find I missed the racing. There was a little void. And now DTM, which I started doing in 2010 for the Macke Motorsport Mercedes team, nicely fills that void. The challenge is learning how to drive those cars, which is a very different technique.
“I had 15 seasons in F1, and it seems to have passed in a blink. Now, when I go back to the same paddocks, the same races, in many ways I don’t remember being an Fl driver, because I’m concentrating on trying to do a good job for television. It’s a completely different set of skills.” But the single-minded focus, the painstaking attention to detail, all that hasn’t changed. He’s in his third season as a BBC TV paddock pundit, and this year he moved up to the box to be Martin Brundle’s co-commentator. He would say his technique is still developing, but most of the Sunday sofa population seem to agree that Martin ‘n David make up a brilliant duo who’ve raised informed race coverage to a new level. The enduring relationship between F1 and DC looks set to last a long time yet.