The confidence game

Why Jackie Stewart believes David Coufthard's miserable season may not be such a bad thing

Having chosen not to retain the 1992 and '93 World Champions, and seen Damon Hill miss out narrowly on the title for two successive seasons, Frank Williams now has cause to wonder whether he has just released a champion of the future: David Coulthard.

After failing to register a single victory in his first 20 Grands Prix for Williams, the 24-year-old Scot finally stood atop the podium in Estoril — just seven days before his signature on a McLaren contract was officially announced.

It wasn't just the win that impressed but the manner in which it was achieved, for Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill, like both Ferraris, were still running at the finish.

But why the miraculous turnaround?

In truth, the rejuvenated Coulthard Mark II did not suddenly emerge in Portugal. At Spa, as at Monza, he had led only to succumb to mechanical failure. All that was different in Estoril was that the car kept running.

Billed as the guy who would knock Hill from his pedestal as top Briton. Coulthard has suffered a bitterly disappointing season. Most people assume simply that his release by Williams, after the German Grand Prix, acted as the wake-up call he required. He disputes that judgement, claiming that recurring bouts of tonsillitis had a bigger effect than most people imagined.

"It affected me not only in the car, physically, but I was unable to train, and that gets you into a downward spiral. You lose confidence," he explains. "At Barcelona, for instance, I was going to bed each night at five o'clock. I was just totally exhausted because of the problems I was having. You can't drive a Formula Ford at that level, never mind a Grand Prix car. So that just built the pressure up."

So ill did he feel, in fact, that he warned Frank Williams he might not be able to drive in the opening race of the season, at Sao Paolo. By June, he still felt sufficiently bad that he was prepared to risk missing the French GP in order to have his tonsils removed. Come Hungary, in August, his health problems were gone. But so was his confidence.

"Having been built up to far beyond what my achievements were last year, I'd then been pushed down far below. Magny-Cours, where I was nearly beaten by a Ligier, wasn't exactly a high point, but Hungary wasn't a good race either," he recalls. "Although I knew I had problems with tyre pressures, and I actually felt that I Was driving quite well, I was just going backwards. I felt quite low mentally after that one. I just could not understand why. I didn't actually realise at that moment just how much the tyre pressures accounted for where I was on the circuit. I drove exactly the same way at Spa, and of course then all of a sudden I was quick." Coulthard is a product of Jackie Stewart's "Staircase of Talent" and his resurgence comes as no surprise to the three-time World Champion.

"His natural driving skill was obvious from the start," Stewart maintains. "Then again, there's hardly anybody in the frontline in any of the junior formulae, from karting to Formula Ford and all the others, who hasn't got an abundance of natural, God-given talent if they're doing well. It's those who are able early enough to see what you've got to do with it to make yourself better that you identify with.

"I think very early on that it was clear that Ayrton Senna was going to be a very serious driver in the long term. I think if you had seen Niki Lauda, how committed he was to get enough money to go motor racing and then try to go about his racing in a serious way, it was very obvious. I think if you'd seen me right at the very beginning, with David Murray or with Ken Tyrrell, you'd have been able to see the same ingredient. The same is definitely true of David Coulthard."

Coulthard is hardly renowned for Alesi-like fluctuations of emotion, and you sensed the overriding sentiment after Portugal was relief rather than jubilation. "If my career had depended on it, then maybe I'd have been turning cartwheels, but my contract for next year was already done," he reasons. "That said, if I'd gone to McLaren having not won a race this year, there would have been big question marks."

As modest out of the car as he is quick inside it. Coulthard suggests that to be a good winner you must first learn to be a good loser. Indeed Stewart believes his countryman's struggle may even have a positive effect in the long run. "I think that not having had the success in 1995 that many people perceived he should be having is actually correct for him, career-wise," he says. "I do not think it would have been good for him to go out and do extraordinary things in 1995. Life isn't like that. Look at anybody who's successful. Nobody is constantly successful. You look at Bernie Ecclestone, see what he's doing, what he's done. D'you think Bernie Ecclestone thinks that everything is going well all the time? I know it doesn't happen for Ron Dennis. It doesn't happen for Jackie Stewart or anybody else. Not even Kevin Costner!

"You've got to be able to understand that there's a down period, so that you can see what life really is. Damon is a little older than David, a little more mature, a little less rushed to deliver. He's got a quieter confidence because he's on a few wins. The first win will make a difference. Whatever one's goals are, the first one is hard to come by."

"Jackie has been consistent. He's always seemed pretty relaxed," concedes Coulthard. "He said that his first year in F1 was very good, in his second he didn't drive worth a damn. He's always maintained, and you have to say that he's been pretty accurate, that drivers don't win it straight away. It takes them a couple of years to find their feet. The confidence that I've taken from him and the brief that he seemed to have for me have helped a lot.

"You obviously have belief in yourself, and what you're doing, and I wouldn't have got this far if I hadn't got the ability to do it. But to finally be able to look people in the eye and say 'I can do it' is such a relief."