David Coulthard wasn’t pulling any punches when he met with our writer, but then the Scot has had to fight for recognition throughout his career. Yet he leaves Formula 1 happy with his achievements and with his integrity intact
By Alan Henry
It’s April 1, 2001. The scene is Interlagos, that bruising and buffeting 2.67-mile ribbon of careworn asphalt which has been such an essential part of the fabric of Brazilian motor racing. We’re in the closing stages and Michael Schumacher’s leading Ferrari is being hunted down relentlessly by a sleek grey and silver McLaren-Mercedes, its driver’s helmet proudly displaying the Scottish saltire. David Coulthard has got a sniff of a possible victory in the Brazilian Grand Prix.
But he knows only too well that catching Schumacher is one thing; passing him is another matter altogether. With a handful of laps left, the battling duo come up to lap Tarso Marques’ Minardi coming into the braking area for the tricky, off-camber left-hander beyond the pits. Marques is virtually in the middle of the circuit. Schumacher goes right, preferring to take the theoretically cleaner outside line. That’s all Coulthard needs. Decisively, he aims his McLaren to the left of the Minardi. For a few fleeting seconds the cars are three-abreast, but DC holds the line. And his nerve. He pops through on the inside to grab a lead he will never lose.
On November 2, 2008, Coulthard is scheduled to start his 246th and last Formula 1 race at the same circuit on the fringes of São Paulo. It will mark the final race outing for a decent and dignified man who perhaps spent too long in the shadow of double World Champion Mika Häkkinen during their years together at McLaren, but who, when he could muster sufficient consistency, was capable of demonstrating the capacity to be a formidable front-runner.
I always liked Coulthard, although it’s fair to say he was inwardly a touch dismissive of journalists, even though his innate good manners probably prevented him from articulating just how little time he really had for them.
I was slightly lucky in that respect. In the fog of war which followed Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, I wrote, “Williams considering promoting Coulthard to F1 full-time is a zero-risk strategy”. Word came back from the DC camp to the effect that the observation had been appreciated. In a sense it put my account with him in credit, a balance which I suspect I seriously overdrew during the years that followed when it came to my annual top 10 driver ratings. David seldom agreed with my positions – and let me know – apart from in 2000 when I placed him second behind World Champion Schumacher. He was gracious enough to be appreciative.
So what was it like to take over in the F1 front line from a multiple World Champion such as the Brazilian? Did the status of his celebrated predecessor render the situation more daunting? Or did he feel totally sanguine about his elevation to the title contest?
“I can recall people saying at the time I seemed quite calm in what most people took to be a high-pressure situation,” he recalls, “but when you are young and making your way, there isn’t quite the pressure you might expect. Once you’ve climbed the ladder and got there, then’s the time to look around and feel the need to protect yourself. That real pressure [in F1] probably only develops in year two, year three or year four, depending on the circumstances.”
Coulthard made his F1 debut in the Williams-Renault FW16 at the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, where he ran in the top six until he was called in and retired when the engineers detected an electronic glitch which was affecting the gearchange. He admits he was disappointed.
“I thought I could handle the situation, but of course in reality I was just a young kid in an F1 car,” he says. “That taught me there was a world of difference between being a test driver, trying developments on the car which somebody else was going to race, and the business of having to carry those developments through to the next GP. That was a totally different challenge.”
Contractual problems meant Coulthard was perhaps denied the opportunity to capitalise on his relationship with Williams to achieve the depth of results he was hoping for. After winning the 1995 Portuguese GP at Estoril in commanding style, he switched to McLaren for ’96. Damon Hill sped on to win the World Championship ahead of his new team-mate Jacques Villeneuve, while Coulthard was left struggling to make his mark with the indifferent McLaren MP4/11.
The key unanswered question here mirrors the frustration of golfer Doug Sanders who, after being beaten to the 1970 Open by a putt on the final green from Jack Nicklaus, was asked years later whether he still agonised about his failure. “Not at all,” he replied. “Some days I can go two or three minutes without thinking about it.”
Following the same tack, does Coulthard think he could have won the 1996 World Championship instead of Damon? And perhaps the ’97 title instead of Villeneuve? “Yes, I do,” he replies firmly, “because I believe I had the necessary pace and ability to get more out of it than Damon. The thing to remember about Jacques is that he was only there as a consequence of my leaving the team.”
This was a strangely confused and rather unsettling time for Coulthard, and I’ve always felt that it said a lot for his resilience and maturity that he managed to drive so well throughout 1995. “I signed to join McLaren at the end of 1994, so I went into the ’95 season knowing that I wouldn’t be driving for Williams the following year. And that was all because Frank changed the deal.”
There is a wilfully capricious quality about the British team owner which may seem charming from the touchlines, but which can be distinctly unsettling for those negotiating with him. He presides over a great, well-resourced team, but he very much flies by the seat of his pants when it comes to driver selection. Martin Brundle and Mika Häkkinen both thought they had deals to drive for Williams at various times and both were disappointed. So was David Coulthard.
“I wanted a two-year deal for 1995 and ’96, and we agreed a two-year deal in December 1994,” David recalls with a mixture of reflection and exasperation. “I went into Frank’s office to sign it, and the solicitor was just pulling the final paperwork from its envelope when Frank announced that, because he was in the middle of negotiations with Damon, he only wanted to sign me on a one-year deal. You could almost hear the lawyer sighing with exasperation.
“So I rang Ron Dennis from the Williams factory and we did a deal. Frank was totally entitled to change his mind, but the reason I got into that situation was the fact that he changed his mind from a two-year deal to a one-year commitment.”
Arriving at McLaren for the start of ’96, Coulthard found himself partnered by future World Champion Häkkinen. Not only was the reticent young Finn a prodigiously quick competitor, he had also established a special relationship with team principal Ron Dennis.
Häkkinen had originally been recruited as test driver in 1993 as the team attempted to dig its way out of a deeply unsatisfactory relationship with Indycar star Michael Andretti. Eventually Mika moved up into the race team to drive alongside Ayrton Senna in the last three races of the season, and in ’94 partnered Martin Brundle in the Peugeot-engined MP4-9 before seeing off Nigel Mansell in the first few races of the following year.
Then came disaster. Practising for the Australian Grand Prix at Adelaide, Häkkinen crashed heavily after a tyre failure and had to undergo an emergency tracheotomy at the trackside. For a few anxious days it seemed as though his life might be in danger. Dennis, an honourable man, felt deeply and understandably responsible for a driver getting hurt in one of his cars. The relationship between him and Häkkinen was strengthened, but Coulthard admitted that he found it something of an emotional road block around which he would have to negotiate a path if he was to gain the total confidence of his new employers.
“In terms of results I can obviously see why people might think I took second-best position to Mika,” he admits, “but there was a personal dimension, getting round Ron’s relationship with him, which I felt was time-consuming and a little unnecessary. It was a distraction, if you like, of a kind which Mika and Michael Schumacher did not have to deal with. It used up a lot of time and nervous energy which inevitably affected my performance.
“As I said in my book, I would often find myself sitting in the cockpit watching the team politics unfold, and it wasn’t always easy to deal with when I would see the pitwall erupting with enthusiasm when Mika would take pole position from me, not from Michael. And then I had to hype myself up to go out again and try to beat him, even though I was sometimes thinking, ‘do they want me to beat him?’
“So that was very difficult, and difficult to understand for those [observers] who think they know everything about what it’s like in such a technical environment, and don’t take the trouble to find out, and just say ‘mentally too weak’ when they haven’t any idea what it’s like to handle that sort of pressure. I don’t give a shit what people like that think because they don’t know and haven’t done it. Ultimately if people have participated in such a high-pressure sporting environment, then I’ll listen to what they have to say, but if they’re making their judgement simply on the basis of having been around [on the sidelines] for a few years, then I’m just not interested.
“Ultimately I will live my life a happy man content in the knowledge that I made the most out of the opportunities I was presented with.” For a fleeting moment I thought we were dancing on the fringes of my driver ratings and the attendant lectures from a Scottish voice.
David’s tone momentarily hardens. “We haven’t always seen eye to eye, have we?” he says. I feel uneasy, but he immediately cuts me enough slack to slide out of what could have been an increasingly terse exchange, adding, “Let’s just say I think we see these things from different perspectives.” I hope he isn’t aware of my deep exhalation of breath.
Ignoring the ifs and buts, and putting aside any speculation about what he might have achieved in another team, Coulthard’s record is more than respectable. He has won 13 Grands Prix, 12 of them at the wheel of a McLaren-Mercedes, and in 2001 he finished runner-up to Schumacher in the World Championship.
Twice a winner of both the British and Monaco Grands Prix, Coulthard ranks one of his biggest disappointments as not winning through the streets of the Principality in 2001. “On the two occasions I won Monaco I did it from second and third on the grid, but in 2001 I was on pole, and pole at Monaco is quite an achievement ahead of Mika in an identical car, particularly when I didn’t really have the best reputation as a qualifier.
“This was the second race at which launch control was used and in the previous race at Barcelona I had a glitch with it, and I remember Ron telling ITV that the driver had suffered from brain fade. So I weighed in and said in fact it was the team boss who’d had brain fade, and wouldn’t it have been a good idea to have checked with the engineers?
“So that didn’t help and rather got in the way of Ron and I, but then at Monaco the system went wrong again, switching the engine off on the parade lap, so I had to start at the back of the grid. I finished fifth having spent most of the race behind Enrique Bernoldi’s Arrows.
“I was pretty pissed off by this stage, because I was having to field the aggravation with Ron at the same time as we were having these launch control failures, added to which McLaren had a reputation for showing their arrogance, thinking everything they did was perfect, despite the fact they were standing on their dicks and not getting it that if everything was so good we wouldn’t be having failures like that in the first place.”
Coulthard hadn’t quite matched the highs of 2001 the previous year when he was third in the World Championship, but this was still a great feat, particularly in light of the fact that his second place that season at Barcelona was one of the most psychologically bruising achievements any driver has had to deal with.
Flying home to the south of France in a chartered private jet, Coulthard and his then-fiancée Heidi Wichlinski found themselves at the heart of a tragedy when the plane developed technical problems and had to attempt an emergency landing at Lyons. Unfortunately things didn’t go to plan; a wing tip apparently scraped the ground and the plane then slammed into the earth. The front of the fuselage was ripped off and both pilots were killed. David and Heidi were able to walk from the wreckage, bruised but substantially unscathed.
A few days later David was due to compete in the Spanish GP and admits that he went through a period of deep soul-searching. “Turning up in the paddock was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for me, if I’m honest,” he says. “All of us in this business have had accidents of one sort or another, but mine was a pretty close call and I suffered a degree of injury.
“In those sorts of situations you could say Ron is at his best: he switches modes and simply couldn’t have done enough to help.” David duly competed in the race and second place to Häkkinen was about as good as could reasonably be expected in the fraught conditions.
The 2000 season also saw David deliver a magnificent victory for McLaren in the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours, a race where he went wheel-to-wheel with Schumacher’s Ferrari to beat the German fair and square. Coulthard confesses that he had found Schumacher’s psyche to be something of a conundrum ever since the German slammed into the back of his McLaren in the rain-soaked Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in 1998 as he was coming up to lap the Scot. The impact ripped off one of the Ferrari’s front wheels, but Michael drove his ‘tricycle’ back to the pits and then berated Coulthard for his behaviour, clearly feeling that this was part of a wider anti-Ferrari conspiracy on the part of McLaren. His extreme reaction left David somewhat baffled.
“It was quite extraordinary, really, because it illustrated the highly charged relationship which existed between Ferrari and McLaren at that time,” he says. “It still exists now although I think it’s much less intense since Jean Todt left the F1 scene.
“He clearly did think it was all a huge conspiracy, but how on earth I was supposed to see anything in the spray through my mirrors and know precisely where he was so that I could back off and block him is just astonishing. When we ran through the TV footage after the race you could see I was right over on the white line trying to give him the maximum room possible.”
Yet there was an amazing sequel to this episode. The following week the two men were both taking part in a test at Monza so they agreed to meet on neutral ground to resolve their differences. “At one point I asked Michael if he had ever been wrong about anything. He paused, thought about it for a moment and said ‘no, not that I can remember.’ So I asked him whether he’d ever been wrong in his personal life; the answer was just the same.”
At the end of the 2004 season Coulthard left McLaren and took stock of his situation. It was obviously difficult to take the step down the grid which would be an inevitable consequence of accepting an offer from Red Bull Racing, but he wasn’t ready to stop and the team convinced him of its serious intent.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have great misgivings at the prospect of moving down the grid,” he says thoughtfully, “but [Red Bull boss] Dietrich Mateschitz convinced me there would be the necessary investment in resource and personnel. That’s proved to be the case and I am delighted they feel I have something to contribute to the programme when I stop racing.”
Absolutely. The Formula 1 pitlane would have been a much poorer place without David Coulthard’s even-tempered good nature and dignified rectitude.