Ageing racers never lose their instinct, says Coulthard — but do go for gaps that aren't there


Loeb, Sainz, Villeneuve and Alonso: racing's seniors are showing that age can't stop them competing and winning at the top level. David Coulthard, fresh from the Race of Champions, aged 50, explains why the instinct never leaves, even when raw speed deserts you

David Coulthard, 2021

Coulthard says that age is still a limiting factor in F1 despite Hamilton and Alonso continuing on

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images

For all that grand prix racing has welcomed a clutch of bright young stars in recent seasons – Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, George Russell and Lando Norris have all made their mark, to various degrees – success is by no means restricted to products of the internet age.

It’s a truth that extends across the whole sport.

Lewis Hamilton is now 37 – and arguably driving as well as he has done at any point over the past 15 seasons. Fernando Alonso celebrated his 40th birthday in 2021, while performing with great distinction during his F1 comeback campaign. Sébastien Loeb recently scored his eighth Monte Carlo Rally win at the age of 47… partnered by Isabelle Garmiche, an experienced part-time co-driver who had recently turned 50. There is no reason to suppose Scott Dixon, 41, will be anything other than competitive as he pursues a seventh IndyCar title this season.

Jacques Villeneuve qualified for this year’s Daytona 500, then said, “To be able to make such a big race at such a high level is amazing. When I’m in the race car I don’t realise I’m 50, which is good. As long as it carries on like this, I can’t imagine myself stopping. It’s satisfying because there are quite a few times where I’ve been hearing, ‘Come on. You’ve passed it. Just give it up.’ No, the hunger has never stopped…”

And if it’s ill advised to be chasing further Dakar Rally wins just short of your 60th birthday, nobody seems to have told Carlos Sainz…

Top-level motor sport has never been the exclusive preserve of exuberant youth – after all, Juan Manuel Fangio was already 39 upon the motor racing world championship’s inauguration and 47 by the time he secured his fifth title. Luigi Fagioli was 53 – born in the 19th century – when he shared Fangio’s winning car in the 1951 French GP, though it would be his final world championship start. He stormed off afterwards, angry that Alfa Romeo had ordered him to hand his car over to the Argentine.

“It isn’t possible to drive at 100% for a full race around Monaco or you’ll simply crash”

David Coulthard made his grand prix debut at 23 and stepped away in 2008, aged 37, though he raced on in the DTM touring car series from 2010-2012. He describes himself as “long since retired”, but continues to compete in the annual Race of Champions multi-discipline event and won it in both 2014 and 2018.

“I’ve no idea about the physicality of a full rally,” he says, “but when I’ve driven rallycross cars in the Race of Champions – for short distances, admittedly – I’ve found there’s nothing like the physical load on your body that you get in a Formula 1 car. Perhaps that’s why drivers such as Carlos Sainz Sr and Sébastien Loeb are still able to perform so well.

“If you have mastered the art of driving at say 99.9%, you are probably only operating at 95 or 96% in the less physical sports – and I absolutely don’t want to upset rally drivers, because I have the utmost respect for what they do. I’ve always felt they are by far the most versatile performers in motor sport because of the amazing range of conditions with which they have to cope. In F1, it’s basically hot or cold, wet or dry – and that’s it! But I do wonder whether that small margin perhaps explains why drivers are able to succeed for even longer in other disciplines.

“I think the same numbers apply on street circuits. I won in Macau and took a couple of grand prix victories in Monaco and can promise you that I wasn’t performing at 100% at any time. In my opinion, it simply isn’t mentally or physically possible to drive at 100% for a full race distance around Monaco or you’ll simply crash.”

Related article

Does his old competitive zest resurface on the rare occasions he dusts off his overalls?

“It always pleasantly surprises me that I can jump into a car at an event like the Race of Champions and everything swiftly feels very natural,” he says. “I don’t believe you ever lose that instinctive driving ability. At the very top level in circuit racing, though, I think you begin to lose the physical capacity. The moment you feel you are starting to hang on, your mind is no longer in the right place. When you’re young and on the way up, you’ve got raw speed but are probably lacking a bit on the fitness side. That eventually catches up, so you have the right levels of both fitness and speed, but as you get older your reactions begin to slow down – whether you like it or not – your eyes aren’t as good as they were and so on, though these things affect people at different stages.

“In 2008, my final Formula 1 season, I found I was instinctively going for racing gaps that were no longer there by the time I arrived. You’re in denial at first, of course, because you’ve not been in that situation before so you start blaming others, but eventually the penny drops that you are the common denominator. Earlier in my career I’d been able to pull off some pretty good passing moves – and by the time I’d thought about them I would already be in that gap…”

Was there a particular moment when the realisation dawned that the time to stop had come, leastways in terms of his F1 career?

He laughs and says, “Yes, it was during winter testing at Jerez before the 2008 season. I’d done all my physical preparation – and I was very disciplined about that, despite what people might think – but quickly realised that the Red Bull RB4 wasn’t going to be particularly competitive. It didn’t help that sister team Toro Rosso had more power from its Ferrari engine than we did from our Renault! They were both Adrian Newey cars, but because of the extra power they were able to run with more downforce absolutely everywhere. I knew before the first race that it was going to be a tricky year – and it dawned at the same time that I no longer had the fight in me for a season like that.

“I liken it to a professional boxer. The longer they go on, the less likely they are to pick themselves up from the canvas when floored by a punch – quite literally, the fight is no longer there.”