David Coulthard's Final Hurrah...
Clive has written recently on the prospective battle between his replacement, Sebastien Vettel (who would have been all of 2 years old when I was sat in the stands at Woodcote and Lodge, watching a young Coulthard doing his stuff in Formula Ford!) and Mark Webber. Of Webber, he remarked "For every driver who manages to grab a world championship, there must be several who never get a decent shot at it. Many of them could claim to be capable of the feat, if only they could get their hands on a good car. But fortune dictates that some will never have that chance and the years roll by with potential never fulfilled".
The same could not be said of David Coulthard. Coulthard got himself a potentially championship winning car, I would estimate, 5 times in his career (on two of those occasions, his team mate did win the title with it) and yet the best he ever managed was a very distant second to Michael Schumacher in 2001, ironically not one of the years in which I would have said he had a car capable of winning the title. Coulthard himself appears to recognise this, commenting after announcing his retirement earlier this year that "I did have a world championship-winning car. I just didn't win it."
Coulthard, then, was not quite world champion material, but he wasn't far off. You don't last 9 years at Mclaren without being pretty handy in a racing car. In the early years of the Hakkinen/Coulthard partnership, it was Coulthard who actually appeared more often than not to be the faster of the two men. It was, after all, Coulthard who won the Mclaren/Mercedes partnership's first two races, and would have won their third had he not been ordered to hand the win to team mate Hakkinen in the final round of the 1997 World Championship in Jerez.
He would be ordered to hand over victory to Hakkinen again at the opening race of 1998, after a radio-communication mix-up had put the Scot ahead of his Finnish team mate. At the time, it was the source of almost as much outrage (at least in the British press) as Ferrari's Austrian GP incident did four years later. Some see this as the point at which Hakkinen established his de-facto Number 1 status at Mclaren, a moment at which Ron Dennis decided that Hakkinen, rather than Coulthard would lead Mclaren's title charge. Perhaps. Though it must be remembered that Hakkinen was only ever behind Coulthard in the first place because he had erroneously been called into the pits, reputedly because the team's radio system had been hacked by an outsider.
There is, in any case, another way of looking at it. Rather than Hakkinen having established the upper hand at Mclaren because he was Dennis' favoured man, he was the Mclaren's boss's choice for Number 1 driver precisely because Dennis had already fingered him as the man who had the greater ultimate potential. There was never any need for team orders throughout the rest of the 1998 season because Coulthard never got close enough to Hakkinen on pace for it to matter one way or the other. Hakkinen won eight races that year on his way to the title, while Coulthard picked up but a single victory. Perhaps all Hakkinen had ever really needed to unlock his potential had been the knowledge that the Mclaren team were behind him. Maybe Dennis simply knew that Coulthard was never quite in the same league. Certainly, he made a very good number 2 - he always obeyed those team orders when they were given to him, and he had sufficient pace that he could pick up a useful haul of points for the constructor's championship.
It became something of a cliche that, at the beginning of each year, there would be a big interview with David Coulthard in which he would claim that this year would be his year - this time he really would challenge for the world title. We now know, of course, that that day would never come. But how close did he get? In 2001, he wound up runner-up, ahead of a rather demotivated Mika Hakkinen, but to my mind, his best season came a year earlier, in 2000.
Though he fell away towards the end of the year, for much of that season, he was every bit as much a title contender as Mika Hakkinen and eventual winner Michael Schumacher. He won 3 races in the first half of the season, including an impressive victory at his home race at Silverstone which saw him go round the outside of Barrichello at Stowe to take the lead and arguably his most memorable victory, in France, which saw him go toe-to-toe with Schumacher and come out on top.
Ironically, though, probably his best opportunity for a world title came much earlier in his career. Coulthard had a contract with Williams for 1996, but bought his way out of it to move to the then rather less competitive Mclaren. The 1996 Williams Renault was easily the class of the field and it was clear that anyone driving it had only to beat his team mate to take the driver's title. Damon Hill eventually claimed that honour, after seeing off rookie Jacques Villeneuve but one is forced to wonder whether Coulthard, who by then would have been in his second full season, and who sometimes matched Hill for pace in 1995, might have stood a better chance of wresting the title from Hill.
Coulthard's final couple of years at Mclaren were a disappointment. He never got to grips with single lap qualifying, and as a result he struggled rather more against Kimi Raikkonen than he ever did against Hakkinen. His last win came in the opening race of the 2003 season in Australia, after Montoya, Schumacher and Raikkonen all lost time making mistakes. Thereafter, he never really looked a threat again, despite the 2003 Mclaren being quick enough to allow Raikkonen to mount a quietly consistent campaign for the driver's title. The 2004 Mclaren was one of the worst cars to come out of Woking, and Coulthard finished a distant 10th in the championship, failing to make the podium all year.
It would have been easy for the Scot to walk away from F1 at this point, tail between his legs, but to some surprise, he signed for Red Bull to race alongside Christian Klien, replacing Mark Webber, who had departed for Williams. With the pressure off, and with a car which was perhaps better than he expected, Coulthard did a pretty good job with Red Bull, scoring as many points for them in 2005 as he had for Mclaren the year before. Klien rarely troubled him in terms of pace and he did much to repair a reputation somewhat tarnished by the later Mclaren years. In the end, he probably stayed in F1 a year or two too long. Certainly, when Mark Webber returned to the team, it soon became apparent that Coulthard had no answer for him in terms of pace. This year, too, he seems to have got frustrated by it all, and has been involved in far too many silly collisions with other drivers.
So, in summation, David Coulthard was never quite world champion material, and one suspects that he knows as much. He was, though, a very quick driver on his day, and through the late 90s and into the early part of this century, he was quick enough on occasion to trouble men who did win world titles. What did he lack? It's hard to say. Consistency, perhaps. His lack of qualifying pace, especially in the single-lap format, suggests that he perhaps had trouble accessing his full potential when it was required. Perhaps he just didn't want it enough. He'd always had good breaks in his career - his wealthy father ensured his junior series days were well-funded and he broke into F1 with a race winning team, before moving straight to another race winning team. Maybe he didn't have the hunger to succeed that a driver who had had a harder time of it might have done. Whatever the truth of it, though, he won 13 Grands Prix, which is more than all but a handful of the most successful F1 drivers ever manage, and he was the best driver to come out of Scotland since Jackie Stewart. Not bad, all in all.