Monday, October 27, 2008

David Coulthard's Final Hurrah...

I'll leave analysis of this year's F1 title race until next week, when it's all over and whatever I write is not almost immediately outdated. Whether Lewis Hamilton and Mclaren will succeed in throwing away a second World Title in as many years will soon become apparent. This weekend will see David Coulthard's long Formula 1 career come to an end and that is of some interest to me, not least because he is perhaps the first F1 driver whose career I have seen almost right from the beginning (I was at several of his early Formula Ford races as a kid) to his retirement nearly 20 years on.

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.

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Anonymous donwatters said...

Nicely put and well reasoned.

5:44 AM  
Blogger mightyv10 said...

Interesting article. Just like you, I have had the opportunity to follow DC's complete career and I agree with you on most of your conclusions.

DC always had great application to his trade. A hard working guy who was willing to pound the test miles. He also made sure that he did not make the mistake of trying to haggle too hard with McLaren on salary. Both of which were major reasons for his long tenure at McLaren.

Like you mentioned his first year at McLaren was very promising, however that was also the time that Mika was finding his feet after his huge accident. I remember the monster start that he made at Imola in 1996 which he lead for a while. It was a great relief for the McLaren fans after a lousy year in 1995 and DC was seen as the great hope.

However the main problem for DC was consistent speed at all tracks. He had his tracks that he was really good at like Imola, magny cours, Monza. But he was never consistantly fast over the whole season. He was also just average in the wet.

If say like Massa he was able to improve to where he was fast through a whole season, he could have eeked out a championship in 2000. Also one of the few Spa winners who did not win a championship.

7:19 PM  
Anonymous Clive said...

DC is one of those rare creatures, the perfect Number Two - honest, resilient, dependable. Jackie Stewart reckons there are only two or three outstanding drivers in any given season and that means that there are a lot of drivers in F1 who would not be champion whatever car they were given. Of course, they all think they could do it, given the chance, but DC's history at McLaren is probably more representative of reality for the vast majority.

It takes courage and a love of the sport itself to recognize that oneself is not quite the hero one dreamed of being but that is what is required of those drivers who soldier on through the disappointments of the years. The others fall away, still muttering about how they "could have been a contender". DC is currently the best example of a driver who views himself with a realistic eye and just gives the team as much as he can.

There is a clip on YouTube showing Riccardo Patrese taking his wife for a drive of a souped-up Honda Civic around a track. It is immensely funny of course, Mrs Patrese being extremely vocal in her demands that he slow down, but more interesting is to watch Patrese drive. He is totally calm, unflappable and merely grins slightly at his wife's protests - the picture of a man in his element, doing what he knows best.

Riccardo was the last great Number Two and it shows in his demeanour; he knows exactly the limits of his ability. DC is the same.

6:11 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Clive - Agreed. I nearly called the piece "The Perfect Number 2." I've always thought Barrichello filled a very similar role. Perhaps a little quicker, perhaps a little less of a team player, but he and Schumacher made a very formidable team at Ferrari.

4:29 PM  

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