From the Scottish hills of Dumfries and Galloway to the timeless race circuits of Monaco and Melbourne. Growing up as a teenager these were dreams far beyond what David Coulthard could have ever imagined.
In a career spanning fifteen seasons, Coulthard achieved praiseworthy success: thirteen Grand Prix victories, sixty-two podium finishes and becoming the top British points scorer to this day. Yet one gets the feeling that ‘almost, but not quite there’ is perhaps destined to be the epitaph of Coulthard’s Formula One career.
When reflecting upon his career in Motorsport in his recent talk at the Oxford Union, he does so colourfully and candidly. Like most Formula One drivers, Coulthard started in kart racing competitions, and then came up through the traditional European single seater series, Formula Ford. In 1994, having spent the early months of his career as a test driver for the Williams-Renault team, Coulthard was thrown into the cauldron of Formula One in somewhat difficult circumstances. He had witnessed, like many millions around the world, the death of a Formula One great at Imola – Ayrton Senna.
Despite such tragic consequences, Coulthard did not shy away from the monumental task of attempting to fill the boots of a man who had driven himself into Formula One folklore. He wanted to fulfil his motto of “making the impossible possible”. His first Grand Prix victory in 1995 in Estoril, Portugal signalled Coulthard’s arrival on the Formula One stage and from there he harboured hopes of going on to achieve bigger and better things. That was, until a certain M.Schumacher emerged.
To his credit, Coulthard remained resolute and, alongside his fellow co-drivers at McLaren – Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen – they laid down some sort of gauntlet to Schumacher. Nonetheless, Coulthard, like his contemporaries, could only watch and admire from their cock-pits, the brilliance of ‘the Red Baron.’
In 2001, his best season in Formula One, he finished second in the Driver’s Championship – a massive sixty five points behind the German. In keeping with Coulthard’s humble nature, he remains “comfortable with the fact that I never won a Drivers’ Championship.” He unequivocally maintains that he “got used to finishing second”.
He apportions part of Schumacher’s success to the man himself but also to his car, so much so that he jokingly remarks that “Schumacher would struggle in an old Minardi.” Although Coulthard went on to record a number of Grand Prix victories at McLaren, his time there was spent playing second fiddle to his Northern European colleagues, and shrouded in controversy.
Followers of Formula One will no doubt recall the infamous ‘Overtaking-gate’ scandal at the 1998 Melbourne Grand Prix – something which he still regrets partaking in to this day. Following his turbulent time at McLaren many critics were calling for his retirement but in 2005 Couthard was given a new lease of life at the newly formed Red Bull Racing. Despite a promising start to his Red Bull career, he rather faded away into retirement in 2008.
But for Coulthard retirement has been a relatively easy pill to swallow. He asserts that for the first half of his life “Formula One ruled the way.” Now though, at the age of 38 a father for the first time, Coulthard wants to enjoy the second half of his life although “the inefficiency of everyday life,” does frustrate him.
Still, he is never too far away from Formula One. Working as a consultant for Red Bull Racing and as a pundit, or in his words “whatever that means,” for the BBC’s Formula One coverage, he admits that he now has more time to appreciate the technology behind the cars. When pushed on a possible return to the sport a la Schumacher, Coulthard remarks that “things are not what they were like before.”
His admission that he has “nothing in common” with the next generation of upcoming drivers, referred to by him as “The Playstation Generation,” reinforces both his paternalist attitude and acknowledgment that he has moved on from Formula One to new opportunities.
Through life in the fast lane, Coulthard had it all – supermodels, satisfaction and success. Whilst he fully accepts that some will regard his time in Formula One as a failure, one must not forget that he was, like many others, unfortunate or fortunate enough, however you see it, to be part of an era dominated by the Roger Federer of Formula One – Michael Schumacher. Yet, the modest man that he is, Coulthard does not want to reflect upon the past but to inspire and influence the next generation of drivers, including Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
Call him what you like – the Tim Henman of Formula One to many – but he rightly remains humble and proud of his achievements to the end. Every sport has its nearly men, and David Coulthard is one of Formula One’s.