David Coulthard starts his 246th and final Grand Prix at Interlagos this weekend.
He has spent 14 and a half seasons in the sport’s top flight, was championship runner-up in 2001, and won 13 races.
A difficult debut
It’s hard to imagine a more difficult set of circumstances in which to make your Grand Prix debut than David Coulthard faced in 1994. Two races after Ayrton Senna was killed, Coulthard was called up from the Williams test team to take the great Brazilian’s place.
He may have landed a seat with a top team straight from the off but it was not easy going. The FW16 was beset with problems early in the year, and Coulthard periodically had to make way for Nigel Mansell, making occasional returns to F1 largely because Bernie Ecclestone was concerned about the sport’s lack of star appeal post-Senna.
But Coulthard impressed his employers enough for them to keep him on for 1995. With better reliability, he might even have made bid for the championship. In the second half of the season he strung together five consecutive pole positions – at a time when qualifying was about who could do the fastest lap, not who could get away with carrying the least fuel.
At Portugal he won from pole and set fastest lap on the way. There were a few embarrassing rookie blunders though: spinning on the way to the grid at Monza, crashing into the pit wall at Adelaide…
But at this point a career decision was made that, in retrospect, might have robbed him of a chance to become champion. His management firm arrange a big-money move to McLaren alongside Mika Hakkinen, and while Hill won the 1996 title, Coulthard was battling an ultra-quick team mate and a car package that was yet to come good.
He persevered, however, and scored a surprise win in the 1997 season-opener at Melbourne. A second followed at Monza.
The last race of 1997 and the first of 1998 were important moments in Coulthard’s career. On both occasions he was set to win, on both occasions he let Hakkinen by. Coulthard has claimed he felt Hakkinen was favoured at McLaren over him – but also admitted he volunteered the wins to Hakkinen of his own free choosing.
To some, this is Coulthard’s great strength – that despite the gigantic pressures of F1 he remains a gentleman of integrity. To others, it is proof that he lacks the killer instinct to grab any chance at victory, however it presents itself.
If that’s the charge Coulthard himself is happy to accept it. In a recent interview he said:
It’s like when Michael [Schumacher] told me after Spa ’98 that he could never remember being wrog. If that’s what it takes, if that’s the last little bit you need to be a champion, then I don’t want to be that person. I want to trust in people, and I want to be wrong sometimes. You can’t be right all the time.
Nice guy finishes first
The infamous Spa crash with Schumacher was not his first nor his last run-in with the German driver. Coulthard later accepted the Spa collision was his fault – he had lifted the throttle on the straight to let Schumacher by, not realising how close he was.
The rivalry between the two simmered in the late ’90s and early ’00s. They banged wheels in Buenos Aires, Coulthard slammed Schumacher’s start-line weaving, Schumacher claimed Coulthard blocked him during a season finale…
When it came down to a straight fight on the track it’s no secret that Schumacher often won – but Coulthard had his moments. At Magny-Cours in 2000 he was simply rampant, and when Schumacher rebuffed his attacks Coulthard responded with a gesture more typical of rush hour traffic than a Grand Prix circuit. With some style, Coulthard reeled Schumacher in and barged him aside.
Interlagos ’01 was, for me, Coulthard’s finest hour. He carried a heavy fuel load and when it rained late in the race he passed the (uncharacteristically) struggling Schumacher to win.
A close second to that virtuouso performance must be his battling drive to second at Barcelona the year before. It came mere days after he suffered broken ribs in a light aircraft crash in which two pilots were killed.
The Red Bull years
After nine year’s service at McLaren it seemed as though Coulthard had been squeezed out of F1 at the end of 2004. But a surprise move to Red Bull on a one-year-at-a-time deal rejuvenated a career that seemed to have petered out.
The early years with cars that struggled for reliability were a grind, but Coulthard brought the team its maiden podium at Monte-Carlo. He won twice at the prestigious venue for McLaren, and won his home Grand Prix twice too, an achievement few F1 drivers can boast.
There’s no sugar-coating his final season – it’s been a disaster. But even when he crashed out at Fuji and felt a pain in his ankle his first thought was that he hoped he’d still be able to start the final two races.
Coulthard’s been tipped to join the BBC’s F1 team in 2009. But whatever he does, I hope he doesn’t call time on his racing career entirely.
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