Features - Interview
AUGUST 1, 1995
BY JOE SAWARD
On May 1 1994, Williams team leader Ayrton Senna died after an accident at Imola and within a few weeks Coulthard had been propelled into the spotlight. Eight races later Coulthard was a star: McLaren and Williams fought to sign him and when Williams beat off the McLaren challenge it picked Coulthard as its driver rather than former World Champion Nigel Mansell.
Coulthard, everyone reckoned, would beat Damon Hill and be a challenger for the 1995 World Championship. David has not lived up to those expectations and has been dropped by Williams for 1996. He will not talk about why he is leaving Williams, except to say that his decision was taken a long time before Williams named Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve as its 1996 drivers. David's future now appears to be at McLaren.
Can he explain what happened last year with Williams and McLaren?
"That was an interesting experience," says David. "The whole situation was necessary because I wanted to look after my interests and make sure I had a drive for a top team for the whole season. At the time Williams was not able to offer me that. Later on they were and hindsight would say that I am in the best place. I am very comfortable and happy here - but then I don't think McLaren is a team which will be too far off the pace for very long."
To date it has not been a very good year with Williams. How does David think he is doing?
"I am quite comfortable with the job I am doing. I am sure when Williams signed me up for the seat the team was thinking "Ok, he'll be learning this year, bringing in the points home behind Damon (Hill) and then maybe he'll get a win or a couple of wins at the end of the year". I like to think I am a bit closer to the pace and have made fewer mistakes than the team would have expected. The only small worry you have is that in starting with a top team if it all goes slightly wrong there it is a long way down. You could argue that it is better to do your learning away from the public eye to gain the necessary F1 experience and then show what you can do, but that is the risk."
He has had a lot of mechanical failures this year?
"Yes. I finished second in Brazil but in Argentina there was an engine problem when I was leading the race; I was fourth in San Marino but had mechanical problems in Spain and Monaco. I fell off in Canada but since then things have been getting better. I was third in France and Britain - where I was leading until I was given a 10-sec penalty for speeding in the pitlane - and then I was second in Germany and Hungary. At Spa I was in the lead and very comfortable when the car stopped."
Does David think that a race win would change everyone's view of his season?
"Absolutely. I think everyone was expecting too much in what is my first full season in F1. I would be very happy with a win and I don't think it is that far way."
It has been a remarkable rise to stardom, hasn't it?
"There difference for me is quite amazing. The thing that has amazed me more than anything else is the power of the media in Formula 1. I went from a situation where only my mother and father recognized me to a situation where I can be in a supermarket - even in a foreign country - and people will come up and say: "You're David Coulthard the racing driver" and I must say it's quite amusing. I guess it is a privileged position in some ways because it makes it easier to get a seat in a restaurant, but in other ways you become very self-conscious. Rather than just standing there and scratching your bum, you wait until you are a corner until you do it! But, there are still a hell of a lot more ups than there are downs about this job!
"My career development, through kart racing, first of all in Scotland, then England and then Europe and then moving into cars, has always been taking a little step at a time. I know that to the outside world it looks like I have suddenly appeared in F1, but I have spent the last 13 years racing at a professional level so I am used to the travelling. I was fortunate to have been able to travel around the world on family holidays and things and that has made so much of a difference because I have already experienced different parts of the world so I don't have to get used to them. Living in Monaco is good. I am very comfortable there. It's not home. It's not Scotland and I think we all have a special place in our hearts from our own village or wherever the family comes. But I don't feel uncomfortable in Monaco. A Grand Prix driver travels so much in a year that it is nice to go back there and wake up in the morning and see that the sun is shining. That means you set off to the gym feeling motivated for the day. It is very different from waking up on a rainy day in a London suburb, knowing that the traffic is queued up for miles and things like that. Monaco provides a very relaxed atmosphere between races and I think that is good for me at this time because it means that I arrive at each Grand Prix refreshed."
But doesn't if get lonely being transplanted into a foreign country?
"I have probably met more people in the short time I have been there than for years! I know three couples who I get on very well with. They have an interest in racing but otherwise they are just normal people living down there, doing business or whatever. It's nice to go back there and know there are people I want to see."
But it is still living life out of a suitcase?
"Yes, but I've been doing that for years. When I was at school we used to travel all over Britain every weekend. On Friday night I would get back from school, pack up the motorhome and set off south. The hours we used to do travelling to the races were just amazing. One of the down sides about driving for a top team is that the sponsors invest a lot of money in the team and therefore expect a return on that and so you do a lot of work away from the races. That means more travelling because not all the promotions are one in Monaco! They are all over the place. I haven't worked out the number of flights I have made in the last year but it must be a lot. My girlfriend Andrea goes to 90% of the races by she will tend to stay home when I am travelling around on promotions. In actual fact I probably see her more during a Grand Prix weekend than I do otherwise!"
But it is well paid work, isn't it?
"Well, that's right. I am very comfortable. You could argue that relative to some others you are not well paid but it is nice not to have financial worries. For the last four years or so there have always been worries about finding sponsorship. That was the reality of life, but that is relaxed for me this year. It is something I feel I have worked for. It's good to have a well-paid job that I enjoy doing."
Would David agree that he is a better racer than he is a qualifier?
"It is one thing to be able to do a quick lap time, but it is another thing to keep it all together in a race. I've usually been quite consistent in the past. Qualifying is something I have been trying to work on because I haven't had much experience of it in the past. My whole childhood was spent racing karts in Britain and there you were always trying not to fall off because if you did something silly then it really screwed your grid position for the final. You had to be consistent and you had to be able to overtake. I think that is why I have developed in the way I did. I only did qualifying three times in my karting career - when I raced abroad - and I didn't get on that well because you went out for two laps and then you came in. It wasn't that I wasn't quick it was just a question of learning the discipline. In the races I was always able to go quick and maintain my lap times for a long period. I was always quietly working towards having a balanced car but I am now learning how to find the limit quickly and I think that I am getting a bit better at it all the time. I am quite happy with my qualifying this year. Hopefully I can put a good qualifying with a good race and get my first win."
But he has learned that Schumacher is not invincible?
"Schumacher was never invincible but he was bloody quick. He is still bloody quick, but the first 10 guys out there are all quick drivers. What makes one exceptional at any one time is the fact that they have everything together: they are strong, they are fit, they are confident in themselves and they have no doubts that the team is confident in them. Those sort of things make a difference. If they lose that confidence in any way that reflects in their laps times. Last year Schumacher was the man of the moment with the correct amount of experience, fitness and confidence in his car and his team. Now I think the tide has turned because Damon obviously gained a lot of confidence at the back end of last year when he pushed Schumacher very hard in the races. I am gaining confidence as I learn more: taking pole in Argentina; leading the race in Buenos Aires before I had the problem. Those sort of things. I am in a slightly awkward phase at the moment because, while I am gaining more confidence and knowledge about the car, qualifying and the team in general, Damon has already arrived."
What about the Hill-Coulthard relationship? There have been a few rumours that you two don't always get on. Are those stories true?
"We had a couple of situations last year - in Canada and Belgium - where we did not quite see eye-to-eye. I don't think that is anything surprising when you have two competitive people trying to achieve the same thing. It was also a very high pressure year. I came in halfway through when Damon was challenging for the championship and when you consider the situation that everyone went through last year - with the fatalities and everything - it was a year that everyone really should put behind them. Now we are in a fresh season and we are running very close to each other. Clearly Damon is the number one in the team in terms of experience. He is winning races and I am trying to achieve that. There will be times this year when we will not see eye-to-eye, but I don't have a problem with that. It's inevitable."