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FEBRUARY 23, 2002

A view from in front of a British TV set


David Coulthard, French GP 2001
© The Cahier Archive

The other night I stayed awake until Stupid O'Clock in the morning, watching a group of women throw rocks down an ice rink. Curling is not usually what I'd class as entertaining television, but the fact that this was a fight for an Olympic Gold Medal made it oddly exciting. Even more of a shock to the system was that, against the odds, Great Britain won and it was only then that the reason for my fascination became apparent.

Despite creating almost every known sport on the planet, the British are the perennial sporting underachievers. What causes excitement in British viewers is not the flair with which our teams play, but their struggle for survival. As fans, we are similar to spectators of ancient Roman gladiatorial battles in that we already know our hero will fail. What excites us is the lonely man's battle and what keeps us enthralled is the knowledge that sooner or later it will end badly.

It's all a matter of when and how.

Reading the Formula 1 previews as I have every year, in one form or another, since 1997 taught me that Britain's great hope, David Coulthard, is better prepared than ever to launch a successful attempt on the Formula 1 Drivers World Championship. With over seven years of F1 experience, DC knows his trade. With McLaren-Mercedes he races for one of the most successful marques in F1 history, with an engine of the highest pedigree, and in a car designed by one of the best minds to become involved in the sport in recent years.

But 2002 could be yet another year of experience and defeat for Coulthard and his fellow countrymen in the world of sport. I'd love to sit here and say that England will win the World Cup, Tim Henman will annihilate the opposition at Wimbledon and David Coulthard will win the British Grand Prix on the way to his first World Championship, but the reality is more complicated. Forgetting soccer, the nation's most beloved sport for a second, the similarities between Henman and Coulthard are enormous. Both have been on the cusp of real greatness for the last five years and yet neither have delivered on the promising talent they appeared to show as fresh-faced youngsters. The reason for this appears to lie in their attitudes. With Henman it is possible to tell, from the first serve he makes, whether or not he is going to win a match. His confidence and mindset are echoed not only by the way he plays, but also by the manner in which he holds himself. When Henman adopts slouched shoulders and heavy feet, his fans might as well have not bothered turning up, for no amount of screaming the man's name will change the imminent disastrous straight sets defeat.

Coulthard is, without doubt, a great driver and one of the most consistent and determined of the present generation. The Scot has, however, been dogged in the past by allegations of a serious lack of aggression. Critics say it is this one missing dynamic that stands between him and the Championship which he so desperately desires.

But is this criticism really merited any more? I would argue that if aggression was the one facet missing from Coulthard's game in the past, this year he is the complete package.

When David Beckham was sent off during the 1998 World Cup match against Argentina, the English soccer fans all knew the dream was over for another four years. Despite an initial feeling of resentment towards the young player, many English fans privately sympathized with Beckham and his show of aggression. His lashing out reflected the feeling of helplessness shared by every fan in every pub across the nation. Four years on, the man is arguably one of the greatest footballers on the planet and will captain England in this year's World Cup. A gifted, experienced and well-rounded player, Beckham has learned to channel his aggression and use it to improve his game. The England captain's situation is similar to Coulthard's.

Since his debut for Williams in 1994, Coulthards natural speed and talent were clear for all to see. His problem lay in the fact that other drivers were able to walk all over him. Too often we saw him nudged out of races, only to hear that he did not think the other drivers were racing in the spirit of fairness.

And then one sunny French afternoon, David Coulthard, "Mr. Nice Guy", muscled his way past a certain Michael Schumacher, stuck up his middle finger and made a signed suggestion that the German enjoyed his own company a bit too much. This was Coulthard's Argentina game. He has come through it, channelled his aggression and will start 2002 stronger, both mentally and physically, than ever before.

Watching the Gold Medal ceremony, I sat and wondered why I wasn't greatly excited anymore. There's a slight chance that it was because I'd just sat through a curling match that lasted longer than The Godfather trilogy, but deep down I think I had the reason pinned. The basis for my feelings of being completely under whelmed lay with my theory of British fans. We love a good fight but we're not used to winning. We, as a sporting nation, are the perpetual underdog, constantly fighting to overcome our inadequacies.

This is why everybody took drivers like Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill into their heart. The racing fans knew that neither man was the best driver of his generation. What they admired was the grit and determination with which both men fought to win a prize that other, arguably better drivers, were never able to do. This is why the Brits loved Jordan Grand Prix for so long. Surviving for as long as it did as the underdogs is what British fans love.

On my first visit to the British Grand Prix, what amazed me most was not the number of "Damon Hill" emblazoned Union Jacks, or St. Andrew's crosses for DC, but the sea of yellow that greeted you at every corner. But then Jordan won a few races and its support started to dissipate, and little by little Jaguar flags started to appear. As a proven race winner, Jordan was no longer an underdog. It had a very real chance of winning races and the underdog status was handed down to the team in British Racing Green. Similarly, when Jenson Button arrived amidst a sea of media anticipation in 2000, so Coulthard's support started to wane. Was it that the British fans had found an underdog to replace the race-winning Scot? Certainly, the boy was hungry and fast, but his shipping off to Benetton coupled with a severe lack of results, saw even his popularity dwindle last year.

It was Virginia Wade, the English Wimbledon female tennis champion, who once said, "Winners aren't popular. Losers often are." Wade dealt with the fickle nature of British spectators and for Coulthard, one gets the suspicion that 2002 will be his last hope to become universally popular with the British fans. As a man with experience, a great team and race wins behind him, he no longer has the luxury afforded to him when there was no expectation for him to perform.

The British fan has watched David Coulthard grow and develop in the gladiatorial battles of Formula 1 for seven years. Each year, as we do with Wimbledon, the World Cup or the Ashes, we watch on tenterhooks awaiting the crushing blow of the defeat that mathematically knocks our nation's best hope out of the greatest competition in world motor sport. Each year I read the articles on Coulthard's bright outlook and pray that his ardor will not be dampened by defeat. Each year he is beaten and each year he returns stronger and more resilient. This is the development of a confidence, this, the establishment of a man. In this lies the creation of a champion.

And we adore him for it.