David Coulthard is a name synonymous with Formula One in the 90’s and 2000’s. A veteran of 247 starts, the Scotsman spent a decorated career at some of the sport’s most successful teams and partnered several world champions, amassing 13 wins and 62 podiums himself before retiring at the end of the 2008 season.
Since then, DC has established himself as a media kingpin on the BBC’s F1 coverage while also holding down a global ambassadorship with Dutch brewery Heineken. As the season kicks off this weekend in Melbourne, where Heineken are again hosting their Heineken Saturday festivities (think Apl.de.Ap and Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas performing an exclusive DJ set, amongst other international and local artists) as the grid qualifies for Sunday’s race, we chatted to the man to get the low down on a career spawned in the unlikeliest of places.
Talk me through your career. What was it like driving the dominant works Mercedes of the late 90’s?
DC: I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career, but it started in tragic circumstances. I was a test driver at Williams and the death of Ayrton (Senna) led to me getting a drive. That’s never a way anyone wishes to enter the sport, under those circumstances.
With that said if you look at who I drove for over my career, Williams were a top team of that time and they gave me the opportunity to learn my craft sitting below the likes of Mansell, Prost and Senna. There was then an opportunity to move to McLaren, probably a little earlier (in 1996) than would’ve been wise as the ultimate goal is always to win a world championship, something Damon (Hill) did that year with Williams.
Anyway off I went, landing at McLaren at a time the team really started to grow quickly, namely after Adrian Newey joined. By 1998 we were in a situation where we were in the dominant car. The year before that I won I think in Melbourne – a bit patchy is my memory (laughs) as it’s such a long time ago now – and we really entered an incredible period of success through ’98 and the next 3-4 years. We were in a dominant works Mercedes and my main goal was trying to beat my teammate, Mika Häkkinen who was pretty handy (laughs).
Of course we also had this fantastic battle with Ferrari and Michael Schumacher. If you’re not going to drive for Ferrari, which was never a passion for me particularly as I just wanted to be in the best car I could, battling him head to head in that Ferrari was – as a fan of the sport – an iconic moment. I was always torn between my ultimate goal of trying to win races and the championship and just enjoying the ride quite frankly! It’s a gift to be able to compete in high-line sports and it’s and absolute dream to be paid to do it, and that ultimately is what a professional sportsman is: you’re doing what you’d do for pleasure and somebody comes along and says “we want your services and we’re going to pay you to do it.” It’s like Christmas everyday.
Speaking of your first win in Melbourne, Fangio won two world championships in 1954 and ’55 and then Mercedes dropped out of the sport for nearly 40 years after the Le Mans Disaster of ’55. You were the first driver the win a GP race for the Silver Arrows after their return and that was Melbourne in ’97. Can you talk to me about that day and the emotions surrounding it?
DC: Well I can remember Ron Dennis holding my cheeks on the podium and there was a moment in amongst all the sort of celebration where I thought, “he’s going to full on French kiss me!” Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he’s a great kisser but I just didn’t particularly want to kiss him on the podium in front of millions of people around the world! (Laughs). The joy on his face was immeasurable, particularly when you consider the success that he helped orchestrate.
I absolutely know that I was never one of the greats of the sport. If you’ll allow me to be immodest for a moment and say that I was good enough to win races and to go wheel to wheel and toe to toe with Mika and Michael on occasion, but they had the the consistency to do it week in, week out and thats what the great drivers have. So when you get those moments of having success, especially off the back of a long period of difficulty for McLaren: it’s pure emotion, it’s pure sport and it’s a wonderfully privileged place to be.
You either win from the front which is a pure win, or you inherit it from reliability and I think that day the Williams cars had brake issues so it’s maybe not perfect in your own mind, but a win’s a win and you’ll always take it.
Can you tell us a little bit about finishing your career at Red Bull? You were fortunate enough to link up with Adrian Newey, one of the greatest technical minds in F1 and someone you’d worked with before at both Williams and McLaren. What was that like?
DC: Of course, it was always a pleasure working with Adrian. When I was a young driver at Williams he joined us from Leyton House where he built one of the prettiest little cars, a car that led and almost won the French Grand Prix in 1990 (as a relative back-marker). I actually had dinner with him last Friday in London and he hasn’t changed, through all that time and all that success he still remains such a humble man – and he’s still a racer. Not only is he able to lock himself away in a room on a drawing board – because he still does everything by pencil and paper – he’s been able to stay true to traditional methods while adapting to the changing times of technology and the sport.
We talk about one individual but of course the driver doesn’t win the race alone any more so than the chief designer designs the car on their own, but the difference with Adrian is he’s able to get the best out of the people around him. I’d worked with him at Williams and then at McLaren so when I moved to Red Bull, the number one priority was having someone of his ilk around. This turned to be almost an impossible dream, and his biggest challenge, and it really turned out to be one of the defining moves of his life. It’s one thing winning at Williams or winning at McLaren, which are already established Grand Prix teams, but to go to an underperforming start-up team and help sculpt them into something magical is testament to Adrian’s ability.
I remember telling Mr. Mateschitz, who owns Red Bull that getting someone like Adrian is going to take a serious investment, and he wavered as to whether he was prepared to spend that amount of money on an individual. I had total belief though. There’s certain moments in your career and in your life where, and it’s not arrogance and it’s not stubbornness, you just have clarity. I remember saying to (Mr. Mateschitz), “we can develop talent from within, and we might get lucky. Or, Adrian Newey is the closest thing you’re going to get to a safe pair of hands with creative flair.”
If our aim at Red Bull was to make us a world championship winning team, that is a key element of it. I even told him, “I’m not the best driver in the world,” – which is a strange thing to be telling your boss! (Laughs) “I can win you races in the right circumstance but I’m usually always a few tenths behind the true greats of the sport. Adrian is always half a tenth ahead when it comes to design, that’s why he’s the guy.” The rest is history, and Adrian remains a trusted friend today.
The 2017 season was intriguing because we saw a raft of changes introduced after the Liberty buyout. Can you give some insight into how you enjoyed it?
DC: Ok, Formula One is in this period of not exactly ringing every bell. I mean that in terms of the technology still being incredible, but it being lost underneath the bodywork by way of the hybrid power unit. If you remember back to the first year of hybrids, it was pretty patchy going off the grid in Melbourne and it was even patchier how many cars finished. Formula has been at the cutting edge in various phases of its existence by delivering things to the automotive industry that we all benefit from.
There’s also been many cases of things that haven’t quite resonated and haven’t quite needed to be part of everyday life. I definitely think we’re overly complicated on the engine front for the good of competitive racing: it’s made it more expensive, and it’s made it quieter. It’s now a bit like going to see your favourite rock band at half the volume, and I think anytime you reduce the previous experience and way of enjoying a product, it’s never going to resonate with the hardcore fans. The younger generation don’t know any different and they just take it as it is, which compounds the issue.
But, I do think Liberty have come in at a time where there is opportunity and arguably, despite all the great things Bernie (Ecclestone) had done as a “steady hand” leading the sport, if you keep putting in the same ingredients you’re going to keep getting the same results and Formula One may have seen fans move on.
Liberty’s approach – opening up social media and opening up digital and making every aspect of the sport more accessible – is pointing things in the right direction, but I’m as intrigued as anyone to see where they take it. People often forget that ex-drivers are still F1 fans, so I’m open to change but I’m also a purist in that I want the sport to remain real. I think that is of the utmost importance, and it keeps things as competitive as possible.
Lastly, what’s it like being the face of Heineken and F1 lifestyle globally?
DC: There’s certain moments when you pinch yourself and think, “why did I get so lucky?” I grew up in a small village of a few hundred people in the southwest of Scotland. There was more chance of me either driving a truck in the local family transport business or working on a farm and trying to work out how to milk a bull (laughs) than there was of me becoming a Grand Prix driver. When I joined Red Bull, I was a consumer. I liked the product and wanted to be a part of things, and likewise when Heineken approached me as they began to engage more in Formula One.
I drink responsibly of course and in my little minibar at home I stock Heineken, so suddenly I get this chance to work with them as an ambassador and promote the sport I love, which combines two passions. We all know how marketing works – it suits Heineken very well to engage the way they do but it’s also a bit of a gift to Formula One: a lifestyle consumer brand that’s passionate about delivering as much as they can and bringing people together. Whether you drink alcohol or not, the clinking of glasses and celebration the brand brings is a wonderful thing.
The 2018 Formula One season kicks off this week, March 22-25 at Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit in Melbourne.