Yesterday David Coulthard announced that he will retire from Formula 1 at the end of this season.
Craig has expressed his disappointment. And as a Scot, I feel a bit of sadness that a nation which has produced two of the greatest grand prix drivers of all time — Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark — will almost certainly not be represented in F1 next year.
Coulthard is one of just two drivers whose début I did not see (the other being Rubens Barrichello). So not only does his departure signal the end of an era for Scottish motorsport, it also signals the fact that F1’s last remaining links to the mid-1990s will soon be gone. That will be further underlined when Barrichello retires, as I expect he will do at the end of this season as well.
Despite the sadness though, I feel that it is now the right time for David Coulthard to retire. He has rarely looked like a potential World Champion, but looking back through the records it is clear that DC has had some amazing high points to his career. He was a runner-up in the World Drivers Championship in 2001 and came third in the championship four times. He has a final tally of 13 race wins to his name. Not bad going at all!
On the other hand, for much of his career he was in race-winning cars and I always got the feeling that Coulthard failed to realise the full potential of these opportunities. In the 1995 season his Williams was a front-running car. His team mate, Damon Hill — by no means the greatest of racing drivers — won four races while Coulthard could manage only one.
His career at McLaren began well. Middling results in 1996 could be blamed on the mediocrity of his car, but the 1997 season began with a win in Australia. This was later followed up by a second in Italy.
But when McLaren became proper championship contenders in 1998, Coulthard went off the boil. The season began with a disastrous Australian Grand Prix in which he let team mate Mika Häkkinen pass on the basis of a gentleman’s agreement. Not only was it a PR disaster, but it was symbolic of the way the two drivers’ seasons would pan out.
His Finnish team mate was entering the high point of his career. Häkkinen comprehensively outclassed Coulthard, taking eight race wins to Coulthard’s one, and 100 points to Coulthard’s 56.
1999 was not much better for Coulthard. Although the McLaren was no longer as dominant, Mika Häkkinen nonetheless took an amazing 11 pole positions during the season while Coulthard — never the strongest of qualifiers — took none. Coulthard finished that season in a distant fourth place, even behind the Jordan of Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
It was not until 2001 that Coulthard was able to assert his authority over Häkkinen. But by that time the Finn was losing motivation and retired at the end of the season. Coulthard finished a highly creditable 2nd in the championship, but took just two race wins and scored barely more than half of the points that 2001 Champion Michael Schumacher took. It was a pyrrhic victory that wasn’t even a victory.
That season also contained the infamous incident when David Coulthard was unable to pass Enrique Bernoldi’s Arrows for several laps at the Monaco Grand Prix. The Scot complained, seemingly forgetting that it was his job to pass the slower Brazilian.
With Häkkinen having retired, 2002 may have been Coulthard’s chance to return to the top. But the McLaren was rather uncompetitive, firmly behind Williams in the championship. And another Finnish hot shot — Kimi Räikkönen — was now threatening to make his life a misery.
A promising start to the 2003 season — with another race win in Australia — quickly fizzled out. Kimi Räikkönen came within two points of the championship. Coulthard was way back in 7th by the end of the season.
2004 was even worse when he finished 10th. Admittedly he was in a highly uncompetitive car in what must count as one of McLaren’s worst-ever seasons. But at least Räikkönen managed to wring a spectacular win out of it in Belgium. By this stage Coulthard was looking distinctly jaded and with Juan Pablo Montoya having long since been announced for the 2005 season, it didn’t take a genius to work out which McLaren driver would get the boot.
2005, however, gave David Coulthard a new lease of life. Given the role of experienced team leader in the fledgling Red Bull team, DC impressed with some mature performances that breathed new life into his career. He was helped by Red Bull’s odd policy of switching the second race seat between Christian Klien and Vitantonio Liuzzi (who was not given as many races as originally announced), but even so he always had the upper hand over his rookie team mates. Now he was entering his period as F1’s elder statesman.
Since then his career has mostly consisted of solid performances backed up with the occasional sparkling highlight. There was an excellent podium at Monaco in 2006, with another following at Canada in 2008. In the races where experience counted — such as the treacherous conditions of Fuji in 2007 — DC excelled.
But the solid performances have dried up. No longer paired with inexperienced team-mates, DC has looked more rusty alongside the trusty Mark Webber. A disastrous start to the 2008 season which saw crash after crash after crash effectively put paid to David Coulthard’s career.
With Red Bull protégé Sebastian Vettel widely tipped to move up to the Red Bull A-team next season, the writing was on the wall for David Coulthard’s career. He had the maturity to realise that, which is why I am glad to see him throwing in the towel now rather than waiting for his performances to become more and more embarrassing.
David Coulthard is one of the most experienced drivers in the history of the sport. In fact, if he sees out the season he will be second only to Rubens Barrichello. That is a testament to his clear ability. But Coulthard’s star shone brightest in mediocre equipment. When he was driving World Championship-winning cars he failed to step up to the plate. And that is what makes him a good driver rather than a great one.
At least we can be sure we haven’t seen the last of David Coulthard. The decision to carry on at Red Bull in a development role is a smart one for Red Bull to take though. While Coulthard is quite rusty during races these days, he obviously still has a talent in terms of car set-up and development.
As for his future career, I have a feeling he could make a decent name for himself in a series like DTM. But the smart money is on him joining the BBC to take the role of post-race analyst. Coulthard is always great at interviews and has been pretty decent whenever he has attempted post-race analysis (as he has done on ITV once or twice). So I am sure he will be the right man for the job at the BBC.