Did David Coulthard Fulfill His Potential in F1 Career?

Fraser Masefield@@fmasefieldContributor IMarch 27, 2014

A young Coulthard during his second season with Williams in 1995
A young Coulthard during his second season with Williams in 1995Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

When Ayrton Senna’s Williams veered suddenly off the Imola circuit and crashed head-on into the wall at Tamburello, it changed the face of F1 forever.

Already a legend of the sport, Senna gained mythical status, and new and improved measures came into the sport to make it a safer one for drivers.

Senna’s death also changed the life of a young Scottish driver by the name of David Coulthard, who was thrust into the role of full-time Williams driver alongside new team leader Damon Hill.

It was not the way the lad from Twynholm would have wanted things to happen, but it did mean that he had a coveted drive in a race-winning team earlier than he would have dreamed.

Coulthard had already been Williams' test driver in 1993, having finished third in Formula 3000 the year previous. And in an excerpt of his 2007 autobiography published in the Daily Mail, Coulthard said he had to concentrate on the job in hand rather than reflect on how he got there.

The harsh reality of life and the business is that drivers come and drivers go. Usually they move teams, but sometimes they are killed or seriously injured. This was my opportunity and rather than reflecting on the loss of a great champion, I had to concentrate on my job. If I had done it half-heartedly, that would have been very disrespectful to the late Ayrton, so I just got on with it.

It would be a baptism of fire for the Scot. He qualified ninth in his first race on Spain and climbed as high as fifth before retiring on Lap 32 with an electrical problem.

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Strong points scoring finished in Canada, Britain, Belgium and Italy followed before a second-placed finish in the absence of the suspended Michael Schumacher. Somewhat harshly according to many, Williams recalled Nigel Mansell to aid Damon Hill’s title charge in the remaining three races, but Coulthard was back in the hot seat for the 1995 campaign.

The Williams FW17 was viewed as the superior car on the grid, but again it was Michael Schumacher who took the title for Benetton. Coulthard finished third in the championship having secured his maiden F1 win in Portugal and never having finished lower than fourth. But despite his obvious talent, he was also prone to silly mistakes, such as embarrassingly sliding into the pit wall in Adelaide during a scheduled stop.

It should have been a stepping stone for greater things to come, but Coulthard struggled in his opening two seasons in a less competitive McLaren, with wins in Australia and Italy in 1997 the highlights of a season hampered with reliability issues.

There would be no such excuses the following year as it soon became apparent the MP/13 was not only fast, but reliable. Coulthard could have won in Australia but for a pre-race agreement meaning that he had to concede the race lead to teammate Mika Hakkinen.

Four second-place finishes and a win in San Marino hinted that the title would come down to a close fight between Coulthard and Hakkinen, but it would be his only win of the season as Hakkinen beat Schumacher to the title with eight wins.

The season also saw one of the most memorable of many scraps the Scot had with rival Michael Schumacher. Amidst torrential conditions and poor visibility, Schumacher came up to lap Coulthard but ploughed into the back of the McLaren as the Scot slowed to let him past.

An enraged Schumacher stormed into the McLaren garage to confront Coulthard and even accused him of trying to kill him, as reported by The Independent at the time.

The two drivers cleared the air shortly afterwards with Schumacher admitting his actions were in the heat of the moment and that Coulthard had “done nothing wrong.”

Coulthard reflects in his autobiography:

I had every intention of getting out of his way, so I moved to the right and lifted off the accelerator. Unfortunately, Michael was caught unawares, apparently, and smashed into the rear of my McLaren.

My rear wing was ripped off and his Ferrari lost its nose and front right wheel. He was out of the race. Computers later showed the relative speed of the impact was 137mph. I still had my helmet on by my parked McLaren when I saw Michael storming into our garage. He was clearly livid: 'You tried to f***ing kill me!' I couldn't say anything back because my helmet was on, but he had to be restrained by his own race engineer.

It went without saying that the boost this gave my team-mate Mika Hakkinen's title push did not help my cause in the eyes of cynical observers. A good racing driver is brave, but a great one knows how to use fear to his advantage.

Coulthard enjoyed several close scraps with both Schumacher and Hakkinen over the following seasons but whilst Hakkinen added a further title, Coulthard’s best championship finish was a distant second behind the all-conquering Ferrari of Schumacher in 2001.

With 10 podiums and two race wins in what was clearly the second-best car in the field, Coulthard at least outdrove Hakkinen over the season for the first time, although he would never come as close to winning the title again.

It may be seen as unfortunate that Coulthard competed during a time that two other greats of the sport, namely Schumacher and Hakkinen, were at the top of their game and that he left Williams at exactly the wrong time, when they were last at the peak of their powers.

It’s impossible to say whether Coulthard would have won the title had he been in a Williams in 1996 and 1997, and it would be a slight on Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve to say so. But he was in the best car for the two seasons afterwards and could not live with Hakkinen and Schumacher. But then again, few could.

On his day, Coulthard was a match for anyone and could win against the best and on the most testing of circuits. His two victories at Monaco and Silverstone and 1999 win at Spa are testimony to that.

It’s not for me to say whether or not David Coulthard made the most of his talent as a racing driver. To do so would be presumptuous in the extreme.

It is perhaps best left to the man himself to talk about how he rated his time in the sport, as he told BBC Radio 5 Live after announcing his retirement in 2008.

If you had told me when I started in 1994 that I would retire after 15 seasons, I would have bought that. I never dreamt I would last that long. To have raced against the most successful driver in the history of our sport in the case of Michael Schumacher and to have finished second to him in a world championship is no embarrassment.

I had a chance to win a championship, I had a winning car. I didn't achieve the championship win but I did achieve race victories, so I won't walk away thinking 'if only I had that chance'.

Winning a championship would have been fantastic but it doesn't mean that I don't sleep well at night or that I don't have a great life. I think I have been very fortunate. Some people are good enough and some just don't have that last little bit - that is something I can deal with quite comfortably.