A new dawn for David Coulthard? 02 Mar 2005
Will a move from McLaren to the all-new Red Bull Racing team bolster the reputation of Formula One racings senior Scotsman, or simply put him on a fast track to retirement?
It's no shock to learn that the most successful driver on the grid at Albert Park this Sunday will be Michael Schumacher. Statistically the reigning world champion is the greatest Formula One driver of all time - as evinced by his seven Championships, 83 race victories and 1186 championship points.
But the driver with the second-best set of stats might come as more of a surprise, especially as he is driving for newcomers Red Bull. The man in question is David Coulthard. The Scotsman is about to begin his 11th Formula One season, with the grand total of 13 wins, 12 poles and 475 championship points behind him. But is he now ever likely to ever substantially improve on those figures?
Coulthard began his career at Williams in 1994, making his Grand Prix debut in Spain, the team still shocked by the recent death of Ayrton Senna. Coulthard quickly made his mark on the sport, finishing the 1995 championship in third place (behind the battle between team mate Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher) before moving to McLaren in 1996.
Coulthard proved himself the consummate team player, shaping his contribution to the team around the special relationship between champion driver Mika Hakkinen and principal Ron Dennis. Coulthard tested hard and performed PR functions uncomplainingly, while putting in strong performances on the track. His best year came in 2001 as Hakkinen's motivation faded towards the end of the season, Coulthard finishing as runner-up to the dominant Michael Schumacher.
Coulthard has admitted turning down a testing role with Ferrari in preference for his race seat with Red Bull. He is certainly bringing the team some much-needed experience, although how his motivation will cope with what are likely to be regular second-half grid positions will be an interesting question. If he makes a success of the role then he knows there is every chance that he will have at least another season of Formula One racing.
Returning to those pesky statistics, however, and the odds of success for an older driver opting to move to a lesser team, rather than retire, are not great. One of the best examples can be found in Coulthard's former team mate, Damon Hill. Having been unceremoniously dropped by the Williams team in 1997 after his driver's championship, Hill took up the offer of a drive with the midfield Arrows team. He suffered from a mostly lacklustre season, the single bright spot being near-victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix after a brilliant drive took him to an eventual second place. The following year he moved to Jordan, taking his final Grand Prix victory with a stunning drive at the sodden Belgian Grand Prix, but finishing the championship in sixth place. Coulthard certainly has his work cut out if he is to win again before retirement.
Another former champion, Alan Jones, opted to return to Formula One racing in 1985, after a two year absence. Throughout two seasons with the Lola team he put in solid, gutsy performances, but the car lacked the pace necessary to get close to the front-runners and he never got onto the podium (fourth in the 1986 Austrian Grand Prix the best result of this closing part of his career.)
But for a slightly more upbeat example of what's possible, Coulthard need look no further than Jacques Villeneuve. Another Williams veteran, Villeneuve took the 1997 drivers' championship with a dominant performance, but has never managed to recapture the glory since. After a largely unsuccessful stint with BAR, Villeneuve was dropped by the team at the end of the 2003 season and found himself without a seat for the following year. Few expected him to return to Formula One racing, but after Trulli had left Renault the French-Canadian found himself drafted in as substitute for the final three races of the season, and has managed to land himself a full race drive with Sauber for this year.
As clear team leader, with two younger drivers clearly looking to his experience for guidance, driving for Red Bull should undoubtedly be good for Coulthards ego. Whether he can add to his impressive tally of championship points remains another matter.