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Still in the fast lane

Anandhi Gopinath
Anandhi Gopinath • 11 min read
Still in the fast lane
David Coulthard retired as Britain’s most successful Formula One driver and has turned to F1 commentary to remain involved in the sport he has loved since childhood. In Malaysia to launch Mercedes-Benz’s new C-Class Coupé, he talks about how F1 has e
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David Coulthard retired as Britain’s most successful Formula One driver and has turned to F1 commentary to remain involved in the sport he has loved since childhood. In Malaysia to launch Mercedes-Benz’s new C-Class Coupé, he talks about how F1 has evolved and his pursuits outside of the sport.

With his broad shoulders, sensuously square jaw and icy blue eyes, former Formula One racecar driver-turned-pundit David Coulthard is undoubtedly one of God’s finer specimens. Tall and elegant with an impressively toned physique, his chosen ensemble of a pink T-shirt and light blue jacket from Hugo Boss sits just on the right side of dandy. Because of his rock-steady gait, he glides rather than walks and is immeasurably calm despite the attention his presence draws. People flock to him for autographs or to take a selfie or two and Coulthard acquiesces gracefully, wearing an unflinching and carefully cultivated smile the entire time.

Perhaps he is so much at ease because we are on rather familiar ground, the Sepang International Circuit, where luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz is launching its new C-Class Coupé. Through the large glass windows of the Paddock Club, he looks down at the snaking path of asphalt that cuts into the sharp corners he has successfully taken countless times — at the time of his retirement in 2008, it was in a Red Bull car. “I’ve come to KL for the Grand Prix every year since 1999, so it’s unusual for me to be at Sepang outside of race time,” he tells a star-struck fan.

The source of Coulthard’s incalculable sex appeal may be in the fact that he is truly comfortable in his own skin, involved in passionate pursuits that matter to him and in a position of such seniority that he can afford to speak his mind without any fear of retribution. And after all, he is still the highest-scoring British driver of all time. Opinionated, unapologetic and insightful, he possesses a cheeky wit that is only revealed when the tape recorder is switched off.

Coulthard’s calm and even temperament is what set him apart on the circuit as well — one of the most successful and talented racers of his generation, he showed so much promise as a test driver that Frank Williams chose him to replace Ayrton Senna, who died in 1994 in a horrific crash in Imola, Italy. A life-long fan of British racers Alain Prost and Jim Clark, Coulthard won his first World Championship the following year and would win several more as he represented McLaren. He joined Red Bull when it was formed in 2005, securing the Austrian team’s first podium win the following year.

After retiring at the age of 37, he first signed on as a consultant for Red Bull before turning to commentating for television. Today, he owns a production company with two partners, producing quality sports-related programming for British broadcast, of which F1 is a major part. “F1 is not a sport you can entirely retire from,” he quips, flashing me a broad grin.

His experience and current position provide him with a uniquely balanced vantage point of how the sport has evolved over the years. This includes his opinions on growing criticism that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has pandered too much to consumers’ needs, almost to the detriment of the sport. Coulthard admits Ecclestone is a “brilliant businessman”, but he also acknowledges that the business of F1 is huge and complicated.

“The business of the sport has expanded and the investors have a big return on investment — venue owners in Singapore and Abu Dhabi pay a lot of money to host the race and it’s a very sellable asset. But are the tracks great circuits? No, of course not. Is that a shame? Yes, of course it is. But in the same vein, not all football stadiums can be Old Trafford or Wembley either,” he explains.

“I think it’s very difficult to have everyone be a winner and claim that they have the best circuit of the season. That said, the game is still the same and you still have to win. The technical challenges are still there, so it’s up to the fans to decide which circuits suit them.”

The Autódromo do Estoril in Lisbon, Portugal — where Coulthard won his first Grand Prix — is a technically challenging circuit on the stunning Atlantic coast. It was cut out of the calendar in 1996 due to what the sport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), cited as safety reasons. “I raced there and never once felt unsafe. I guess the modern formula doesn’t allow for that type of circuit. They were a victim of financial restrictions,” Coulthard observes wryly.

The rapid technological advancements in the automotive and motorsport industries have also had an effect on the way F1 races pan out these days. Another sore point with fans is the increased emphasis on the technology that drives these quasi-rockets to the finishing line rather than the skills of the drivers. Coulthard gives an example of how technology has in some ways interfered with the drivers’ competitiveness — Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso are talented drivers and former world champions who are struggling to earn points because of issues with their cars.

“Nothing stands still and a technology- driven sport like F1 is going to be more affected than football, for example,” Coulthard observes. “What we all want is more competitive racing and for the personalities of the drivers to come through because they are the stars. The cars are incredible pieces of engineering, but they don’t talk or fight. The focus has to be on the driver.”

He does concede to the inevitable tech-takeover effect — it’s sort of a necessary evil. He says, “When the hybrid formula came along, which is a big part of all our futures, it made F1 so much more complicated and it was forced, perhaps, on the sport. The thing is that F1 has to be a proving ground for the manufacturers, otherwise they wouldn’t be as excited about investing.”

This is not to say that all is lost or that F1 as a sport has gone past its prime. Indeed, the advent of technology has the potential to make the sport more exciting, but the heart of motorsport remains rooted in the driver’s skills and technically sophisticated and innovative engineering. “The speed, the danger and the glamour of the calendar — that’s what keeps people excited because everyone likes fast cars,” Coulthard opines.

Being an industry veteran, he has the uncanny ability to recognise new talent and has his eye on quite a few young upstarts in F1. For obvious reasons, much of his attention remains on the line-up assembled for Red Bull.

“They’ve had a wonderful run with Sebastian [Vettel] for four years,” he says, referring to the German racer who is now with Ferrari. “Now, they’ve got a great car and with [Max] Verstappen and [Daniel] Ricciardo, they’ve got two really ambitious drivers. Max is only 18 and Daniel is 26, which means that they have eight years between them — that’s a huge gap and it’s interesting to see how they are going to relate to each other and go wheel to wheel.”

Leaning forward excitedly, he adds, “With Ferrari… I feel Kimi [Raikkonen] is not what he used to be. Sebastian [Vettel] seems to be a little faster, even though not consistently, and he’s had the upper hand a lot of the time. It’s probably getting towards the end for Kimi, but I’m not forcing him out of the sport; the sport will decide.”

The conversation soon meanders to the topic of his favourite circuits from the perspectives of a driver, commentator and spectator. “Spa in Belgium is a great track because of the elevation — anywhere with elevation changes is a great circuit, Sepang included. Because it makes you feel like you’re on a roller coaster,” he says. “Monte Carlo is challenging for the drivers and Silverstone is tough because it calls for very high speeds.”

Ultimately, the value of F1 lies in its spirit of sportsmanship and competitiveness, which is what he hopes to see as the sport continues to evolve. “I don’t think Marussia deserves to have the same technology as Mercedes because they haven’t invested as much time and the rest of it,” he says. “But it would be great if we could find a way for them to be half a second of each other — while you want the best driver/car combination to win, it should be close enough for the smaller teams to get into the mix occasionally if it rains, or something like that.”

A loud cheer and the slamming of brakes distract him temporarily, drawing his gaze to the circuit area outside. For a quick second, Coulthard relaxes and looks a little wistful. One might think he misses the frenetic pace of a professional racecar driver, but his current schedule is punishing enough — not only does he make it to every single race on the calendar to supply content for his company, Whisper Films, Coulthard also restores and renovates properties in the UK and Europe.

Then, of course, there is his family. His parents remain in Scotland while his wife, Belgian news presenter Karen Minier, and son, Dayton, are based in Monaco, where Coulthard’s grandfather once competed in the Monte Carlo Rally. Seven-year-old Dayton is a priority and Coulthard makes it a point to spend as much time as possible with him, even if it means flying to and from Asia on exhausting night flights to do the school run a few days a week.

It was his rally-driver father who introduced him to the thrill of racing — with a go-kart at the age of 11. However, Coulthard credits his family for his diligent work ethic and careful attention to detail, both of which have been handy in his days as a racer and now in property renovation. He admits being particular about having things done to his exacting standards.

His property business is an interesting one, purely because it is so removed from the fast-paced and hectic world of motorsport. “Well, I did come into this business later on,” he shares. “I found out that a lot of investment advisers can’t be trusted, but I’ve never lost out on a property. It sits where you bought it and unless there’s an earthquake, it will be there no matter what. I prefer tangible investments and I’m very happy to make a little bit of profit on a little bit of hard work.”

Coulthard is also actively involved in a charity called Wings for Life, a not-forprofit spinal cord research foundation. As a young and impressionable man in his early 20s, Coulthard was deeply inspired by Frank Williams’ battle with spinal cord injuries after an accident and watched how paraplegia wreaked havoc on families. Williams was fortunate to have more than enough support, but Coulthard knew that not everyone is as lucky. “Any way you cut it, it’s a horrible way to live. We have helped coordinate research from various foundations with Wings for Life and we are making progress — we are increasingly confident that we will find a cure,” he says proudly.

He is likeable, intelligent, grounded and humble — some of the many reasons why Mercedes-Benz made Coulthard part of the family in 1996 and also why the Scotsman made time for the launch in KL. That said, his C-Class at home in Monte Carlo is a family-friendly station wagon rather than the newly launched sleek and sexy coupé. The difference is not lost on him, though. “From the front door forward, I know the car really well. But from the front door rearward, it’s a very different styling,” he chuckles.

On the circuit, he certainly did justice to the new coupé’s powerful engine and flawless handling. Doing a lap around the Sepang circuit with him is an exhilarating experience, and I witness the absolutely relaxed and Zen-like disposition that made him so successful on and off the track as he expertly manoeuvres the circuit’s famous hairpin turns that have thrown the concentration of many an F1 racer.

“It’s really quite a lovely car,” he says, as the speedometer touches 200kph. “I can see my mother driving it, I can see me driving it and I can certainly see a 17-year-old me absolutely loving it. It covers the age spectrum and only depends on whether it’s a car you’d want.”

Yes, I would like that car, please. As long as Coulthard is in it.

Anandhi Gopinath is assistant editor with the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia.

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 743 (August 29) of The Edge Singapore.

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