Fourteen of the top fifteen drivers in the World Championship have contracts with Formula One teams for the 2005 season. The one who doesn't have a contract has scored thirteen wins and sixty podium appearances in his ten years in the sport and is currently seven points away from being the fourth highest point scorer in Formula One history. That driver is David Coulthard. It's an anomaly that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, but then again this is Formula One, and sometimes sense is what happens elsewhere. With one race to go this season, there remains only one potential top line seat available - probably at Williams, given the outcome of the Contracts Recognition Board's decision regarding Jenson Button - and after that there is the confusion of what remains of the Cosworth-powered teams. Given this, the outlook is less than ideal.
So what does the man himself think of his chances of being on the grid in Melbourne next March? "Well I'd like to think better than fifty percent," the Scotsman stated in Hungary, while leaning back and signing photographs for the team as he spoke, "but I can't honestly know until I get my signature on a contract. It's an all or nothing type of situation, isn't it? If you have a signature then you're in, if you don't, then it really depends on - in terms of experience and knowledge and all that sort of thing - [whether] I've got all the potential to be there.
"I don't presently have a contract signed, so if I did I'd say one hundred percent, but I can't, because I haven't. But I have to believe I have an opportunity - in some cases, with some of the teams I've spoken to, they went ‘hmm, why are you talking to us?' as if to say ‘why on earth would you want to drive for us?' type thing, so I think in many ways because you've been driving for top teams sometimes they think it's not worth your while to talk to them, which is absolutely ridiculous. The bottom line is I could choose not to want to continue, but I'm going to sit down in November and decide what I want to do thereafter.
"Now, am I going to want to race? Almost certainly, because I enjoy racing, but if I say no, I don't want to race, then what am I going to do? Go and start meddling in the running of the hotels, or go and start meddling in something else, start another business? I'm sure I'm not going to sit at home, counting my pennies - I'm going to have to do something, because that's who I am. And therefore if I can do what I enjoy doing, which I've been doing for twenty two years, can continue to be involved and to influence, to make a difference and work towards getting results, then that seem to me to be a pretty good reason to want to continue. I've never had the ‘do I want to do this?' type of attitude.
"Money was never the motivation - I felt quite comfortable when I was nineteen years old and had nothing in the bank, and felt quite comfortable before I was just starting in Formula One, with a small amount of money. I sit here at thirty three, and in an every day life sense of things I'm a wealthy individual, but it doesn't mean I sleep better at night because that was never my motivation - it's not about having the gold watch down the pub, giving it ‘didn't I do well?'; I've always been quite a private person, I come from a small village, and I still keep myself pretty much to myself."
It's easy to see Coulthard as part of the furniture - he has been such a regular part of the upper echelon of the sport since making his debut in 1994, that it is just assumed that you will see that familiar square jaw, hear that well-known soft Scottish burr on any given race weekend. It's also been assumed by a lot of fans that, since he has been with top teams throughout his career, he has had everything handed to him on a plate. To that extent, this year - his first since 1996 where he hasn't been able to claim a win - has been a surprise to fans and the team alike.
"Well, no one would have thought that we would have performed so badly at the start of this year," Coulthard notes, "and the fact is that even when you've got all the resources and all the technical people and what have you, you can still get it very wrong. What the team has shown is that the resources allow you to bounce back mid season, or in the latter part of the season, while another team would be condemned to that type of performance all year long.
"Of course your motivation is to win and whatever, but motivation is essentially about believing you can make a difference, believing you can get in there and mix it with whoever you are being competitive with at that time, and enjoying it. Just because I'm not to be in a car that's guaranteed to win doesn't mean I'm going to go off and do something else - that's ridiculous; throughout your career you don't always get that situation.
"Some people have asked if I'm hungry enough or whatever, but what changes? What am I supposed to have changed, just because I have X amount of millions more than I had a few years ago or whatever? Why does that change anything? I've been doing the same thing for 22 years now, and that is racing. I like racing - I admit I don't like some of the things that go on around it, but that gives you something to complain about - and we all need something to whinge about! I always felt that I could compete at the highest level of the sport, which is Formula One, and I still believe I can - that's what motivates me."
DC: How important is it for you to stay in Formula One?
Coulthard: "Right now I genuinely have no commitments in my diary other than racing and testing - that is the truth, not that it's a major revelation, but that is a fact. So what it shows is when people say he's thirty three, he's earnt a lot of money, he's involved in hotels, all the things that people would say, then yes, I have done all those things, but the other guys who've earnt money don't just have it in a shoebox under the bed - they have it in other investments that either are high profile or they're not. The only thing I've done with one particular investment is use my profile to help promote that particular hotel - I live around the corner, so it's not a big effort for me to do.
"But what I'm trying to demonstrate is that there's no difference between the David Coulthard of today and the David Coulthard of 1995 other than my wealth - the commitments that I have off track are no more and no less - they're the same. If I had a wife and children I'd feel different, because that is a commitment, a responsibility, but I have no other commitment - I'm planning to go home on Sunday night, but if I choose not to, and never go home again, there's no one who is going to starve to death! I don't have any mental baggage to stop me making any decision I want on Sunday that could change the direction of my life.
"Other guys, quite successfully, have wives and children and that's fantastic - I have a brother with three kids, and it's great to see that - but it's a responsibility. I recently invited my brother to the Moto GP, and his first answer was not 'yeah I'll be there', his first answer was 'let me check; the kids are still on holiday'. It is a responsibility, and I just want to demonstrate, you know, am I hungry? Yes. Am I motivated? Yes. Is there something there that's going to make me lift off? No, there is nothing there."
Motivation is one thing, but opportunity is entirely another. With a tenth year at McLaren all but impossible outside of the unlikely scenario of the team being able to race three cars, should Coulthard race next year, motivation will have to be provided in an entirely new manner.
DC: You've been in a mostly top of the grid team for your entire career, you're used to being in a position where you can challenge for wins and Championships, and that motivation I can understand. What do you think is the motivation for a driver who perhaps is used to that and then has to look for something else?
Coulthard: "I guess the ultimate goal for drivers is wins and championships – but even if you don't have a realistic chance, the motivation still comes to do the best job you can, with the tools that you have, and that is what Kimi [Raikkonen] and I have tried to do this year. We have done as well as we could with the tools that we were given, and chose, for the weekend. So just because you're not in a position to win doesn't mean you throw your dummy in the dust and go home saying 'I don't want to play anymore' - it's a fantastic technical challenge, and you get to work with motivated people who can, with your influence, change things.
"You know, I've seen so much that I didn't realise at the time - if you just spend a little bit longer, sit around talking a bit longer, suddenly you say something that seems crazy and the engineers say ‘yeah, I think we can do that', they'll go away and design something or do something with the software and come back with something that might not win that race or the next one, but it just makes the job a little bit easier. It becomes one of those things where you say ‘how did we ever survive without that?'
"I really enjoy that aspect of it, and I can imagine the frustration of, if I put myself in your shoes, coming here and you largely have the same scenario, the same song coming from all the teams - we're making progress, we're making this - and you've really got to fish, you've got to sort out what is the little bit of truth amongst everything, and to come up with something in your article where you can say 'yeah, I'm proud of that'.
"In many ways you come up with the same sort of frustrations, the same sort of problems to get the finished product, but you still come, you still do it, because you don't have to be in Formula One - you could be doing it in whatever [field] you want to do, but potentially it's the same motivation: you come here, you've got an interest, you do your homework, you gather information and you come up with a story."
DC: So the target changes, the motivation to be with a team at, say, Jaguar's level becomes to see if you could potentially propel the team up?
Coulthard: "Yeah, sure, of course that is the motivation - you would go in there, and they would look to me for a lot of the experience that I've had, and you get on and work together. And hopefully if those guys are motivated, the attitude would be 'right, we think can do that, and somehow we're going to do that - we're going to find the budget because we believe it's going to bring performance'. It's not a case of coming up with things, it's not about putting leather trimming in the interior of the car because it looks good, because all of those things are of no interest - it's about does it make the car more reliable? Does it make the car easier to drive? All of this will make the car ultimately quicker.
"And so you would come from that point of view first, and then you start getting into 'will it make the car quicker in pure lap times' - that is, the golden set up change or the golden thing that you come up with, and they are few and far between that you come up with something that you bolt on that makes the car two tenths quicker. But maybe if you make the driver a little bit more comfortable, then he can find a tenth or two tenths, and you haven't had to spend a lot of money on it.
"Bear in mind that the regulations are changing significantly, which doesn't immediately mean it's going to turn the grid on its head but, for example, if McLaren could be as far away this year with all the resources then there's absolutely no reason why what has not been regarded as a classically big team couldn't do a good job. I've got a lot of experience, work with motivated people, and sometimes you can do a lot with less finances and all the rest of it - you've just got to be leaner and more focused.
"I've sat twelfth on the grid in Hungary, behind the Jaguar, and my teammate was only one place in front of the Jag - it was only one race, but that's the reality of the situation. Their finishing has been the problem - their performance in qualifying and that kind of thing has been pretty good considering the budget and everything they have - they have a fraction of the budget we have.
"You know, a football player might make a move that might not seem like a step forward, but if it gives him the ability to derive pleasure from what he's doing then you go for it - you shouldn't automatically stop because you can't win. It's not like boxing, where obviously you should stop before you get beaten - after all, in F1 you get beaten more often than you win!"
DC: How much do you think a driver nowadays can take to another team when they move?
Coulthard: "The basics, still - if you have information, and it depends on the team, but if you have information on geometries and switch positions, aero figures, horsepower figures, things like that, it gives marks in the sand so people know what they're aiming for. That doesn't design their car for them, which is the problem, so the influence … well, maybe you can stop them trying something that you tried somewhere else that didn't actually end up working. So there is that experience, but otherwise it's not as though you're taking a blueprint of a winning car with you."
An obvious point of reference for Coulthard's situation is his good friend Jacques Villeneuve, who found himself without a drive for 2004, before being picked up for the final three races of the season by Renault. The difference, of course, is that Villeneuve maintained he wouldn't return to the sport unless he was able to land a competitive drive, whereas Coulthard, more realistically, is talking to anyone and everyone. Has Coulthard perhaps learnt anything from his friend's plight? Does he see any similarities between their relative situations?
"Well I can't talk for Jacques - he's a very different individual, and he's turned on by different things. He's a gadgets freak and likes to spend hours and hours playing computer games and what have you, so we're wired differently.
"But essentially in the car we do the same job - he's obviously got a World Championship against his name, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he's a better driver than I am, or that I'm a worse driver because I didn't win a world title. If we're going into statistics, I stack up pretty well against a lot of World Champions in terms of my results. I've done more than enough with race wins and wheel to wheel racing - I just didn't manage to do when McLaren were hot, or my teammates were hot at the same time."
DC: Michael Schumacher always says that records mean nothing to him, although it seems clear that they do - how much does your record mean to you?
Coulthard: "I never really paid too much attention until basically this year, when it was like 'here's my calling card, these are my results'. I suddenly decided that it would be a nice thing to have in the office in Monaco, to stick up pictures of the podiums and victories - on one wall there are the victories, and there are thirteen of those; and on the other wall there are whatever, forty seven podiums. It's quite impressive when you see them all on the wall - it's a good reminder when people come in and say ‘what are all these pictures?' and you go ‘they are my podiums and wins'.
"You don't end up there by accident, even if you are in a good car. So yeah, my record means something, of course it does. It represents my efforts for the last ten years, and there are times when I've let the team down and times when the team's let me down, so the record should be better.
"Take Michael away, who I'm racing - and I think it's a good thing to race at the time of the most successful racer in Formula One, because at some point when you're sitting back and saying 'what did you achieve?' Okay, I've finished second in a World Championship, but the most successful driver in the history of the sport was the guy in front of me. Take Michael out of it and you're in a situation where, all these other guys who won a Championship with one or two victories in a year, a [Keke] Rosberg just for example, they've got no reason to be able to walk any taller than I do. But the reality is people do go ‘yeah, he was a Champion' and if you're not then it's ‘yeah, wanker'.
"But again, my motivation is not public recognition or media recognition - I like, as I do in my life generally, if you can have several polite conversations with people and be friendly, then that's the nicest route to live your life; that's part of my upbringing. At various points I have walked in harmony with the media or I've come up against them because I felt they were being too harsh or whatever, but that's not what makes me feel that I'm a good man or a bad man, or a successful driver or a bad driver."
DC: Ron Dennis has already said how much he values your input into the team - do you have an agreement to stay with the team if no racing opportunities arise?
Coulthard: "I haven't discussed it with Ron, because I've made it quite clear that my intention is to try and get a race seat, so if you've got a very firm and clear goal that you want to achieve then it's a cop out to try and have a safety net there - you don't have a safety net when you are driving a racing car. I've heard some comments that if I don't find anything then maybe there's a possibility; time will tell, if I don't get anything else, whether that's correct or whether it's a motivational word.
"I just want to get the most competitive seat that I possibly can to allow me the opportunity to continue Grand Prix racing. I enjoy Grand Prix racing - why stop because I've had an opportunity to be with a top four team, just because there isn't the chance to have that? It's a bizarre thing, you know - he's been in a top team so therefore he must stop. Why? I'm only thirty three years old - what am I going do for the next thing? If I didn't enjoy it, or I didn't feel I could contribute, then yeah, it would be time to go off and do something else, whatever that may be. I just don't feel that."
DC: What do you think you will do when you stop?
Coulthard: "Something business oriented that I can throw myself into, I'm sure. I'm not spending much time thinking about it at the moment, but it will be something that gets you out of bed in the morning, that creates frustration, that creates problems that you find solutions for, that you sit down at the end of the day and say 'that was good, we made some progress there', or 'this is more difficult than I thought it was, how are we going to get ourselves out of this?' Those are exactly the sort of things that motor racing throws at you.
"Look, I'm closer to the end [of my career] than the beginning, that's for sure, and so I'm working through what I enjoy doing - if playing computer games all day like Jacques was what I enjoyed doing, then I'd be doing it, and I don't have to be here anymore today than when I first started - it was my choice to first start. I'm not clawing desperately to stay here, but it's a perfectly pleasant place to spend your weekends."
DC: It could be worse...
Coulthard: "Sure, it could be worse - I could be sitting, fishing and talking to myself!"
"I do not want to talk about anything to do with Ayrton's accident, or anything to do with the legal processes that followed it, or anything to do with the Williams organisation or any of its people." Those were the ground rules Ron Dennis laid out on Sunday morning of the Bahrain Grand Prix, as a select group of journalists gathered around the McLaren team principal for a rather unusual media briefing.
Dennis is used to public speaking; it's something he does constantly, and well. But this occasion was something far different from the media briefings he does at every race; this was a talk about a close friend, a man he loved, who died in about the most public way possible. Despite a decade passing since that fateful day, the pain was still obvious in his demeanour as he spoke.
With the understanding that the media would have no more than fifteen minutes of his time, Dennis proceeded, hesitantly, to discuss so many of the things that made this man he so greatly admired what he was. He spoke for over an hour. It was an electrifying experience to hear Dennis speak with such passion.
"The way I handled [Senna's death] was to think about it extensively, compartmentalize it, put it in a special place in my own mind, and then focus on life," Dennis said of that fateful day ten years ago.
What follows is the full account of Dennis's story, word for word.
* * *
I do not think Ayrton would change anything that happened. He lost his life doing something that he was passionate about, and it was his life - to the exclusion of many, many things that other drivers and individuals enjoy on a regular basis. He was completely dedicated, completely focused, derived tremendous satisfaction and uplifting emotional experiences out of racing and winning races. He was completely unique - in the sense of how much of an adrenalin rush he used to get from not just winning races, but also fantastic qualifying laps, and of course World Championships.
And it was always an emotional roller coaster for him. He was never comfortable with wherever he was, he would most certainly have moments that were very difficult - his post  Suzuka period was most definitely, following the collision with Alain [Prost] and what took place after that. He was deeply affected by the unfairness that took place after that particular race and in fact retired [from racing]. And it took a great deal of effort on my part to convince him to come back and race.
I am talking about the post-race happenings of that particular race, where there was lobbying of Jean Marie Balestre and the process of what took place immediately after the race and the subsequent appeals was just grossly unfair.
As it happens, whatever the outcome of that race was, it didn't... if he had won it, it wouldn't have given him the World Championship. But you could say, well, how did it affect his performance in the last race? Either way, is just [demonstrates] how up and down emotionally he was throughout his entire career.
And that was the sort of person he was. If he found himself feeling that it was unjust - any of the circumstances, and not always things that affected him; sometimes things that affected motor racing [in general] or other drivers - he would be deeply influenced by it and he was more than prepared to put his own views forward in a constructive way.
Everybody has elements of themselves that are unique - and he was unique in many ways. His dedication... I think that he pioneered the approach to physical conditions of drivers. He realised that if he put himself in the absolute maximum level of physical fitness that it would influence positively his driving, so I think he set new standards on conditioning himself to race. But that was, again, just part of his obsession of being the best.
Senna sort of invented visualisation and really was able to mentally drive a lap and think about those areas where he needed to fight the car versus control the car versus go with the car. And he had that great ability to cope with adversity. You know, the difference between great drivers and good drivers is about being able to win with a car that isn't perfect. And very often we would know we were racing with maybe a tyre that was going to give up after a few laps, or a particular weakness in the car that had to be addressed as the driver - we were still in the era of drivers changing gears. You know, the thing about modern gearbox now is that it's very difficult for the drivers to damage the gearbox, and that was very much the opposite in the days when you changed gears mechanically, because you damaged the gearbox and that would adversely affect your performance; gears would jump out and so on.
He was great at being that all-round driver and coping with adversity, and of course the best and most enjoyable races were those races that were won in difficult circumstances.
He most definitely did not feel invincible; he knew very well the risks. I remember... in some ways it's funny, in some ways it was an insight, but he went off in practice for the Mexican Grand Prix and he was upside down, in the gravel, and he was having a good old moan and groan, and literally was shaken up and was complaining about pain in one of his ears. As far as we could tell he was pretty unscathed, but he's been a bit of a drama queen. [Prof.] Sid [Watkins] and I were there, and when you invert a car at first you fear the worst because everything is inverted and forces can be levied on the driver. And he was pretty shaken up, so we were rushing around in the medical centre.
You know, Sid is not tolerant of some of the driver's behaviour and Senna was moaning about the pain in his ear and was sure it wasn't ever going to go away, and Sid pulled a big gravel stone that had somehow got inside the helmet, and pulled it out of his ear. Ayrton was sure this pain was never going to go away, and suddenly it was as though someone had reattached it to him.
So that was one of those moments where he experienced fear. He knew he wasn't invincible. So did he go through his motor racing career feeling that nothing could ever happen to him and that he was sort of protected? Definitely not. That was a myth; it wasn't how he was. He knew his limits, he knew the danger, he accepted the danger, and was always very balanced if he'd put himself in a risky position.
He did not [deliberately lose the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix because of some religious experience]. It's rubbish, I'm sorry. His post-accident emotion was pure anger with himself. I've never seen him or heard him more frustrated and angry. He knew that he had effectively lost concentration and made a very fundamental error when he came down onto the sea front and hit the barrier. And he couldn't cope with it at all. He was almost incoherent when he ultimately spoke. He actually walked back to his apartment and it was two or three hours before he surfaced. But when he resurfaced he regained composure but was still very, very negative about the performance and very apologetic to the team.
Ayrton - and you must remember, this is my perception of him - was brought up in a family that was normal in its approach to religion, with the exception of his sister Viviana who sought and found peace of mind in her own beliefs. And she encouraged Ayrton to seek similar comfort from religion. And he did follow a religious way of life, but not in an extreme way. He used, I think, the impartiality of the Bible as a sort of guidance to his own life. He wasn't obsessed; he wasn't, I wouldn't say, deeply religious. But he was religious and he sought guidance by reading the Bible and specifically parts of the Bible that Viviana talked to him about. Was he an extremist? Most definitely not.
No, [he didn't have an apparition while driving], it's folklore. I mean, he would sometimes talk about a lap and he would talk about it in a sort of level of perfection that he felt it was a perfect lap and he had got a tremendous buzz out of doing a lap and setting a laptime. And the reason I think this was talked about was - quite a bit within the team - because of the tremendous efforts that we had to put into it not fazing out whichever teammate he had. Because he was the past master of psyching out his teammates. He was very good at it. But he didn't do it. He did it by really doing an exceptional job in and out of the car. But when he realised that it was another weapon in his sort of weaponry to defeat his opposition - i.e. psyching people out - then he honed it to perfection. He was very good.
* * *
When he joined our team, he didn't have a sense of humour, and that doesn't really go down well in our team. Many people consider us grey and disinteresting and lacking passion and esprit de corps - it's just not like that inside the team. It is very different. And if I reflect back, as I said, he didn't have a sense of humour, and it was important he had one. So initially I sort of started the process of trying to give him an understanding of the value of laughter and what a great way it was to break tension in a situation - and of course it became an amusing mission [in later years] for Gerhard [Berger] and myself. Practical jokes ran consistently through the team and they were sometimes extreme, and of course nuts.
Once he had realised that this had an element of competition about it - you know, who could do the most outrageous thing to the other - then he very much entered into the spirit, and of course the end result was it broke the tension down and actually was a good adhesive in the relationship between the drivers and the management, and he really entered into it because that gave him the environment to thrive.
He was competitive in anything and everything. In the initial period, the first time I met him, he came as a young guy - he was in Formula Ford, he was going into Formula Three. I offered to pay for his Formula Three championship in return for an option on his services, and I can't remember the words but he was very clear in telling me that he'd pay for his own Formula Three season as he didn't want anything other than a guarantee of a drive as opposed to giving an option. And you know, this was a young guy who hadn't really proven himself, and yet had the self-belief that he was going to be a tremendous Formula One driver.
So that was the first encounter, and definitely when we parted I thought, 'arrogant little...' you know... 'young Brazilian' (laughs). And of course then he emerged in Lotus, and he struggled with many things in that initial period of his career, and when we got together and started negotiating, he mentally prepared himself for the negotiations.
He was a fine negotiator. As with his driving, he would spend a lot of time thinking about it and that time he was renting a little house in Esher - 15 minutes drive from our factory at that stage. And when we were negotiating, the meetings somehow always seemed to be about midday. And it was a series of days going backwards and forwards. And of course I'd go back - I had to do other things - and he would sit for 24 hours deciding how he was going to position himself for the next round of negotiations. And in fact how we structured the contract with regards the normal fiscal matters was difficult.
And as is probably well known, we came into a rock and a hard place on the last half million dollars, which really... it's wrong to say that it was at all trivial, the half million dollars, but it became a point of principal - who was going to win that last path of the negotiations. In essence I'm sure he sat saying, 'well I'm going to drive for McLaren even if I have to drive for half million less' and I was sat saying 'I'm going to give him the half million extra because we want him to drive for McLaren', so neither of us was really concerned about this additional money, but more about losing the last part of the negotiations.
His English wasn't perfect at that stage, you know, and the moment came where I suggested that maybe we should put this down - as we both had very firm positions - to break the deadlock by tossing a coin. And he didn't actually... it's something that clearly never happened in Brazil, tossing a coin to break a deadlock. So it took a while to explain it.
And then of course it got quite serious because we realised that if we're going to do this as a way to break a deadlock we should be clear about the rules, so I literally had to draw a picture of a head and a picture of a tail! Select a coin and say - this is you and this is me. It can't land on the side, it has to be flat.
And when we got the rules and had been over them several times to make sure there are no misunderstandings, and then of course was [the question] who was going to toss the coin, and where are we going to catch it, was it going to fall to the ground, all these things (laughs) and we had a couple of practice runs.
We were at a very small office, and there was a brown shag pile carpet in his office, so it wasn't a particularly good surface on which this coin was going to land. So eventually we threw the coin, and amazingly it rolled under the curtain! As we were sort of jumping up, I said: just remember, if it's on its side it doesn't count, because we couldn't see it. Of course, he lifted the curtains and it was in fact flat. It rolled off the side of the curtain on the parquet floor and it was absolutely clear cut flat. And I won the bet.
It wasn't until I was driving away that I realised that this is a three year contract and this was a 1.5 million dollars sum that we just threw a coin for. I somewhat doubt that anyone had tossed a coin for 1.5 million dollars, and of course that sounds like we were disrespectful for money, but it had nothing to do with that - it was just simply a way to break the deadlock. But from that moment on, fiscal competition reared its ugly head in many ways.
When we were in Mexico for the first Mexican Grand Prix, we were sat waiting for the meal to come, and there were a whole range of these hot sauces and some sort of crackers that you dipped into them. You can imagine this stuff was varying in heat and the dialogue had taken place with the waiters saying which is the hottest and everybody tried a bit and was generally with eyes watering. And Senna said, 'you know I couldn't eat any of that', and I said 'I could eat the whole bowl for a thousand dollars'. And he took the bet.
Of course he hesitated because he'd been ensnared in this battle, but to his credit he didn't back out. I thought, well, clearly it's not going to kill me; and clearly it's going to burn. But if I eat it very, very quickly then before the chemicals start to work it will be inside me and I'll be thousand dollars better off! So I literally grabbed a spoon and ate it as fast as I could eat it, much to his surprise. And of course I then suffered the initial aftershock, but it was comfortably balanced with a thousand dollars mentally having taken the money. He didn't have the money on him of course, and I was drinking water and everything. And after about half an hour I managed to completely neutralise the chemical effect of this very hot stuff.
By the time I had a couple glasses of wine I thought, well that was the easiest 1000 dollars I have ever earned, only to find that actually after a few hours it not only had the sort of ingoing chemical effect but it has an outgoing chemical effect as well! Needless to say, I'm sure you all gain a wonderful sense of me having taken out of the bathroom the sort of shower-head, which was on a flexing hose, unscrewed the hose and had to administer a sort of liquid coolant for a period of time...
Of course, and as was with many of the things that took place, the most important thing was never to admit that it ever happened. And that of course followed right through his period at McLaren. Whether it was Gerhard or myself or sometimes third parties like Lisa, my wife, or Ayrton himself - the worst thing you could actually admit, is that you had been got, and therefore you would go to great length to conceal it so that the next morning - everyone would be waiting, wondering did it happen? - and of course you just ignore that it's taken place, and plan the next particular onslaught.
It got very extreme. Throwing his luggage out of a helicopter - that was trivial! I think the most amusing, or the best one, was when we were in Australia together and hatching up what we could do to really inflict pain on each other. And Gerhard stole Ayrton's passport without him knowing, and we surgically removed all the pictures in the passport, and cut out of a very dubious magazine an equivalent-sized piece of male genitalia and carefully put it back with cellotape so that at a glace you didn't realized anything had taken place - other than there wasn't a face where there was meant to be a face.
When Ayrton came back to Europe, he immediately got on a plane and flew to Brazil, but whatever the route was he had to go through Argentina. And that was the first time anyone looked at his passport. They were not amused. He had to spend 24 hours in Argentina because they wouldn't allow him to pass through without the passport being rectified.
But of course, he never admitted for months that it happened. And there were many, many other moments of humour in that period. And difficult moments too.
* * *
The character of a Grand Prix team is constantly changing and clearly when you're having a positive run - you're winning races, the team is working well and the drivers are hard driving for the team and that time is positively influencing things - you remember those things, you remember what you learn and you try and hang on to them in the future years.
What is a legacy of his involvement? His approach to Grand Prix racing, and of course that allows you to give guidance to any driver that's in your team. You don't do it by saying, 'well this is how Senna would do it', you do it by saying, 'I think this would be a good way to approach this particular problem'. So we all learn; we never stop learning irrespective of our age. You learn from the successful things in life, and that was what we did.
His legacy are moments like this. I mean, 10 years after he lost his life there is still tremendous interest in him as a person, and he didn't really have a bad side. So as much as it was an inevitable view by some people that he was arrogant and had a whole range of negative things about his character, the truth was he didn't.
He was a caring guy, he was a team player, he was prepared to admit he was wrong when he was wrong - and that's an unusual quality in a Grand Prix driver - and of course often his competitiveness would get the better of him. The Imola affair [where Prost accused Senna of breaking a pre-race agreement] and the consequences after Imola - all of those moments were difficult moments and challenging to manage, but of course the upside was having two tremendously competitive drivers in your team.
As for Suzuka 1990 [and his collision with Prost]: we all have weaknesses and I think that Ayrton was... you know, he might well have read the section in his own particular guide manual which said 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'. In Suzuka 1990 he was basically, I think, following the path of balance. He was trying to find a way to justify a behaviour that he wasn't particularly comfortable with, but which we felt was a way of balancing the books. And I wasn't supportive of it, but I enjoyed the benefit of it. So you find yourself, in truth, you think of those things and you think, was that a just outcome? Was that the way it should be?
What you do in these circumstances, you immediately evaluate the repercussions that immediately spring from it, and you professionally guide him in a way - as I did - to avoid it becoming an issue. So you basically have to support the situation in order that we don't get embroiled in post-event politics.
But the conversation [between Senna and I] that took place - not at that moment in time, not on that day - was, is this inconsistent with our common view that we do not win at all cost? And I don't think he was particularly proud of that particular judgment. It was not one of his finest moments, and he wasn't proud of it. And I don't think in the end even he could justify it on the basis of the outcome. In his approach, he would have preferred to have won the World Championship without that particular event taking place. But that was in hindsight.
What did he think of Michael Schumacher? Umm... (Very long silence) He felt that there was a part of Formula One that was prepared to win at all costs and it was a group of people that fell into that category, not just drivers but elements of teams or whole teams. And he felt that certainly Michael fell into that category and that was never his way of going Formula One. It was never mine or my team's way of going Formula One, to win at all costs. And I think it fell into that category. I wouldn't want to elaborate on it.
But if he had chosen to stop motor racing at any stage, it would have always been because of a political situation, not his ability to receive satisfaction and motivation from driving a car. It was the politics that used to drive him crazy, and at that period pretty severe manipulations had taken place to lessen his impact on Formula One, which is reasonably well reported but I'd rather not get into.
Most definitely he wouldn't have just gone on and on. I don't think he had a plan to ever stop but clearly he was heavily drawn by Brazil, all the time. He would go to tremendous lengths to get back to Brazil. I can remember him having a tremendous journey from somewhere, travelling 24 hours to return to Brazil. When I asked him 'why are you going all the way, do you have an important meeting or something?' He just said 'no, I just want to be in Brazil for a period of time'. And when he bought his airplane, an HS125, he had to take three or four hops to go back to Brazil. He didn't care - getting back to Brazil was very important to him.
He was proud to be a Brazilian but he was also very mindful of the fact that he could change things in Brazil, and I think that was attractive to him. I think he appreciated his ability to change things out of Brazil was quite limited, but there he could make a difference, and he did. He certainly did. You know, the Senna Foundation was of his making, not of Viviana's making, and she just followed through effectively on what he had started.
We often talked [about his future in F1 beyond racing], and he was totally disinterested. When he stopped driving, he was very clear, he was going to go back to Brazil - he cleverly obtained the distribution rights for Audi in Brazil, which has proven to be an incredibly successful venture, and the family still has an equity involvement in the factories in Brazil. And of course his stature in Brazil would make it very easy for him to access government and get government support for all those sorts of ventures. And so he would have been a superb businessman.
He would have also most certainly politically used his influence to help the underdogs of Brazil, and particularly the children. He was a very compassionate human being, and very much of the belief that Brazil's future was in the hands of quite a few people and he wanted to contribute to Brazil having a better future.
So he was never going to have a Formula One career beyond being a driver. He didn't particularly like the environment of Grand Prix racing from a non-driving standpoint.
* * *
[Losing him to Williams] wasn't a question of difficult or not difficult. Even with friends - and that's what he was at that stage, more than anything else - not all your emotions were positive, and they're not always positive with friends, you know. And that was a period when I was a little upset with the fact that his fiscal demands in that last year were quite extreme. We had worked closely together to encourage the sponsors to raise their game to help meet those demands, but he did take in that year and in the previous year a lot of the free cash flow of the company and we definitely suffered in respect of not having the money to develop the car. Whereas running in parallel Williams had lower-paid drivers and they concentrated on the car.
So some of me - maybe unfairly - felt that 'we just spent two years trying to meet your fiscal demands to the detriment of the development of the team, and then you pop into a car that had the benefit of that investment for your own ends'. That would be the negative thought process; the positive was that I fully understood that he raced because he wanted to win and he would never not put himself in the best possible position to win.
At the very end of that particular year - where we had a very successful [season] with the active ride, Ford powered car, and we won 5 races, and I vividly remember being in Magny Cours where we stayed in some rundown chateau somewhere, and we sat talking and in that conversation it was very clear to me that he regretted some ways going because he had mixed emotions.
I can't remember the words; I could construct the words and no one would be able to challenge the authenticity of them, but most definitely the message was: 'I don't feel at all comfortable' and 'I'll be back'. And I can't remember the words but they were clear. At one stage later on, when we had the support of Peugeot - which he saw any manufacturer supporting a team as a key ingredient - he had said, 'if you shared with me those negotiations I wouldn't have gone'. Putting aside how competitive or uncompetitive that car was, the fact was that if he had known there's a factory support at McLaren in the works I think that would have been a key ingredient in him staying.
But I never felt aggression at that point and I don't feel it now. It would be easy for me to... talk about his post McLaren period in a negative way, but as I said at the beginning I think that once he left the team and chose to drive for another team, then that period and everything about it is really for that team to talk about, not for me.
But the one thing that I considered to be a weakness in my approach is my adversity to communicating anything other than short, brief, factual things on telephones. I always felt the telephone was a very unemotional tool but to be honest that is one thing that Frank [Williams] was very polished at - long telephone conversations - and Frank was extremely persuasive about convincing Ayrton to join Williams. And I don't feel any animosity to that. Obviously everybody has strengths and weakness and that is one of Frank's wonderful strengths - his ability to be very convincing and very persuasive using the telephone. Of course with Ayrton's nomadic approach to life that was an asset.
His last race with us, the 1993 Australian Grand Prix - and not just that one, but two or three prior to that - was, I think, a race where he really changed his mind [about leaving the team] and he was... the night before and the night after that race we actually talked about whether we should try and extract him out of his contract [with Williams] so he would stay with McLaren. Because that car was a particularly good car, and he'd regained a tremendous amount of confidence in McLaren's ability to provide him with a winning car. And we talked about it the night before, and I think his determination to win that race was a sort of leaving present.
I think by the time that post race evening had finished neither of us was particularly lucid! And it had lapsed into a bit of emotion... but he was an honourable guy, and he made a commitment to Williams and whilst he definitely reviewed it, I don't think there was, in the cold hard light of day, I don't there was any real set of circumstances that he would have reneged on his word, because his word was much more important than anything he'd signed and he gave his word and that was it. I accepted it and didn't feel any animosity at all. The fact that he had done such an exceptional job in the closing races of the season, it was difficult to be too upset.
* * *
Ayrton had a mistrust of virtually all humans, and it took a long time to understand him and to be able to develop a mutual trust and respect. He wouldn't tolerate fools and he would occasionally make mistakes in relationships with people - people who were polished in their approach to developing friendships, and inevitably they would let him down and he'd switch off to those people. And in the end, I always tell that it was... you know, his group of friends, and people that he trusted, was constantly diminishing.
You know, whether you win or lose in a Grand Prix organisation the consequences are emotion. You have emotions in failure as well as success. And if you have intensity, if you are intense about winning then the actual emotions of failure are high as well. So what you end up doing if you have a driver in that mindset is you get sort of... almost... you're engaged in their life, because you're sharing the emotions and you are supporting each other through the successes and failures. And I think that there was a bit of...
There was a period when another driver constructed a view that Ayrton, let's say, had male relationships which went beyond normal male relationships, and that was built and spun to affect that particular World Championship. It was surgical in its delivery, it was timed to perfection, and it was definitely meant to be destabilising. And it did. And when we talked it through, he actually said, 'how do I handle this?' Because it really did affect him, and I guided him through it and actually I think had a very positive influence.
Part of the explanation was this embracing of individuals of both sexes and really sort of expressing a very strong friendship and a deep commitment to friendship. And he was a real friend. You know, if you had adversity in your life irrespective of where it was coming from, he wanted to try and make it better, and therefore he was... he didn't have the aggressive harshness that most men have, he was soft in that position and tried desperately to be compassionate. And that was spun - that compassion was spun in a very bad way.
I watched, through a significant period of time, I watched Ayrton and the various girlfriends he had, and how he built relationships that weren't always right as we always do. But he wasn't skilled in dealing initially with all his girlfriends. It goes back to something which you constantly see in drivers that had been dedicated to motorsport from day one: they go through karting, they go to Formula Ford, they become completely obsessive, and it's to the detriment of their development as a human being. It's to the exclusion of things.
In my own lifetime, not only did I get married very late but girlfriends were of no interest to me for ages. My nose was up in exhaust pipes, I was working 7 days a week at Brabham - initially at Coopers - and it was just unimportant. You're always trailing three to five years behind. You can still see it in guys who are obsessive in teams, and it's the same with some drivers.
So very often drivers are so obsessed by becoming great racing drivers it's to the detriment of developing life skills, and then sometimes they're a bit poor in communication, and that communication is not just in the sense of talking to you, it's poor in all types of communications; personal communications as well. So he didn't handle, he wasn't polished in his initial handling of girls and things like that. And all of these things were spun in a certain way, and it was designed primarily to undermine his popularity in Brazil.
Obviously the driver concerned [and Senna] were vying for being the most prominent sportsmen in Brazil at the time, and this was a good way to spin the situation. So I explained it to him and once he understood where the motivation was and what the objective was, he then became very skillful in spinning it around the other way.
Ayrton and Alain were really the first two drivers where I had a sophistication gap, where I could gain the upper hand. Previously I was too close to the drivers' age and I wasn't particularly polished at it myself. But he was one where there was an age gap - it wasn't a father/son gap, but most definitely I could, when necessary, step in and be quite firm and get the necessary response. I look back often on the period with him, and I think I guided him well through some very difficult parts of his life. And of course my involvement in his life and his career with the team was the absolute... was a much bigger percentage of his career than anyone else experienced.
He had only... it was his third race for Williams... You know, some of me, when I am struggling with handling it all, feel that these three months carry... maybe it's my own negativity but it seems to carry almost as much weight as six or seven years he was driving for us, three World Championships, lots of ups and downs. That always confuses me a little bit; it's a little bit like 'you're only as good as your last race'. We're very short sighted, which again makes it a difficult sport to be involved in.
And there seems to be a particular level of aggression, and almost delight, in someone's failure to perform. Now I don't mind admitting we aren't doing right now a particularly good job, but do you really feel, guys, do you really think that we're happy with what we're doing, happy with our performance? But could you give us a bit of a break? We came away from the last race [of 2003] narrowly losing the World Championship, and we're three races in and suddenly we're an absolute waste of time, the perception is we've lost the plot as a team. And that is very... that's quite difficult, no matter how strong you are, and I'm quite a strong person... You know, it's difficult to come to grips with.
And that was what his Achilles heel was. He couldn't come to grips with that unfairness that exists in Grand Prix racing. Irrespective of your previous achievements as an individual or as a team, this sport doesn't take prisoners, and wherever you're going in it, and you've got to appreciate that when you get into Formula One, that no matter how private you are, no matter how open you are, in failure you're going to be grounded into the ground. That is the nature of it. It isn't easy if you're on the receiving end of it, and it was extremely difficult for him. And I'd like to feel that's where I helped him a great deal.
He could have helped me now, if he was around...
McLaren driver David Coulthard has no doubt whatsoever where he would be driving next year, despite the rumours and a lackluster season - perhaps his worst since he joined the team in 1996. "No", he says when asked if he may be sidelined next year, "because I know what my contract is."
Someone once said that in McLaren, "Kimi [Raikkonen] does the driving and David does the marketing." It's a slightly harsh appraisal, but like most cliches there's a grain of truth in there. I sat down with Coulthard in Suzuka late on Saturday afternoon - the heaviest day of a race weekend for a driver, as they have more car time than the other days as well as increased media and sponsor commitments to fill their time. Earlier that day Coulthard had given up his race car to his teammate (and championship contender) after Raikkonen threw his away, meaning the Scot had even more work to do getting the spare car ready to race.
And yet he sat down fresh for the interview, asked me "so, what are we talking about today?" and then launched in with gusto. Coulthard is always entertaining and informative - he will make a perfect commentator one day - and his enthusiasm was undiminished despite the increased workload. It's easy to see why the team has kept him around for so long.
"Clearly," Coulthard continues, "after nine years I'm more than halfway through my career with McLaren - I'm not going to be eighteen years here - and I'm closer to the end of my career here than the beginning, because I've been in Formula One for ten years. Those are facts. But I don't think it would be an accurate description to say that I'm now fighting for my career.
"This year, like every year, is an important year. And I prefer to think of it as an opportunity rather than think what I am doing if it doesn't work out, because that's a negative thought. The bottom line is, do I have the ability to drive a race car quickly? I do have the ability to race, develop - do all the things needed. I have all the necessary ingredients, so I don't think I need to be embarrassed. There may well be people doing a better job than me, but for sure there are people doing a worse job."
Coulthard has had a tough year by anyone's standards. It started well, with a win against the odds in Melbourne, Australia, getting the season off to a bang, but it's been steadily downhill since. In the second Grand Prix of the year, in Malaysia, he looked set to repeat the performance until his car quit from under him with a blown engine. In the next race, in Brazil, he was the most dominant driver and set for a certain win when the race was shortened due to a red flag.
And then the qualifying problems set in - Coulthard just didn't seem to come to grips with the new, one-lap qualifying format introduced this season.
"Well I'm obviously disappointed that the main crux of the season was the one lap qualifying, which put me out of position," Coulthard says. "The pace was there all season in all other sessions, and the racing was good, but if you start in a less than ideal position then you don't win. That's been something that started okay and then in Imola I ran a bit wide, Austria ran a bit wide and then started to get a bit defensive, leading to several races of not really attacking the lap in the way I'd like to. And you're never going to set a pole lap being defensive.
"I'm not entirely sure if I've got on top of it because obviously we're at the end of the season, but I hope and expect it's not as much of a problem next year. And the good thing of course is that the pace is there, so it's not as though I'm struggling for pace and never quite managing to get the car in a strong position - it's just not letting it flow in qualifying."
Q. Was it just a matter of not getting it right in one try?
Coulthard: "The thing is, if you look at who's normally one of the quickest on a Friday or Saturday it's myself - over a four lap qualifying, more often than not I used to bang in a quick one first time out, so no, it's not like I need time to find pace. If there was a one-line answer to what it is, then I would have identified that and addressed it already this year. To be perfectly open and frank, it's clearly a mental thing rather than a physical thing, because I have the physical ability to drive the car quickly - I do it in all other sessions.
"But the minute you start driving defensively you start thinking 'oh, I can't afford to make a mistake today - I made a mistake at the last race', and then you're already giving away time; it's as subtle as that. And the only way you can replicate that scenario is in the qualifying sessions, and it has a compounding effect - the snowball keeps growing larger and larger - and it takes a while to break through it and get the monkey off your back. I think that it's unfortunate for me to have experienced it, but it's not unique in sports people to go through dips in form."
Coulthard is one of those guys who always think their way around a lap. Some of them - drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya or teammate Kimi Raikkonen - seem to be staring vacantly into space before someone tells them it's their turn to drive, but Coulthard always looks focused. That may be half the problem. But the plus side of this is that he's more likely to come up with the solution.
"You can do a whole lot of things," Coulthard explains. "I reluctantly used the word mental, because you end up a basket case if you admit to… you know, I'm acknowledging that there is nothing physically wrong with the car, and there's nothing physically wrong with my limbs. Our bodies are actioned by our minds, in the same way that when you're typing you can't blame your body for a bad article - it comes from your mind - your fingers only carry out your request.
"Some days you guys are hot, you write an article and you think 'fuck, that was easy, and I'm really proud of that' and there are other days where you're probably giving it…" - Coulthard scratches his head, looking at the roof - "…asking for inspiration, you go away, come back, and you can't get it out. Now why does that happen? Unless you were out on the lash the night before, you don't know anymore about why that happens. And for me being a sportsman it really isn't any different than being any top ten percent in any business - we all have the same pressures.
"In your job you're not moving at two hundred miles an hour when you're doing it, but it doesn't really matter - you still have to work it out in your head. So what do you do? You try and get back to basics; you try and not allow things to distract you. Easier said than done - if I say to you 'don't think of a pink elephant', and keep saying 'don't think of a pink elephant', eventually you're going to think of it. It's a bit like saying 'don't fuck up in qualifying, don't fuck up in qualifying' - oh fuck, I fucked up again. So you just have to work hard and get on and try to do it."
Q. Was there also any problem on the car? You've had your problems, Kimi's had a few offs in qualifying…
Coulthard: "If you look at the car, its strength has not been qualifying - that's the reality - and one of the difficulties was in feeling the edge of the car. There's a sort of dull band as you go to loading which you can kind of work up to in the race, not any time really but when people are feeling really tired. But in qualy you've got to go down to turn one, turn in and know where the car is - that's been something that is quite tricky to know where the edge is. Kimi went over the top several times at the beginning of the year and came back and found where it is; I never went over the top as badly."
Q. You had bad luck at the start of the year - it's quite conceivable that you could have won three races on the trot. If you'd done that then do you think running wide here or there would have been less of a big deal?
Coulthard: "Absolutely. I think it's a different scenario how I go into a year with respect to the younger guys, because they don't know what they've lost until a few years down the line, and they just take it race by race. We had a very frustrating winter where the car just didn't run reliably at all, and we went to Melbourne not really sure at all where we were in terms of pace or whether we could finish the race, and then suddenly I won the race and I was very confused. It was like, okay, fortunate conditions but everybody finished, it wasn't like Michael or Montoya or these guys were buried in the barrier - they all had the same crack at it.
"So I came out of that race, I spent a lot of time at the circuit the night after the race basically not happy with the car, changing things for Malaysia. I went to Malaysia and had a good, strong qualifying and had all the hallmarks of being able to win the race and then bang, a silly little thing puts you out. So you build up emotion and then the bubble bursts…"
Q. It also seemed as though the regulations and decisions by the stewards played against you this year
Coulthard: "Well, we went to Brazil and I was in a perfect position [to win] - was exactly where I needed to be - and then had the frustration of the silly rules we have with the red flags, and it's just disappointing really. It's frustrating, but there's nothing they could do about it - unlike the European Grand Prix.
"Obviously I ended up in the kitty litter at the Nurburgring, but it wasn't just an unforced error - it was a racing error that led up to it, which I still maintain the figures are there for where I had to brake and where [Fernando] Alonso braked, which the FIA at the time decided to take a different thing. Would they have decided to take a different view had it been Kimi and then Michael avoiding him? That's the unfortunate scenario we all have to face in this sport.
"But you've got to bounce back from it - it's not as though I haven't had years of frustration in my career [before]. There have been seasons [marred] with mechanicals [problems] - even this year the mechanical reliability has not been good in the car. So I want to learn from the qualifying of this year, build through the winter, and start afresh in Melbourne."
In racing, like in any job, you're always compared to the guys you work with - and to finish first, first you have to beat your teammate. It certainly doesn't help much if you're struggling while the guy you work with is shining.
"You know," Coulthard says about Raikkonen, "he had a very strong start to the year, when it was podium, podium, podium, podium. And if someone's doing well and you're not doing well it doesn't help of course; everything has an effect.
"It's a competitive business - yes you have to work closely with your teammate, but he's also a competitor. I think if you find the right level of selfishness versus developing the car - you could do the never engaging in any conversations la di da di da, but it's not really constructive for the team - and ultimately it's about doing it on the track anyway. I think that most of the teams now have teammates over the last few years that have found the harmony and just get on and do the job."
Coulthard has always been the perfect team player. He reluctantly gave up a win for then teammate Mika Hakkinen in the European Grand Prix in 1997 because he was told to do so by team boss Ron Dennis, but in the next race - the opening round of the 1998 season - he repeated the gesture because of an earlier agreement he had with Hakkinen, which he chose to uphold.
In the Japanese Grand Prix this year, with team orders now banned, the Scot nevertheless chose to assist Raikkonen in his long-shot bid for the World Championship - first by giving up his race car during practice on Saturday, and then by moving over for the Finn during the race.
"It's absolutely the right thing that the one coming up will get the team's focus, because they have the best chance of winning the Championship," Coulthard explains. "So if Kimi has a problem then he takes my race car because it's fair in the circumstances - I'm not saying it's not. But it's the sort of scenario that you don't want to be in, so it's important to start well, get the points on the board, and put yourself in a position of strength in the team."
Another obstacle in McLaren's season was the development of the MP4/18.
McLaren began the year with a modified version of their 2002 car which, while being well off the pace last year was surprisingly competitive at the beginning of the year. At the same time, high expectations were raised in McLaren as the new Adrian Newey challenger was developed, with Ron Dennis anticipating a revolutionary machine that will take the team several steps forward. It never materialised, and with the MP4/19 already in the works for 2004, the MP4/18 is fated to go down in history as the best Formula One car never to have raced.
"Possibly," Coulthard reacts, "but I don't write history books and I'm not particularly interested in them. There'll be a thousand and one things said about the 18 - some will say oh, they were stupid, but it created the springboard for McLaren's success in 2004, or they'll also say it was an absolute fuck up and heads will roll for it. It's only opinions at the end of the day - the facts are held somewhere deep within the management offices at McLaren, and it's not really of a great deal of interest to me, other than to obviously have the reassurance that it won't happen again."
Q. How much of an impact, positive and negative, have the problems around the MP4/18 caused to the team?
Coulthard: "Of course it's taken resources, it's taken time, it's taken energy - any thought other than that of the main race car is a distraction. McLaren are probably a team that could handle it better than most, because we've got the resources and what have you, but you would never try and map out during a racing season to build two cars and have one not go racing - of course you wouldn't; that's just the way it worked out."
Q. Did it have any positive aspects for the team? It seemed to push development on
Coulthard: "Yeah, true, and there's no question that some of the extremes, some of the big leaps forward trying to gain performance that didn't work out will come back half way, and we'll learn from that. We'll learn something from it - a painful experience, but we'll learn from it."
Coulthard has driven 132 races for McLaren - one more than Hakkinen, who was previously the team's most capped driver. It seems astonishing that in a team which featured the likes of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi or James Hunt, no one else has stayed around as long as Coulthard, despite the Scotsman never being seemingly as popular in the team as either of his two Finnish teammates. It's a remarkable achievement - and one which was in fact becoming a point of criticism against Coulthard, with Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone suggesting earlier this year that the Scot would be better off with a change of scenery.
"I never joined McLaren with an attitude that it was a stepping stone to bigger and better things, because I thought it was one of the top teams, and I still believe it is," Coulthard responds. "Obviously earlier on in the season people were saying that I was getting too comfortable with the team and so on, but I totally disagree because this isn't a comfortable environment - this isn't a holiday camp.
"Ron [Dennis] is a very demanding individual and the engineers are all highly motivated, although they get it wrong from time to time, but that's what happens in the front line when you're making decisions under pressure, and it's easy to point that out in hindsight. I've been here for a long time, and at various points it's either been good or difficult.
"Obviously it's been tricky (this year), purely because of the qualifying thing, but it hasn't been like I've been struggling for pace in all the sessions. It doesn't make any difference ultimately for where I qualified, but it makes a big difference in the team because if I just wasn't doing the lap time then that would be a problem. If you're doing the lap time but you're experiencing some difficulties with a particular part of the race weekend then you know they'll try and help you."
Q. After nine years, how has it been working with Ron Dennis and Norbert Haug for all that time?
Coulthard: "Of course we know each other better in every sense, but the reality is that as a driver with a team you don't spend that much time with them. An odd promotional event and seventeen races a year, and most of that is with your engineer - you're doing tests with him, you're doing all the races.
"There have been some difficult moments - never a chuck in the towel type moment, but there have been some difficult moments and there have been some obviously enjoyable moments along the way. It's a blink, like everything in life - here we are, nine years down the road or whatever, and it's passed very quickly. But I'm glad to have gone through that rather than dreaming about it."
Considering the season he's had, you would think Coulthard would be very interested in the new qualifying rules for next year, whereby qualifying will take place only on Saturday - the first part of the session determining the shoot-out order of the second part. So what does the Scot think about the change?
"I haven't actually looked at the rules as they're written down," he replies, "so I'm not really going to think too much about it because I'm not entirely sure it won't change again in some way, and also it's not that significant going into winter testing - you can't replicate it.
"However, if I have my two pennies worth, it's disappointing that the rules keep changing. What we had in the past - with Friday qualifying and Saturday qualifying, one hour testing (on Friday) and a flying lap - well, if they'd just brought in a rule a few years ago saying you had to do a certain amount of laps each on Friday and Saturday so that (if) Saturday (was a) wet session, anyone not going out would be eliminated, I think that would have been sufficient.
"Rather (that) than now - no warm ups, no this, no that… I don't think it's been enhanced, irrespective of what people think of the World Wrestling Federation type grids we get from guys not running a lap. If that's ultimately what the public really believes is good for the sport, and what my colleagues think is good for the sport, I'm disappointed."
Q. Still, this season has certainly provided more entertainment
Coulthard: "I like to use the old football analogy: it's a bit like knowing that a team only has eleven players, and if one of them gets an injury they're not allowed to field another player - would it be fair if 'Man U' only had eight players because a few of the players were hurt? Ultimately it'd be great for entertainment because they'd get thrashed by whoever's on the bottom of the Premiership - Queen of the South or someone else that's not even there! It would be great for them and great entertainment, but it isn't the fundamentals.
"That's why I think they have to be very careful - as the Powers That Be say 'this is great', but is it? There are all these statistics being brought out of the water, people saying Michael is a six time Champion against Fangio and all that, but you can't compare; if they only did six races a year back then, and he and his teammate ran a quick car and all the others were driving tractors… You try and do all this sort of 'Jackie Stewart has 27 wins from 99 races' but it was different times, but each year I think the rule book has been rewritten so the statistics have to be rewritten too. As they say - there are lies, damn lies and statistics."
Next season is likely to be Coulthard's last year with McLaren, with paddock speculation asserting he will be replaced by Williams's Juan Pablo Montoya. After that he could move to Jaguar - always a hot rumour when it comes to Coulthard, perhaps because of the Scottish connection to Jackie Stewart - or he could find himself, like his best friend Jacques Villeneuve, without a competitive seat to jump start his career. And like other drivers of his generation, inevitably he's asked how much longer he sees himself racing in Formula One.
Coulthard smiles. "As long as the opportunity's there and as long as I enjoy it," he says. "There's been times in testing when your car's blown up again or something's gone wrong again, where at that moment you wish to be anywhere else other than in that place, but I think that's inevitable in any business. However, I've never felt that I didn't want to be sitting there on the grid prior the start of a Grand Prix - that's something that I really, really enjoy, and that's the main motivation for me.
"Then, when you win [a race], that of course gives a massive boost to your confidence, a feeling of satisfaction - any feelings of frustration you have from trying, trying, trying and banging your head against a brick wall, suddenly the door opens and you walk through. That was a slightly unusual win I had this year [in Australia], but it's something that I can at least look back on in a positive frame from the season. Not many people won this year - well, more than usual, but still a win's a win.
"However, I think we should all concentrate on the next race. When you start having fond memories - the moment you reflect rather than look forward - that's when you should stop racing. It's as simple as that."
It wasn't as though he was even supposed to be in with a shot at the title by the final round of the season. But in 2003, McLaren driver Kimi Raikkonen, at the age of 23 and in his third season of Formula One, did what he was paid to do: he drove the car he was given to the best of his ability and hoped. "We didn't have much expectation, because we didn't really know where we were going to stand against the others," the Finn said in Suzuka, Japan, in an interview held a day before the deciding race that would eventually see him finish second in the World Championship, only two points behind six times World Champion Michael Schumacher.
"You never get a very clear picture before the season in testing, because you don't know what the other teams are doing," he expands. "But I guess that's why the hopes were not as high [at the time] as maybe the results have been this year.
"I think if we can now improve the car as much as we did over the winter for next year, then we should be in good shape to really fight for every race win next season. I don't think that this has changed anything for this year - even when we saw that we were quick enough, we knew that this car would be around for half the season, and we went race by race and tried to score as many points as we can."
McLaren spent the 2002/2003 winter preparing two cars – a variation on the 2002 car, renamed the MP4/17D, and the all new MP4/18. The 18 was not planned to start the season – it was a radical departure from the old car, and as such the team planned to debut it when the races returned to Europe (much as Ferrari had done with the F2002 the year before) – and as such the 17D was designed around the existing car to start the season with a reliable, and hopefully faster, car.
Designing two cars concurrently is a massive undertaking, a huge financial and technical drain. In fact, only a team with the resources of McLaren or Ferrari could hope to carry off such an ambitious plan. And, considering the original MP4/17 was not a race-winning car in 2002 by a long shot, McLaren began this season with their chances of contending the Championship effectively written off.
Instead, though, McLaren surprised. David Coulthard won the opening round in Melbourne, Australia, and looked to have the Malaysian race coming to him when his car gave up, handing his Finnish teammate his debut win. Coulthard should have won the Brazilian Grand Prix too but was denied by the red flag ending of the race (a win which would have gone to Raikkonen had the race ended one lap earlier). Three races into the season, and McLaren were dominating both Drivers' and Constructors' Championship against the odds.
But the early European races saw the tide shift directions. With Ferrari competing so well and Williams also finding form at last in their recalcitrant new car, the push was on to find reliability in McLaren's new MP4/18 and introduce it as soon as possible. However, concentrating on the MP4/18 led to fewer improvements on the MP4/17D, and the team suffered as the competition was improving.
"[We suffered] a little, yeah," Raikkonen says. "Maybe [the other teams] got better and nothing really happened with our car. I guess once the team thought and made the decision that they were working more on the 18 to try and get it ready, it virtually took the effort out of the 17. But I don't know really; I think maybe we had a few bad races and bad days, and it cost us a lot of points. But you always do, really; every season you have a few bad races.
"But I think somewhat it was a good decision to use the 17D – okay, maybe it cost us a little bit to put so much effort in the 18 because it takes it away from the 17, but we learnt some things that we [were using in Suzuka] on the 17D from the 18. So I guess it paid off. For me, it didn't matter really, because I guess I'm just driving the car - whatever car they bring. I think I would have made the same choice, and I think it was the right choice."
Q: How different were the MP4/17D and the MP4/18, and did it have any effect on you when you were switching cars from testing to racing?
Raikkonen: "Not really – I guess it's quite a lot different but they never got it completely finished in time. From a driving point of view, it was a bit different to drive but it doesn't hurt you if you drive that car and then the other car the next day."
Q: How did they differ, though?
Raikkonen laughs. "That's our secret!"
Picking the high point of Raikkonen's season is a no brainer. "Definitely my first win," he states emphatically, "that is always the highest. And then my pole position in the Nurburgring. But most of the season has been pretty good so far, there have been lots of good races, and it's been fun."
There's a truism in motorsport that the first win is the hardest to get, because you don't really know how to win until you do. This was most evident in the career of fellow Finn Mika Hakkinen, who ran so close to winning for so long without success until he was handed a somewhat propitious win in Jerez 1997, after which he seemed to be able to win at will. "It lets you know that you can win, that's the only thing," Raikkonen explains. "But I don’t think it makes you suddenly half a second quicker.
"Maybe you are more confident, but at least you know that you can win the races when you are in a good package – that's really evident. I guess it's more a relief than anything else, just to know that you are able, because before you always just think you can win but you're never really 100% sure until you do it. And sure, it's nice to win the first time – it's always nice to win, but it's especially nice to win the first one."
There have been low points, too, just as there are for every racer, but Raikkonen's have been more noticeable because he has been at the top end of the Championship for almost the entire year. Most notable among these were the qualifying slip ups in Canada and Spain and having his engine let go while comfortably leading the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. "When we have a bad race - like a retirement or an accident in the start of the race - if it would have happened last year it would have been just one of those things," Raikkonen says. "But because we have the added pressure of the Championship [this year] it is more disappointing to have a bad race for us.
"I think the engine failure hurt [the most], because from qualifying you can always gain some places in the race, but if you retire then the race is all over. It's always easy to reflect afterwards if I had done this or that differently we would have this many points more."
An added complication to his title challenge came prior to the Italian Grand Prix, when the FIA announced a change in the tyre inspection procedure, following claims by Ferrari that the Michelin front tyres – used by McLaren among others – were illegal. The FIA's new policy completely changed the complexion of the test the team had planned in Monza, prior to the Italian Grand Prix – something McLaren boss Ron Dennis later said had severely damaged the team's preparations. Raikkonen, however, thinks differently.
"It didn't really hurt us at all," he states. "It hurt Michelin more, and all the work they had there to prepare for the races. I guess that was a big hassle for them for a few weeks, because we were so close to the race and they needed to make completely new tyres, and it's always going to hurt. I think they showed they can make the new tyres really quickly, and that's a good thing about Michelin. And since then they have brought a new construction again and I think it's back on track again; it's all working well again with the front and rear tyres, so I don't think overall it really was too much.
"I guess it had nothing to do with me - it's just the tyres that we use and this is normal what they did - they are always trying to get an advantage, and therefore the one who has it is the one driving in the front. I think the tyres [now are] maybe better than before, because in testing we went with good grip there, with the new tyres and other things we had."
Q: How do you see the relative strengths of Ferrari and McLaren?
Raikkonen: "I don't know – I guess from race to race it's always easy to change your prediction, and the weather conditions can make a difference, but our package seems to be quite good now and it is what it is."
Q: Do you feel you are competing with a slight disadvantage?
Raikkonen: "I don't know – I've never driven the Ferrari! Okay, maybe our car's not the best, but it seems to be good enough."
Most drivers don't like to talk about other drivers - it's almost as though they think they will give them more strength by praising them, however slightly. When pushed on who would give him competition in the years to come, post Michael Schumacher, Raikkonen notes: "I think there are a lot of drivers who are not going to be in Formula One for a long time - after three years they will go away - and then there will be only a few drivers that are in the top now. Of them, [Renault's Fernando] Alonso seems to go quite well, but then you never know what's going to happen in the future – I guess we just have to wait and see."
Raikkonen, in fact, says Renault's strong form in 2003 came as no surprise to him. "They ran quite well last year," he explains. "The beginning of this year they ran as well as the end of last year and they got better again, they had some really strong races and then some not, and you expect from that sort of thing that they would do much better this year. I think next year they will be better again, but hopefully we will also, and then we don't need to worry about it!"
The other driver that most people believe will take the fight to Raikkonen in the future is Juan Pablo Montoya, particularly since the Colombian is heavily rumoured to team up with Raikkonen at McLaren in 2005. "He's not my teammate yet," Raikkonen laughs, "and perhaps he's never going to be my teammate! It will be interesting to see what happens in the future."
Would he have a problem with Montoya sitting on the other side of the garage from him? "No, it doesn't change anything on my side of the team - we'll do exactly the same things that we've been doing so far and just try to beat that teammate, whoever it is. We don't have anything like number one or number two – we get exactly the same parts and everything, the same treatment - and it's up to the driver and the engineer who will make the car."
Raikkonen looked calm all weekend at Suzuka, almost serene, with the only exception being when he ran off the track and damaged his car during free practice. The odds were against him taking the title - he needed to win the race and have Michael Schumacher end out of the points. Was he nervous at all? "No, I don't think so," Raikkonen said the day before the big event. "We don't have much to lose because as we try to win the Championship here, I know that if we don't win it it's like… I don't know how to say it… we can only gain something.
"If we come second or third it's pretty much nothing, because if you ask people next year who came second and third then half of the people don't know. We will try everything to win the race and the Championship, and we'll see how it goes." In fact there was more pressure on him in the previous round, the US Grand Prix in Indianapolis, than in Suzuka. "That was pretty much the race that decided whether we were going to be in the Championship anymore or not. We ended up the race being the only guys still in the Championship against Michael, and that's why I remembered if we don't win this race we only can gain something, because for me if I finish second or third it doesn't really matter if we don't win this."
Raikkonen was a dark horse in the 2003 Championship, but he capitalized on the new points system, introduced this year, better than any of his other rivals. With only one win – compared to Schumacher's six – he kept his title hopes alive to the very end. Some people didn't like that; the system, which no longer favours victories over second or third place, was under criticism throughout the Japanese Grand Prix weekend. But Raikkonen remains unruffled by the fuss.
"We (will) try to win it – I don't care if we deserve it or not," he said on the eve of the race. "If we win it, we win it, and that is all." He has no doubts that either driver would be a worthy Champion: "Yeah. If he (Schumacher) wins then I think so yes, he deserves it. I don't look to how many wins you have – it doesn't count in the end – whoever has the most points at the end of the year wins."
At the end of the year, he was three points short, that's all. And despite his belief that no one will remember a year from now who finished second or third, Raikkonen's 2003 season is not likely to be forgotten so fast.