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."