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Friday, December 12, 2008
Updated: December 22, 1:00 PM ET
After 15 years in F1 cockpit, Coulthard seeking new challenges

By Dan Knutson
Special to ESPN.com

Lewis Hamilton managed to accomplish something in two seasons with McLaren Mercedes that David Coulthard failed to do in nine years with the team -- he won the Formula One world championship.

David Coulthard
David Coulthard won 13 times in 15 F1 seasons, including the 2001 Austrian Grand Prix.

For Coulthard -- or "DC," as he is often called -- it was a case of the stars never aligning at the right time.

"When I look back, I had a fantastic opportunity, with a good car and a good team," he said. "And I was not able to play that to my advantage. I was able to finish in front of [teammate] Mika [Hakkinen] a few times in the world championship, but it was the wrong times.

"And when it really mattered, Mika was able to finish in front of me. I don't take away from the fact that Mika is an incredible driver, and had a more natural talent for speed than I had."

Mika Hakkinen won the world drivers' championship for McLaren Mercedes in 1998 and '99. The team would not win another until Hamilton edged out Ferrari driver Felipe Massa by one point to take the crown in 2008.

2008, Hamilton's second season, was also Coulthard's final stint in F1. After 15 seasons, 246 starts and 13 wins, DC -- one of the good guys in the sport, and always a gentleman -- has retired.

Hamilton was a McLaren protégé since he was 12 years old, and thus his paths often crossed with Coulthard's.

"I'm sad to see him go," Hamilton said. "I've known David for quite a long time. I remember our discussions … I was probably still in karting when I first started to speak to David and he was giving me advice.

"For me, he's an inspiration for all of us drivers here, and he's such a good example."

Now that his career as an F1 driver is over, Coulthard took time to reflect on some of the highlights and lowlights of the past 15 years.

During nine seasons with McLaren -- from 1996 through 2004 -- Coulthard earned a dozen victories and finished on the podium 39 other times. He finished third in the championship three times, second once and fourth on another occasion.

All in all, those stats are pretty impressive. But Coulthard believes they could have been even better.

McLaren prides itself in going out of its way to provide both drivers with equal equipment and opportunities. The policy of letting its two drivers race each other until one of them is mathematically eliminated from the title chase cost McLaren the championship last year. If either Hamilton or Fernando Alonso had been given priority at just a race or two, one of them would have beaten Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen for the championship.

Coulthard always got the same equipment at McLaren as his Finnish teammates did. Hakkinen drove for the team from 1993 to 2001, and Raikkonen from 2002 to '06. What DC did not get, he says, is the same psychological support.

"With a little bit of support I could have delivered more," he said. "Because no one goes it alone. Michael [Schumacher] did not achieve his success working against the team. You really need the team behind you. It is not BS. It is not Nigel Mansell-type complaining."

Hakkinen was was treated like a favorite son of the team and particularly of team owner Ron Dennis. Coulthard would sometimes feel like an outsider.

"It is a fact that I would be on pole, and Mika would take the pole and the [McLaren] crew would all cheer," Coulthard recalled. "I am not Ferrari [the opposition]; I am on the other side of the [McLaren] garage.

"It didn't happen the other way around. I know that for a fact. And then you have to get yourself psyched up to go out again."

Dennis always had a soft spot for Hakkinen. The latter was a test driver for McLaren in 1993. Michael Andretti drove for the team that year, and when things didn't work out they parted company with three races to go. Hakkinen was promoted to the race team.

At the end of 1994, Hakkinen had a very nasty accident in the Australian Grand Prix. Dennis and his wife, Lisa, really bonded with Hakkinen as they were at his side during his recovery.

David Coulthard
David Coulthard, left, and McLaren team boss Ron Dennis didn't always see eye-to-eye, but their partnership is deemed to have been successful by both of them.

The relationship between Coulthard and Dennis was never as warm as between Dennis and Hakkinen.

"He [Dennis] would come in and sit down on the other side of the table [in the debrief] and say 'What are we [Hakkinen] doing?' and then 'What are they [Coulthard] doing?'" Coulthard recalled.

"At various points Ron and I had long conversations about it and disagreements," he added.

Norbert Haug, the chief of Mercedes-Benz racing operations, would go out of his way to try to balance things out by publicly supporting Coulthard.

"Norbert was very balanced and recognized the importance of having two motivated drivers," Coulthard said.

The relationship between Dennis and Coulthard may have been strained at times, but Dennis had nothing but praise for DC in Brazil 2004, their final race together.

"His results in the car are apparent because they are a matter of record," Dennis said at the time. "The most impressive statistic is that every third race since joining McLaren he has been on the podium. That is a pretty incredible achievement.

"It is also very apparent to anybody that has any dealings with him that he is a gentleman. That [makes him] a fantastic ambassador to our team and the sport as a whole. If you look back on his years with us, I can count on one hand the times I've seen him annoyed, and I can't ever remember him losing his temper. He is a tremendously talented, well-rounded GP driver."

But still, Dennis and the team had decided to replace Coulthard with Juan Pablo Montoya in 2005.

"Inevitably, when you look at the numbers and when you hear what I have to say about him, the question is 'Why aren't you keeping him?'" Dennis said at the time. "The answer is that there is always a time in a team when opportunities present themselves, and if they do, you take them.

"I feel very comfortable that when the opportunity to sign JPM presented itself … it was a decision very quickly taken.

"Juan Pablo's career is still on the up, and we believe that he will be an even better driver within our team. With David we know exactly where he is, and to a certain extent there is always a risk in a change, but we think it is a very balanced and calculated risk. We believe that he [Montoya] will be a better driver in our team than he has been so far."

Ironically, Montoya's stay at McLaren lasted just one and a half seasons before he headed to NASCAR.

Coulthard emphasized that he was not unhappy at McLaren, and he acknowledges that the team gave him the opportunity and equipment to have a successful F1 career.

"I have no regrets," he insisted.

Still, he was not pleased when he was twice told to move over to let Hakkinen win.

The first and more galling of those incidents happened at the 1997 European Grand Prix at Jerez, Spain. There had been no discussion before the race about team orders, so it came as a real shock to DC when the team came over the radio and told him in no uncertain terms to let Hakkinen pass him.

"We negotiated for several laps, and eventually it was made quite clear to me that I had to move over," Coulthard said. "So I did, and obviously Mika won the race."

The following year at the season opener in Australia, Hakkinen was leading when he misheard a radio message and pitted. DC took over first place but was told to let Hakkinen back in front.

"They were low points, of course," Coulthard said of those two races.

He could, of course, have refused. But then he certainly would not have been a McLaren driver for very long -- certainly not for nine seasons, during which he racked up some great wins.

"It was being made quite clear at the time that it would seriously compromise my position within the team," he said of what the team told him if he did not let Hakkinen pass him in the race in Spain.

One of Coulthard's best victories came after a wheel-banging battle with Michael Schumacher in the 2000 French Grand Prix.

Other favorite memories for Coulthard are twice winning the Monaco Grand Prix and his home Grand Prix of Britain.

Coulthard admits that there were times, such as the French Grand Prix, where he was unbeatable, but that at other times he could not always extract all the performance from the car.

"I was at one with the car," he told ESPN.com of his drive in France. "There are periods in your career where you just feel that the car suits your style, and you just go attacking.

"It is a bit like when you walk on the tarmac you don't think about walking. When you walk on a slightly frosty path, not an icy one, you feel secure but you are mindful that you might slip at any time.

"It is exactly the same feeling for a driver. When a driver feels confident in his car, it is just like the tarmac. If it is a bit 'Hmm, I'm struggling with the balance and don't quite know what to expect,' and you tighten up. That is why when you feel good you can go two- or three-tenths [of a second] quicker. That is a little bit of time everywhere around the track."

Mark Webber, Coulthard's teammate in 2007 and '08, also says that DC had his fast and slow days.

"Sometimes he surprised you both ways," Webber said when asked if Coulthard had been quicker or slower than he expected.

"He can knock something out now and again and sometimes … but you don't have a career like that if you don't know what you are doing, so you have to give him that."

Coulthard's career began with him being thrown in the deep end of the F1 pool. He was a test driver for Williams when the team brought him in to replace Ayrton Senna, who had lost his life in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

After nearly two full seasons with Williams, during which he scored his first win, Coulthard moved to McLaren in 1996. The 2004 season was Coulthard's last with McLaren. It was not a very happy year, as he knew he would be replaced by Juan Pablo Montoya in 2005.

When Coulthard walked out of the paddock after the season-ending 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix, he had nothing lined up for 2005.

"But I had the desire and belief that I could still contribute to F1," he said. "I really went around everywhere, even to be a test driver, because I really wanted to stay involved. Then Red Bull bought Jaguar, and things changed from then on."

Red Bull revitalized Coulthard's F1 career, and he thoroughly enjoyed his three seasons with the laid-back team. The decision to retire at the end of 2008 was his. He made the announcement in July at his home grand prix.

"My decision to retire was taken earlier in the year and is based on a desire to stop while I am still competitive and enjoying the immense challenge that grand-prix driving represents," he said." I also have the desire to look for new challenges within the sport."

Unfortunately for Coulthard, his 246th and final grand prix ended just after the start when Williams driver Nico Rosberg knocked him off the track.

"Williams started my F1 career and they ended it!" DC joked later.

When he walked out of the paddock after this year's season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, he had plenty lined up for the coming year.

"There is still more I can do in the sport, but it will be outside the cockpit," he said.

Coulthard will continue to work for Red Bull as a consultant. He will even test the car at times. And he will attend every grand prix as a color commentator for BBC TV.

"So, for next year anyway, there will be a familiar feel to my year," he said. "I just won't be sweating quite so much on a Sunday."

Coulthard will still live in Monaco, where he moved to from Scotland even before becoming a F1 driver.

"I like being in the South of France," he said. "I like the weather and the lifestyle. I have my office and business there. I have lived away from Scotland for 18 years, so it is not a problem for me to live somewhere else."

Coulthard and fiancée Karen Minier are the proud parents of a baby boy, Dayton, born Nov. 21.

"He'll be signed up for Ferrari in 2028!" DC quipped of DC.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.