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Interview: David Coulthard

David Coulthard Interview
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Laureus Ambassador David Coulthard, who won 13 Grand Prix in a distinguished career and is now a respected TV commentator and analyst, here assesses the Formula One Nominees for the 2016 Laureus World Sports Awards. He also gives his views about the current Formula One season.

Here is David, speaking to Laureus.com

In the Laureus Awards this year, Lewis Hamilton has been nominated for the Sportsman of the Year Award.  Is that a worthy nomination, would you say?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Well, not to be disrespectful to the others that have been nominated, and clearly as a motorsports person, I think that Lewis has continued to show that he has all the qualities of an elite sportsman, certainly in motor racing, he’s delivered consistently since he first joined for McLaren in 2007 right through until today.  He has been crashed, he’s been the man that you watch during qualifying to see what lap time he can deliver, and he races in a sort of Senna‑esque way.  So there’s no question that out of a quality field of drivers, he deserves that nomination.

Also nominated, you have Usain Bolt, Djokovic, Curry, Messi, Jordan Spieth.  That’s a pretty impressive list.  Who would you see as the main rival to Lewis from that list?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Really I think it’s very difficult to separate any of them.  They are all top of their fields.  Therefore, it’s always going to come down to a matter of opinion rather than, I motor racing and have done since I was a young kid.  I don’t study all of the other sports with the same level of detail.

But any sportsman who makes it to the top, clearly is not by accident.  It’s through application and hard work and any sportsman who stays at the top for any period of time and stays injury‑free, which a lot of the other sports are more susceptible to injuries than racing drivers would be, then they are worthy nominees.

And Mercedes have been nominated for Team of the Year again.  What makes that team so good?

DAVID COULTHARD:  I think it’s the attention to detail.  It’s easy to say a sweeping statement of great engineering and human performance.  But I was in the garage on Sunday at the Bahrain Grand Prix, and it really is about the tiniest of details that people might not fully appreciate why that would make a difference in car performance or driver performance.

But what it does is set a tone, that then is picked up by every single member of the team, and they notice whether the drinks bottles are pointed in the right direction; they notice whether the cables are grouped together behind the laptops in a uniform way.  Little details like that, which don’t have a direct impact on the performance of the car or preparation of the driver.

But it’s all sight point and touch point, which just then filters through the whole organisation.  And then you’re less likely to make mistakes and you’re more likely to find areas where, in a sport of diminishing returns, because of various engineering restrictions and materials and things like that, it just means that you exploit all of those to a high level.

It’s obviously early days for this year, but do you expect them to dominate again this year?

DAVID COULTHARD:  I expect them to win the championship again this year.  Dominate, I think is going to be difficult, with the hybrid regulations.

Ferrari won three Grand Prixes last year in arguably what was a more dominant position from than the lap times would suggest this year.  But I do see the backer for the World Championship to be between the two Mercedes drivers with an outside bet of ‑‑ but I think Ferrari will keep them on across the course of the season.

Räikkönen seemed to be a bit stronger in Bahrain and Australia than he had been relative to Vettel in the past couple years, so that might mean that the stronger team overall might challenge Mercedes.

Nico obviously won the first two races and won the last three so he’s won five in a row.  Obviously was the end of the season last year, but do you give him a realistic chance of beating Lewis this year?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Yeah, Nico is a fast racing driver, and coming up short the last few weeks ‑‑ Lewis Hamilton who has been an exceptional racing driver throughout his career, he has all of the natural skills that are required.  But it seems in the past that Lewis has been more able to exploit that.  There’s nothing like winning the first couple Grand Prixes and giving yourself a 17‑point lead, with 19 races to go, really give yourself confidence and a bit of breathing room.  Any driver statistically who has won five races, four races in a row, has won the World Championship.  He’s just as you mentioned, won five in a row.  So it would be a shame if he broke the stats.

Obviously one of the big events was the Alonso crash.  Several of the our journalists have asked, even though we all know how safe Formula One has become relatively, do you think there’s any lesson from the Alonso crash for Formula One?

DAVID COULTHARD:  I think that Formula One has made incredible strides in the last 20‑odd years to make the safety cell the safest place to be in a crash.  There is inherent dangers in motor racing when you have a 700‑kilo vehicle travelling at 200 miles an hour; if they come in contact with another vehicle, if you get launched, then that’s a lot of momentum then distributed and hopefully in a way which protects the drivers.

Sadly as we found out a couple years ago with Jules Bianchi, there’s always going to be those freak incidents where the driver’s head can come in contact with something, and that’s obviously a weak link in the system.

I am all for continually improving safety.  I don’t think there’s immediate reaction to that crash because it’s something that the run‑off adequately dealt with.  Sadly there was a marshal killed at that same point a few years ago.  I had an accident there with Alex Wurz in 2007; Martin Brundle launched over the back of me in 1996.

What they have done is made the run‑off area as such when the marshal cannot be hit by any debris and the car will continue to lose its energy over a longer run‑off area.  It’s a sudden stop, which is particularly bad for any human strapped inside a racing car.

So, you can’t take the danger out of life.  Right now someone slipping in the bath and sadly banging their head or course.  So, if possible, take the danger out of motor racing any more that it would be boxing or any sport where you have humans coming in contact with a sudden stop.

But that’s an element of our sport.  I think the governing body continues to react well.  We can’t sanitise life to the point where our children don’t trip and fall over, so I don’t see how we can do that with motor racing amongst adults.

What are your thoughts on the halo device?  There’s been much comment about that.

DAVID COULTHARD:  If it’s felt that that is something that would offer protection to our frontal impact of the driver’s head and sustain the ‑‑ sort of protect against injuries that sadly killed Senna and Jules Bianchi, then I find it very difficult to see how anyone could argue against that.

You know, there obviously is historical sort of acceptance of what a Grand Prix car is.  It’s an open‑wheel, open‑top car.  If you start closing the wheels and closing the top, then it becomes a sports car, as we traditionally know it.  So there’s signs behind the reserves that’s going into it.

When they first brought seatbelts into Formula One, people like Stirling Moss didn’t want them because they much preferred in those days to be thrown clear of the wreckage rather than be kept in the car because of the high risk of fire.  And then it would be ridiculous to think we wouldn’t have seatbelts in racing cars today anymore than road cars.

I think whenever there is something new implemented, there will always be, as there always is in life, varying opinions.  But it’s the governing body that are there to try and sift through all that and do the right thing.

We have a couple of questions I think from our Spanish adjourn list about Alonso and his driving.  One of the questions is, obviously you were a great McLaren driver, and you were always very competitive in that car.  Do you think Alonso has any chance to be world champion with the McLaren team?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Irrespective of whether he’s winning races and championships, he is one of the true greats of our sport.  His natural speeds, his racing ability, light moves; when he starts qualifying laps, you know you’re about to see something special, even if it’s in a car which is less than competitive.

So, I don’t think that it’s for me a question of how many races, how many championships, for him to have the sort of ranking, if you like, in the history in the sport.

He has arrived at McLaren at a point where they are not very competitive, and he like, any other driver in that situation, has to get on with the business of helping them develop; and better to have someone like that who is a known quantity and without question in terms of his speed of ability, because then, it probably places the focus on the engine and chassis.

So I would like to see him win another World Championship, because I think he’s certainly due more than the two that he has beside his name.  But life is life, fate is fate, and not everyone gets what they deserve.  Otherwise, the world is a very different place, and Laureus wouldn’t be around doing what it does for sport; to help those that are less fortunate.

What do you think your former team is able to achieve this season?  What do you regard as a successful year for them?  Obviously they have a new engine and it’s a learning process.  Do you have a target that you think they would be pleased to achieve?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Yeah, I think that realistically, they are not going to be challenging for podiums unless there’s an unusual event on circuit or a significant upgrade later in the year.

So right now, they have to be targeting consistent point finishes, like you saw from Stoffel Vandorne in Bahrain on the weekend.  McLaren are one of the true great names in the sport; and therefore, it’s incredible to imagine that they have hit this difficult patch.  But then I guess you could look at Man‑United, look at Chelsea in the Premiership, at various points they have been looking invincible and then they are not going to win the Premiership this week.

It’s a great reminder in sport, as in life:  Unless you continue to evolve and develop, you get overtaken because that’s what someone else is doing.  Through certain key decisions they have taken, they have strategically found themselves with a less than competitive package.  Management has to take that on the chin, because it sure as hell isn’t the guy that cleans the cars or stocks the towels in the bathrooms at McLaren that made that decision.  It’s a constant reminder to keep your eye on the ball.

Obviously we can look at this with hindsight, but do you think it was a good move for Alonso now to change to McLaren?

DAVID COULTHARD:  You’ve got to be in a happy place.  If you’re not in a happy place, you’ll never deliver your full potential.  He finished second in the World Championship with Ferrari, and he never achieved what he set out to do, which was to win the World Championship; but neither did any other driver at Ferrari during that time.

Before Michael Schumacher started the winning freak for Ferrari, it had been over a decade as far as I can recall since they have won a World Championship or even longer.  So you don’t always end up getting what you want.

But he still delivers at the highest level for that team.  He’s taken a move back to McLaren.  It isn’t working out right now, but no one has the crystal ball to see the future.  But hard work will engineer the way out of it.

Wonder if you can give us a character reference for Ron Dennis.  You drove for him and he’s now trying to bring this team back into contention.  How would you characterize him as a leader of a team?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Ron has great vision, and you just need to look at what he’s achieved in his life.  No disrespect to being a mechanic, but he’s gone from being a mechanic to being a shareholder and CEO of a group of companies, which are high‑engineering, high‑level, high‑achieving businesses, so in terms of business, he’s an incredibly successful businessman.   Certainly he has my admiration for what he’s been able to achieve.

There’s no question that whilst he’s been doing that, just like any other human, you can’t give 100 per cent to more than one thing; and easy to observe from the outside with no real understanding of how the companies are structured.

But as he’s the driving light, it would appear to me as he’s been working on go‑kart projects and all the rest of it; the Formula One team has not always there for been the primary focus.  Ron has had success in Formula One, but for whatever reason, the structure hasn’t delivered in line with the organisation’s sort of ethos of aspiring to be the best.

Ron when he looks in the mirror can be proud, but he also like anyone that is going through a difficult period if you’re the leader of the company and it’s not delivering, then he has to be questioning:  Are the right people in place; is the long‑term investment structure one that will easily bring you back to success, assuming he does have those conversations with himself, then I’m sure that they will be back on point.

But Ron, all of the team principles and team owners, whether it be a Ron Dennis, a Frank Williams, whether it be the Ferrari representative or Red Bull, they all have their particular personalities of which they come through when they are interviewed.  When you work with them, you get to see the good, the bad and the ugly, as all humans have.  I admire anyone that can structure and lead in a very high‑pressure bubble of Formula One

You do see at some point McLaren really inventing themselves as a force in the sport?

DAVID COULTHARD:  They have to.  That is the basis of which the rest of the companies are built.  And you know, the brand McLaren cars, is as intrinsically linked to the success on the racetrack as Ferrari when they built their image through race to go sell the sports cars.

Ferraris kept selling, even though they weren’t winning world championships.  But it was the DNA of the fact that the company lives and breathes competition that people aspire to and it comes through to their products.

So I don’t have a crystal ball for the future.  The name above the door doesn’t guarantee success.  It’s always going to be about the people that are empowered within the company, and if they don’t have ‑‑ no one lives forever.  No one can deliver at a high level forever mand sport is a perfect example of that in terms of being a sports person, sportsmen and women around the world, they have their building years, their peak years.  And then depending on when they decide to stop, they either stop at the top, or they start to decline and then stop.  Because it’s about human endeavour and physical and mental commitment which, you know, I think history has shown that no sports person can sustain that throughout their entire life.

Some of the younger Grand Prix drivers, the two Toro Rosso drivers, Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen, can you tell us your views about those two, dynamic entry to Formula One, and obviously Verstappen is nominated for the great Laureus Breakthrough Award after his first year last year.  How do you assess their potential, and obviously people always want to know, could they be future world champions?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Well, as much as I can see from the way both of them have arrived at Formula One and delivered, then I do believe they are both at the very least potential Grand Prix winners in the future, and then depending on the decisions they make, then potential world champions.  They are both quality, young drivers.

I think that the spotlight initially has been on Max, because of being the younger of the two.  But Carlos has absolutely been able to hold his own and deliver, and it’s actually a dilemma for the Toro Rosso team, because historically one driver has sone and he’s moved up, and then the other one has gone on to something else; where they are both shining.

I would have no problem having either of those two, if not both on the team driving for me, because they have got all the character traits of potential champions, which is they are both focused, hungry, got that steely edge about them.  They have grown up around racing families.

And again, with Stoffel Vandorne coming in and delivering for McLaren on the weekend, the future of Formula One and the next generation of drivers looks good, looks positive, and that’s important.

The Australian journalists would like your comments on Daniel Ricciardo, who was the Laureus Breakthrough Award Winner last year, and he’s currently third in the championship, obviously early days, but could you assess him?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Yeah, he’s top drawer, no question about it, his victory in Formula One ‑‑ again, to take a name from the past, it looks Senna‑esque and he made the opportunities happen rather than just falling in his lap.

He, to me, is an incredible all‑around sports person because he also understands that he is a focal point, and inspiration for the next generation.  He has got a smile that lights up a room and an energy which then resonates through the team in the paddock.

So some drivers do great things on the track, and then say the minimum and then leave the circuit and you don’t see anything from them until they turn up and deliver, and that’s their right and that’s their personality.

But for Daniel, I think he is a new wave of multimedia sportsman that is fast, fit, focused and gets the fact that it’s a privilege to be a professional sportsman.  You become a professional sportsman because someone chooses to pay you to do what you would do for your hobby or for your pleasure and therefore he recognises where that funding comes from.  It comes from the fans, it comes from the sponsors, the TV companies, the media and that’s why I think he is an inspirational Formula One talent and undoubtedly will win more Grand Prixes and challenge the championship.

There’s a lot of questions about the state of Formula One today.  The one question that everyone seems to want to know is what can you suggest to improve the sport, make it more exciting; “spice it up” was a phrase one journalist used.  Do you accept that the sport could do with a bit of spicing up, and do you have any David Coulthard ideas?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Well, where to start.  I fear this is not just a couple of sentences or a paragraph.

I think that if we start at the root of how rules and regulations are put together, there’s a lot of debate right now about whether the car count procedure of governance is the correct one; where if I’m a commercial rights‑holder and the teams come together to decide on various rules.

The recent history would suggest that it isn’t really working because some things are forced that the teams don’t want.  Other things are sort of on a whim brought, like the change to qualifying.

It’s easy to criticise when you don’t have the best skin in the game, and I don’t have a seat in any one of those positions.  But I think that if we cut to the core of what Formula One started as, it’s about human and machines bringing together under certain regulations the fastest teams, cars, drivers, and going out and competing on the global stage to see who is the champion.

And I think that when you have changing regulations that are trying to embrace, keeping Formula One relevant to the manufacturers, then all of that obviously increases costs, because you have to keep changing engines and changing chassis.  There’s a number of things, a large amount of money that has to be spent before you even get to the track.

The talks about cost cuts and caps and things like that.  Well, in business, you’re not under a cost cap, so I don’t believe personally you should be cost capping Formula One if you can enter the arena and you can structure yourself in a way that is financially viable and efficient, then you can do good things.

Look at Red Bull Racing.  Whoever thought an energy drink company could win four straight world titles.  Well, they did; not because they have a fancy factory and an historical name, but because they empowered good people in a team full of energetic people that then went forward and dominated.  When they were a customer team to Renault, they didn’t have the worst engine.  They didn’t have the best engine, but they were able to influence the other areas of the car.

There isn’t a quick answer to that question.  Sadly it becomes so politically, financially motivated with everyone trying to get a bigger slice of the pie and more control that as often happens from time to time, the sport suffers and therefore the fans suffer.

So, if you were to take away all of the current people that are involved in that decision‑making process, what are the chances that the next group coming in wouldn’t just be the same, all looking for a personal gain, all looking for the biggest share of the cake so they can either make a faster car or they can give more return to their investors.

Formula One for me is one of the closest replications of life and business in sports, because of the fact that in day‑to‑day base, if your competitor across the street is not as successful as you, you don’t suddenly go and give them a cash injection or give them some tips for the trade to be more successful, do you.  You just watch them struggle on and you either go out of business or find a way to restructure.

Arguably the business of Formula One should be the same as that.  Yes, it’s meant to be entertaining, but there are many one‑make formulas out there which doesn’t have the audience of Formula One.  It’s not because the racing in Formula One is better, but it’s because it represents, like the space race.  We know we’re seeing the fastest cars with the most technology with arguably the best drivers finding their way to the pinnacle of the sport.

There’s a GP2, there’s a lot of one‑make formulas which has great racing which is much more affordable.  But you don’t get 120,000 people turning out to watch GP2 and GP3 because you know you’re watching the second level.  The same with the Premiership.  People want to see elite because they are aspiring to be at the highest level and that’s what Formula One is.

Quite an unusual event for the Grand Prix Drivers Association to make some comments about how they thought the sport was run.  Generally their interest has been around safety issues, hasn’t it?  Was that a significant moment?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Well, it was, and it did focus primarily on safety in the past.  But they have come to a point where if you look at the representatives from the commercial rights‑holder, he’ll say the drivers are stupid and concentrate on driving.

If you look at the representatives from FIA, they will say, I don’t suppose the drivers have got the first idea of how the governments of the sport operates.

And if you look at the teams, they tend to not really say anything derogatory about the drivers, because they are the key asset to the team in terms of once you put the car on the track, you need someone to go out there and drive your car.

So when you have two out of the three main stakeholders in sport actually having what appears like very little respect for the drivers, then whatever your view of the drivers is, they are grown adults that have the skill and ability to have found themselves into the sport and be highly rewarded for that.

I wouldn’t want to disrespect anyone in any business or industry where clearly, whether inherited or whether created, you have to continue to deliver.  So I feel like it probably highlights a little bit one of the dysfunctional aspects of Formula One where there’s a lack of respect.

I think that the key, core message of sport, and if you go back to what Nelson Mandela said in his speech for Laureus about sport has the ability to change the world.  That may seem as a fashionable statement for many, but if you look at the way sport unites and sport brings people together and it gives people hope.  It gives them moment to think of something other than their own challenges in life.

I think arguably the driver’s voice adds the visual and physical representation of success and failure, should be listened to and should be relevant and shouldn’t be dismissed.

You know, if you are always trying to put people down, then what’s going to happen?  You’ll either crush them or eventually they will rise up against you.  So I would rather treat people with respect and allow them to have a voice, because they are the main visual part of why people turn up to watch Formula One.

All fascinating stuff.  Just a couple of questions, you were implying the changes, there are lots of them.  Could you just give us quickly your views on the new tyre regulations and the qualifying system?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Well, I never heard anyone really saying that the problem with more wheel‑to‑wheel action was because of qualifying.  Therefore, I was surprised when there was a change to the format.  As a commentator trying to broadcast what’s actually happening; then I find it a little bit frustrating that we have what was typically, if you look at how things tend to build to a crescendo in life of excitement, it’s a little bit disappointing to see that we have two or three minutes at the end of sessions where no one is out there and nothing’s happening.

So I don’t believe that works.  And tyre‑wise, bringing another compound of tyres has certainly brought another element of variation to the race, but these are the words of the drivers, not my words, because I haven’t raced in Formula One with these tyres.

But they are universally united in their dislike of the current compound and construction of tyres because they are very thermal sensitive, and they are unable to push and lean on the tyres in a way that we were traditionally able to do in the past.

I don’t want that to be seen as criticism of Pirelli because Pirelli have answered that request from the FIA and commercial rights‑holders to come up with high‑degradation tyres.

But what is my on‑the‑record position is that we have competition between drivers, competition between engines, competition between cars, competition between teams.  I don’t understand why you don’t have competition between the tyre manufacturers.

I know the argument would be cost because you have to test and develop.  I think the argument would be if you ended up with the wrong tyre compound for a season, you could have Ferrari, for instance, in the wrong compound struggling relative to smaller teams.  Well, there you go.  McLaren are struggling right now because they have chosen an engine with ‑‑ Honda come up with a good engine.

I personally think it should be open, and therefore, developing high‑quality, high‑performing tyres, which Pirelli would rise to that challenge.  They are a great company and they could do that, but they have no incentive to do so because right now they win every Grand Prix.

Thank you again.  Real good insights.  A potpourri of questions about you here.  What is your views, obviously you’re a great commentator and analyst now.  How do you compare that to driving?  Do you miss driving competitively in Formula One?

DAVID COULTHARD:  I had my time in Formula One.  I’m 45 years old.

You’re 45, you’ve had your great time.  One question we’ve got here is who is your favourite Formula One driver past and present, and why?

DAVID COULTHARD:  I have great admiration for a number of drivers.  Probably of the modern era, I’ve hung out with Jenson Button more than any of the other drivers, so he’s a buddy.  But I see a lot of them in Monaco.  Daniel I’ve spent quite a bit of time with recently.  So admired drivers, when I grew up, it was Haas (ph) because I always admired his sort of very efficient way of driving and delivering.

Other than that, yeah, I don’t dislike any of them.

Regulations changes for 2017 are planned, but it will only make the cars faster but not necessarily improve the show.  Do you agree?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Well, you make the cars faster, potentially, if you sell the same style and compound and structure of tyre, you’re still going to have the same issue.  They are the only thing that touches the ground.  If you put this type of tyre on a faster car, then, you know, nothing much is going to change in terms of how the drivers go about wheel‑to‑wheel racing.

The problem in answering this question, if you ask someone from Pirelli, they will give you a very plausible reason why that’s not the case.  And someone else will give you from another part of the governance in sport will give you another plausible reason why that is not going to be the case.

I trust in the driver’s seat‑back.  There would be no reason to give misinformation to each other and to me.  Great, make the cars faster, but we need to change the current tyres, as well, and allow the drivers to have what would be a standard degradation rather than a thermal degradation.

Just wanted to check with you, the tweaking of the qualification settings, how does that affect the driver in terms of mental preparation before qualification?  And also, how does it affect the interest of the fans?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Well, there’s more on‑track action, having the drivers have to be ‑‑ have a time on the board before the 90‑second elimination comes up.

But beyond that, what I think is ‑‑ mentally, that puts a bit more pressure on the drivers to deliver early doors.  But other than that, it’s always been the same sort of thing.  You need to be fast.  You need to deliver on your laps.

So the actual process of getting that single lap hasn’t really changed.  You just have more cars on track in a shorter period of time.

The lap times of the cars are right now back to almost 2013 levels.  Do you think it’s still wise for the rule makers to go for new rule changes next year to make the cars faster, considering they are already there or thereabouts, having seen the fastest lap a few days back?  Do you think we should get the field converging?

DAVID COULTHARD:  Anytime you have a big regulation change, then the teams have to relearn a lot of aerodynamic information and things like that.  So historically when you have a big change in regs, there’s one team that gets it right, and the others have to then spend the next couple years catching up.

So, I think you have a good point; that arguably the sport has settled down in its third year of hybrid engines.  There’s a consolidation in allowing a bit more close wheel‑to‑wheel action, rather than coming up with something completely different again.

But that is at the mercy of the rule makers.  The drivers just want fast, challenging, wheel‑to‑wheel racing.  They really are not emotionally attached to anything else in the regulations.

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