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Ayrton Senna Special: Exclusive: David Coulthard interview

  • Published on 30 Apr 2019 20:00
  • comments 0
  • By: Fergal Walsh

David Coulthard was the replacement of Ayrton Senna in 1994. GPToday.net spoke exclusively with David Coulthard about his Williams period, his difficult road in early 1994 when he drove Formula 3000 for Vortex and his chance which promoted him to Formula 1 driver. David took the time to answer our questions in an extensive interview. The Scotsman tells his story.

Coulthard on the different working methods of the drivers

The Scotsman became the official test driver at Williams in 1993 and worked with Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.

"I'd actually done a number of tests in the FW14B with Nigel a year earlier. I was actually already unofficially the test driver for Williams. The Renault-Elf combination wanted a young Frenchman in the car as an official test driver. In 1993 I became a test driver for Alain. It was a dream come true for me. I tested with Alain for the first time at Imola, I was in one car and on the other side of the garage Alain was in the car. I realized that this was the moment I had always dreamed of and my life couldn't be better at that moment.

"It was interesting to see how Alain's working method was. He was constantly improving the car, very different from Nigel. Nigel was only interested in lap times and after the test, he immediately left for the first golf course he could find. Alain always drove a few laps, got out of the car and went for coffee with the engineers and then came back in the car. Alain always tried to improve the car with minimal track time. He was looking for details.

"With Ayrton it was different. That was super hard work. From early in the morning until late in the evening he was working on improving the car. He could have long sessions one day. He maximized the time to be busy with and in the car."

"I remember the test in Portugal at Estoril. I went there to observe what was going on as a test driver. I was going to get in the car the next day. That day I arrived at the circuit at eight o'clock in the morning, which was quite common at that time when the test would start at nine o'clock. Ayrton was already there. When I got in the car one day later Ayrton was there. He listened on the radio, he wanted to know everything.

"At a certain moment, he knew enough and he decided to go to his house in Portugal. It showed that this man had an eye for detail. He wanted to know if he could use my feedback. Ayrton wanted to know if I could be trusted in the car. I later heard from Frank Williams and Julian Jacobi that he loved that I was his test driver. He felt comfortable with my feedback. He told Frank that in the future I should have the opportunity to show what I could do."

The magic carpet

In 1994 the technical rules changed in Formula 1. Fully automatic gearboxes, traction control and active suspensions were prohibited. As a driver, Coulthard drove with and without these technical aids. GPToday.net asked him about the differences.

"I did the first test from active to passive suspension at Silverstone. I drove one lap in the car and immediately returned to the pits. It seemed as if the car had broken down, that's how it felt. The active car was so incredibly stable, it looked like you were driving on a magic carpet. The action of that car was really brilliant. The passive system depended on the aerodynamic performance. You had to adjust it as stiff as you could in order to get away with it. Today, the cars are also passive and steered by the dampers."

"The cover was a shock, also for Ayrton. He joined a team that had won the titles with an active car in 1992 and 1993 and suddenly had to drive the passive car. It was a huge challenge, but he managed to drive his car to pole at the first three Grands Prix of 1994. Despite that, he didn't finish a single race. In Brazil, he spun and during the Pacific Grand Prix he was hit by Hakkinen and Larini. It was clear to me that Ayrton had done a phenomenal job in a very difficult car to drive. Aerodynamically the Williams had a good package with Adrian Newey, Patrick Head and I think also Paddy Lowe. It was not an easy car to drive. Unfortunately, Ayrton never got the chance to show the development of the car in the course of the season."

Bank Holiday, Formula 3000

Coulthard drove during the weekend at the beginning of May 1994 in the Formula 3000 for the Vortex Motorsport team of Ron Meddows. It was the first round of the championship and Coulthard had a budget for just one race. 

"It was a different set-up to a Grand Prix weekend. I qualified on Sunday and drove the race on Monday (Bank Holiday). I had an interview with Simon Allen of Motorsport Magazine/Autosport Magazine. He was the reporter of this race as he was not going to Formula 1 races anymore. The only place to watch the race was in the truck of AVON (the tyre supplier of the Formula 3000 in the nineties). There was a television so I could see the start of the Grand Prix. I saw the crash and at that moment I didn't know what was going on.

"Later in the evening, I received a message from Ian Cunningham, who had worked for Williams. He was still involved with the team and was jokingly called 'the wheelchair pusher' (because he pushed Frank's wheelchair). I worked with Ian when I was with Paul Stewart Racing, he was also responsible for my contact with Frank Williams to become a test driver. I remember how shocked I was, I think everyone remembers that. 

"On Monday I drove for Ron Meddows, who was the team owner of Vortex Motorsport. I came second and that was their best result at the time. I only had money for one race, so my career at the time was highly uncertain. Suddenly I got the car I could have dreamed of all my life and I could make my debut in Barcelona." 

About the first test after Senna's death

David talks about the test Williams organised at the Jerez circuit, where he had the idea that there would be several drivers in attendance. 

"Of course I had already tested for Williams so it wasn't a new environment for me. I was told that there would be other drivers to test in the FW14. It was a three-day test and in the end, there were no other drivers. Frank came at the end of the test. He was looking at the place where Martin Donnelly had that Lotus crash in 1990 and almost lost his life. For that fast corner they had made a chicane of piles of tyres to reduce the speed. I didn't know he was watching and at that moment I hit that tire wall and crashed the car.

"It was the first time I crashed as a test driver at Williams. I had already been spun in Pembrey at the beginning of my period as a test driver, but that was innocent. When I came back with the car in the pits I saw Frank. I really thought I missed my chance to impress. He rolled over to me and told me that he thought it was stupid to crash the car, but despite that I did get the chance to drive in Barcelona. That was a very bizarre scenario. I found it very strange that no one else came to test in Jerez. Renault had put pressure on Nigel to get into the car. I think Frank wanted to put someone in the car who didn't have high expectations. It also relieved the pressure from the boiler.

"I drove a couple of races and then Nigel came back to France. I thought that on his return to France Nigel immediately drove to pole position." This was not the case, Hill was 0.077 seconds faster. "Nigel was a great driver in his top time. He did have a weight disadvantage", the Scotsman said, laughing. "He was a great guy." 

The situation after Ayrton's death and the first smile

David told us how the team would recover after Ayrton's death. We asked him when they first laughed in the garage. What was the situation in 1994 after Ayrton's death? How was the reaction of Frank Williams and Patrick Head?

"It is clear that Williams has always been a progressive team. We arrived in Barcelona and there Damon won the race. You have to imagine that was a huge relief for the team. Finally the team had reason to laugh again. On Friday we couldn't drive in Barcelona because there was a discussion between us and Max Mosley. I actually drove my first laps during the Friday qualification. I had done a shake-down with the car, but I hadn't really driven it. Patrick came over the radio and told me not to feel any pressure. He immediately put me at ease. I could really appreciate that.

When I went on the track he explained to me that I first had to turn right at the end of the straight, then I had to turn left. The radio got stuck and Patrick thought the message wouldn't get through. He panicked and told me one more time: David Turn Right! The whole team witnessed it and I heard them laughing in the background when the radio signal was turned up. We ended up bringing the humour back into the team at a very early stage. I had a gearbox problem during the race. Damon won the race. In the end it was a successful debut for the team and it brought the confidence back to Williams."

Making way for Nigel

GPToday.net asked David if he understood that he had to make way for Nigel for the races in France (in the middle of the season), Jerez, Japan and Australia. The British driver was only able to fully race for Williams after his Newman Haas contract over in IndyCar ended. 

"I couldn't do anything else. I fully understood. What should I do? I didn't even have the money to pay for that Formula 3000 race at Silverstone. My family has always supported me. I had no other choice. I was humble and happy that Williams gave me this opportunity. I think Nigel made one million dollars per race. At the end of the year he took over my place. That's logical, considering the British media that wanted him in that car. I think he also won the last Grand Prix in Australia.

"I was lucky that at a certain moment Frank felt that Nigel was no longer committed after he left a test early. I did the test between Jerez and the Japanese Grand Prix, I visited the Grand Prix in Japan as a test driver. It was a race under terrible conditions that Damon won. The decision to put me in the car in 1995 came after that Grand Prix."

"I was negotiating with Williams for 1995 and 1996. My management team IMG, wanted a two-year deal. When I came to sign the contract in Didcot, Frank had changed his mind. He only wanted a one-year deal. That's why I started the conversation with Ron Dennis. He offered me a contract for 1996 and eventually I drove there for nine seasons.

So I had a three-year contract, one year with Williams and two years with McLaren. When Frank wanted to negotiate for a contract in 1995, I had to tell him that I had already signed for McLaren. Frank was pretty upset when he realized that I wouldn't drive for him in 1996. So in the end he wanted me in the car in 1996. Maybe I missed the opportunity to really fight for the world title because Damon won the title that year. So in the end I ended up with a nine-year employment contract with McLaren."

David Coulthard rode 25 Grands Prix for Williams. He scored nine podium finishes, won one Grand Prix and was in pole position five times. The Scottish racer finished third in the 1995 World Championship and scored a total of 63 points for Williams. After his Williams career, he won twelve more races at McLaren, finished third and second in the World Championship three times and one time. Coulthard started in 246 races and scored 535 points. He ended his career in 2008 at the Brazilian Grand Prix for Red Bull Racing. We concluded with a thank you to the sympathetic Scot who took the time to speak with us.

 

 

Ayrton Senna Special: Part 1 - Ayrton and karting - The early years
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 2 - Ayrton and karting - International

Ayrton Senna Special: Part 3 - Ayrton and karting - The tough trip in Buenos Aires
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 4 - Ayrton and karting - The last race
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 5 - Ayrton in Europe - Formula Ford 1600 and the battle with Rick Morris

Ayrton Senna Special: Part 6 - Ayrton in Europe - A glorious year in Formula Ford 200
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 7 - Ayrton in British Formula 3 - Senna in a class of his own
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 8 - Ayrton in British Formula 3 - First signs of pressure and dirt game 
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 9 - Ayrton in British Formula 3 - Shame at Oulton Park and another title
Ayrton Senna Special Exclusive Interview: Allen Berg: Ayrton drove against the British system
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 10 - Ayrton as a test driver - The first experience in a Formula 1 car
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 11 - Ayrton as a test driver - A selection of different teams
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 12 - Ayrton at Toleman - Why the choice for Toleman was the right one
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 13 - Ayrton at Toleman - Monaco Grand Prix - Stefan was faster
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 14 - Ayrton at Toleman - Monaco Grand Prix - Post-race
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 15 - Ayrton at Toleman - Competitive in a new car with two podiums
Ayrton Senna Special: Technical Analysis 1: The Toleman TG183 (1984)
Ayrton Senna Special: Teammate 1: Johnny Cecotto
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 16 - Ayrton at Lotus - Facial Paralysis
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 17 - Ayrton at Lotus - Masterclass in Estoril
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 18 - Ayrton at Lotus - An unfortunate first half of the season
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 19 - Ayrton at Lotus - Many podiums and a victory at Spa-Francorchamps
Ayrton Senna Special: Technical Analysis 2: The Lotus 972
Ayrton Senna Special: Teammate 2: Elio 'The Gentleman'
Ayrton Senna Special: Extra 1: Veto 1

Ayrton Senna Special: Part 20 - Second year at Lotus - Titanium competition with Nigel Mansell
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 21 - Second year at Lotus- A good start and the lead in the championship after Detroit (1986)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 22 - Second year at Lotus - Decay in the second half of the season (1986)
Ayrton Senna Special: Teammates 3: John Crichton-Stuart, 7th Marquess of Bute (1986) 
Ayrton Senna Special: Extra 2 - Gérard Ducarouge - Designer of Ayrton's winning Lotus (1986)

Ayrton Senna Special: Exclusive Interview 1: Allard Kalff: 'I still honour Roland on April 30'.
Ayrton Senna Special: Exclusive Interview 2: Allard Kalff: "I only saw at Linate Airport that Ayrton had died"
Ayrton Senna Special: Exclusive Interview 3: Allard Kalff: "The accidents in 1994 were coincidence, in 1995 nothing happened"
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 23 - Last year at Lotus - Excellent season with the 1986 Honda engine (1987)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 24 - Last year at Lotus - The victories at Monaco and Detroit (1987) 
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 25 - The beginning of an era - The contract at McLaren (1988)
Ayrton Senna Special: Extra 2: Trashtalk (1988)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 26 - The beginning of an era - Tears in Brazil and Monaco (1988)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 27 - The beginning of an era - The basis for the first world title (1988)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 28 - The beginning of an era - Absolute dominance (1988)
Ayrton Senna Special: Eric Comas: 'Hypocritical people knew during the race what was going on with Ayrton
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 29 - The beginning of an era - The first world title (1988)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 30 - Problems at the team - Perfect start despite a loss in Rio (1989)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 31 - Problems at the team - A dip in the championship at an early stage (1989)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 32 - Problems at the team - Back in the title fight? (1989)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 33 - Problems at the team - Bad luck and controversy put an end to the second world title (1989)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 34 - War at the team - Suzuka (1989)
Ayrton Senna Special: Extra 4: Senna and Ferrari - A deal that did not come off (1990)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 35 - Bad year for the sport - Excellent start (1990)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 36 - Bad year for the sport - The basis for the second world title (1990)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 37 - Bad year for the sport - Suzuka (1990)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 39 - Silence is back - Excellent start to the season (1991)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 40 - Silence is back - Four starts, four wins (1991)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 41 - Silence is back - Championship tension and final title (1991)
Ayrton Senna Special: Part 42 - A dramatic season - Happy victory in Monaco (1992)
 

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