The End of David Coulthard’s Championship Dreams Part 2

In the first part of the first story about the 2001 Formula One season that did not have a title referring to a movie the author has never actually seen, the Gravel Trap looked at the three races after the Austrian Grand Prix. David Coulthard, who was within a win of taking the championship lead away from the reigning, defending world’s champion Michael Schumacher, was now 24 points behind the German. However, history had shown that such a margin was not unassailable. In the previous decade alone, three drivers had managed to force a title showdown at the season’s finale despite being 24 or more points behind.

Nov AOf course, anyone who remembers the 2001 season will know that David Coulthard failed in this endeavour; he ended up 58 points behind the world champion, which was the largest margin in the sport’s history at the time. To learn how three admittedly disappointing races and a blow to the championship ambitions turned into the worst defeat in Formula One history up to that point (somehow being further behind the champion than the hapless Riccardo Patrese in the 1992 Williams), the second part of this Gravel Trap double-header will take a look at all the races from the Magny-Cours weekend until the championship-clinching Hungarian Grand Prix.

#4 – French Grand Prix –  July 1, 2001

Before the amazing Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours hosted the tenth round of the Formula One season, Ferrari enjoyed a few days of testing. Ever-helpful test driver Luca Badoer put in the work to test Ferrari’s launch control system to avoid Michael Schumacher suffering the horrible fate of his main opponent at Monaco.

David Coulthard, who had won at this venue just twelve months ago, was saying the right things in the press about how he was taking it race-by-race. Schumacher said the very same thing and expected, at least in public, a strong performance out of McLaren-Mercedes. Qualifying was a very tight affair, the top five were separated by less than 0.33 seconds and McLaren were the only team that had two cars in said top five. Ralf Schumacher beat his brother to pole position, McLaren had the second row locked down and Jarno Trulli once more showcased his qualifying prowess with fifth place.

The warm-up lap once again saw a McLaren stall. Thankfully, it was “only” Mika’s car that failed. However, he was not the only car to not make it to the eventual grid: Pedro de la Rosa’s Jaguar got stranded in bizarre fashion. Eventually, the race got underway and David Coulthard had a great chance of making a move into the first corner to take second from his championship rival, but came up short. Unlike Montreal or Nürburgring, Coulthard actually managed to stick with the two Schumachers, who had been turning the “Formula One World Championship” into the “Elisabeth Schumacher’s Sons Trophy” in recent weeks, and was still within three seconds of Ralf after lap 13.

Coulthard was in great position for his first stop, he went the longest out of the leading trio. Unfortunately, his pace in the low-fuel run was lacking and he wound up de facto third behind the Schumachers again. Even worse, it turned out that David Coulthard was just a bit too fast in the pitlane and received a ten-second stop-and-go penalty. Martin Brundle tried to claim that the penalty was too harsh, but unlike Ralf Schumacher crossing a white line, violating the pitlane speed limit has much clearer potential for danger, so you would need to look at things in a highly patriotic way to see this one as unjust.

After that penalty, anything but P5 seemed out of the question. If anything, Coulthard must have been thankful for Juan Pablo Montoya suffering another engine failure. Still, he kept fighting, approaching Rubens Barrichello for P3. A few openings presented themselves to Coulthard, but nothing to really stick his fork in. All Coulthard could do was watch Michael Schumacher take his 50th victory and look at Rubens Barrichello’s rear-wing to end his race in fourth. Once more, the future Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year proved useful to Ferrari’s title ambitions.

#5 – British Grand Prix –  July 15, 2001

If there were any chances of David Coulthard turning the season around, he had no other option but to win the home Grand Prix of both himself and his team. While it did not help him in France, Coulthard again returned to a venue he had won at in 2000. McLaren-Mercedes were ready to make a run at the victory, the team having developed a number of upgrades at a testing session in Monza. Qualifying saw Michael Schumacher come out on top, but both McLarens were close. With Williams struggling with the uneven conditions of the qualifying sessions and the speedy corners of the Silverstone Circuit, the battle at the top would be an exclusive affair between David, Michael, and their teammates.

Murray Walker created one of his last great Murrayisms, when he said that the five “laps” of the starting lights were turned on. However, the worst-case scenario for McLaren came to be. Jarno Trulli had a great start and ran into David Coulthard into turn 1. Coulthard almost managed to hold his car, but spun and dropped to P18. His hopes to win the British Grand Prix were over before even one corner had been conquered. He tried to recover and work his way back up the order, but the contact terminally damaged his suspension and the Scotsman spun out of the race, leaving Michael Schumacher to be the de facto winner of this race, regardless of his actual finishing position. Murray Walker solemnly noted that McLaren had not yet managed to get both cars to the flag in 2001, which of course was not true, as they had done so in Sepang, San Marino and recently at the Nürburgring.

The starting accident is difficult to judge from a championship perspective. One could look at the larger implications and say that Coulthard should or could have backed down and taken P4. On the other hand,  overtaking was something Coulthard struggled with in recent races, so he may very well have been P4 for a long time. Too long a time, given that Schumacher had won the start.

Just like Sebastian Vettel in 2018, he was caught between a rock and a hard place: he could not afford to lose any time to the already-dominant championship leader, but by crashing out, his microscopic chances were hurt even more. Furthermore, it is quite easy to judge things in hindsight and given that Trulli and Coulthard were side-by-side, the accident should not be seen as particularly bad. Other events already described and about to be described were more important.

The most disappointing thing about this accident was that McLaren were going extremely well all weekend. Shortly after Coulthard retired, Häkkinen passed “The Big Red Machine”, as the Channel 9 team were wont to call him at the time, for the lead (with admittedly little defence played by Schumacher) and went on to take a dominant victory. With the MP4-16 showing off its abilities around Silverstone and Coulthard’s teammate actually having the top-class drive he is capable of for a change after weeks of technical issues in unfortunate moments and poor performances in other races, McLaren could have had a 1-2 victory and taken six points out of Schumacher’s lead for a noteworthy momentum swing. For what it is worth, Häkkinen himself stated he was able to perform better because the tyres stopped him from experiencing as much understeer as he had at other venues.

Nov B

#6 – German Grand Prix –  July 29, 2001

The German Grand Prix was always going to be a problem for McLaren in their quest to make up championship points. With the weather playing right into Michelin’s hands and the mighty BMW behind them, Williams were in control on Saturday. Juan Pablo Montoya duly scored his premier pole position against his teammate Ralf Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen who was riding the momentum of his British Grand Prix victory. Unfortunately for Coulthard, he was not able to beat Michael Schumacher to fourth.

At 29°C, the weather was going to play into Williams’ hands. The only good news for Coulthard was that even a clear +10 to Michael Schumacher’s standing would not be sufficient to lose the title, so DC could drive freely. Indeed, he started well and his championship rival started horribly. So horribly, in fact, that Luciano Burti could not avoid him and jumped all over his car in one of the more horrific starting accidents of the time. Thankfully, nobody was hurt.

The second attempt at having a race was more successful, but Coulthard could not pass Schumacher into turn 1. Barrichello tried to have a go, but the move would not stick for long. Michael Schumacher managed to take third, as Barrichello managed to make a move at the start of the stadium section. A bad start for the McLarens.

Barrichello made his way past Mika Häkkinen and the Williams-Ferrari-McLaren order soon became solidified. Rubens Barrichello was on a lighter fuel load, so he immediately flew past his teammate. He started an assault on the Williams driver, but Juan Pablo Montoya was unimpressed and maintained a healthy lead.

To add on to Mika Häkkinen’s miserable season, he once more retired with a technical issue. If there was one thing the McLaren team could not afford was to have the same thing happen to Häkkinen’s teammate, if anything the team would need misfortune to come to other teams. The racing gods were listening to them. Juan Pablo Montoya had a horrible fuel stop, as the rig failed, causing his stop to take 29.9 seconds, only for his car to fail a few laps later. Even more fortunate, David Coulthard got the one retirement he needed: Michael Schumacher indecisively pulled over to retire.

Nov COf course, a Hockenheimring in hot temperatures is known for being cruel on engines and the Mercedes-Benz FO 110K is not the most reliable power unit on the best of days. After his own pitstop, the engine overheated and David Coulthard’s race and what remained of his championship hopes was over. Coulthard did not even bother to look at his non-functioning car as he leapt over the barrier.

Michael Schumacher was left to thank his fortune and enjoy his brother taking the third victory of his career to the delight of the South German crowd, ahead of teammate Rubens Barrichello and BAR driver Jacques Villeneuve, who had fought off the two Benettons and Jean Alesi in his final outing for Prost-Acer. Honestly, the author only mentions Jacques Villeneuve’s podium to mention that he was given his third-place trophy by the Fürst zu Ysenburg und Budingen, which is a very hilarious title.

Unlike Ralf’s last victory, this one had a better interviewer in the press conference. He asked Ralf whether he believed a back-to-back victory would be possible, despite the fact that the two tracks were different. As the interviewer pointed out, he would need to win to beat his brother to the title. Ralf Schumacher merely laughed and said he was not going for the title, which said it all, really.

#7 – Hungarian Grand Prix –  July 29, 2001

One of the reasons why dominant seasons are not always appreciated is because the rivals of the competitors give up hope and thus make an “easy” title for a driver seem even easier. This clearly was the theme of this weekend.

David Coulthard started second behind Schumacher, but given that he was 0.8 seconds behind, it was very evident that he could not mount an actual challenge for the race win. After the field had gone through turn 1, Barrichello went by the Scotsman and if there was any doubt left about the outcome of the race, it was pretty much gone after that.

Coulthard deserves some praise to have stayed with the Ferraris, but Michael Schumacher put the hammer down once the lap counter hit the double-digits and pulled away. After that, there was not really much to mention. While Coulthard managed to regain second place in the pits, an awful fuel stop forced him behind Barrichello again after the second stop, pretty much securing Ferrari’s constructor’s crown.

While Mika Häkkinen and Ralf Schumacher had a very fun scrap, it was not important to the podium positions. Even that battle fell apart because Häkkinen lacked the fuel to actually finish the race, killing the last bit of excitement, though it earned the Flying Finn the final fastest lap of his tremendous Formula One career.

Michael Schumacher enjoyed a sensible ride to Ferrari’s 147th victory in Formula One. By doing so, he became the undisputed 2001 Formula One world driver’s champion. Martin Brundle, surprisingly, was full of praise for the German as he made his way to the title, pointing out that he could already have been a six- or seven-times champion of the world had fortune gone his way in some of the earlier championship fights (he went on to add three more championships and come extremely close to another one, so the total number of potential championships after the conclusion of his career is an absolutely incomprehensible possible eleven-time champion).

With that, David Coulthard was left only to congratulate the old and new champion and had to acknowledge that second place was all that was possible today. Coulthard openly admitted that he had no interest in getting second place in the championship, but actually managed to achieve that with four more podiums in the final Grands Prix of the year, all while losing another fifteen points to Michael Schumacher, who added two more victories before the season was over, passing Alain Prost for the all-time win record he would hold until Sir Lewis Hamilton surpassed it in 2020.

With the seven races now well analysed, one question remains: could this have been avoided?

The answer is: some of it, yes. Certainly, Michael Schumacher was pretty much always going to end up as the 2001 champion. The McLaren was just too unreliable (the team had double the retirements throughout the races up to Hungary compared to Ferrari) in the end and Schumacher himself was just too damn good. Plus, Ralf Schumacher came into form at the worst time from McLaren’s point of view and was able to play spoiler for David Coulthard too often, yet not often enough for his own flesh and blood.

However, it must be noted that Coulthard did not do himself any favours: his lack of aggression in battling other drivers left him with little choice but to overcommit later (his accident with Trulli being that scenario). It just cannot be overstated just how his and McLaren’s lack of aggression at Monaco were tone setters for the weeks to follow. Of course, McLaren deserve their share of the blame for building such a technically unstable car, especially when you are trying to keep up with a ruthless machine like the Jean-Todt-led Scuderia Ferrari.

“What can I learn from David Coulthard’s 2001 season?”, any ambitious young drivers reading the Gravel Trap might now ask themselves, having fully read the story of Coulthard’s failed title challenge.

Well, there are two important lessons here, young ones:

  1. a) To be the man, you gotta beat the man (wooo!)
  1. b) Never get stuck behind Enrique Bernoldi

David Coulthard was, for all intents and purposes, a really good Formula One driver. You do not win 13 Grands Prix by accident, his achievements stand for themselves. However, if you were facing one of the drivers that is always a key player in the discussion about the greatest Formula One driver of all time in his prime, you simply had absolutely no margin for error if you were “just” really good.

It would be unfair to “discredit” Schumacher’s 2001 title as merely being a product of his car, when the German clearly demonstrated how much he had his team behind him, how good his team and the people he helped recruit to it were and how much his own driving (with all the aggression it occasionally included) put the finishing touch to a masterpiece of Grand Prix success.

Copyright DonFrancePhotography.com

Unfortunately, David Coulthard and McLaren had to learn that lesson in the hardest way imaginable.

Sources: Channel 9, motorsport-total.com, StatsF1

Image Sources: Alan (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), DonFrance-photos (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, resized), Morio (licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, resized), United Autosports (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, resized)