IF ANYONE knows what it takes to win in Monaco it’s David Coulthard.
From his first Grand Prix there in 1995, when, as a callow 24-year-old rookie, he qualified third just weeks after setting up home in the principality, the Scot had 13 years during which he was consistently competitive at the street-racing circuit which is the ultimate test of bravery and commitment.
Wins in 2000 and 2002 place him alongside legends such as Juan Manuel Fangio and Nikki Lauda as one of just a dozen drivers with multiple Monaco victories. And during a golden three-year period when his two wins book-ended the 2001 race when he started on pole, Monaco underlined his claim to be the out-and-out fastest driver on the grid. Ironically that performance in the 2001 race was among one of the great fighting drives of all time: after an electronic problem meant his car was last to leave the grid despite being on pole, the Scot finished fifth, overtaking car after car on a circuit where passing other cars remains fiendishly difficult.
Throughout the late 1990s he was consistently excellent at Monaco, finishing second in 1996, and from then until 2003 only qualifying outside the top three places once, while winning twice and starting from pole twice. As late as 2006, when he finished 13th in the championship, he still finished on the podium at the grand old race.
“Winning Monaco is the stamp of a good driver,” he said. “In the absence of me having won a world championship, when I’m trying to work out where I fit in, in my own mind Monaco is a useful benchmark – you might get lucky once but it’s unlikely you’re going to win it twice by pure luck.
“Between 2000 and 2002 there was a three-year period when I was the quickest guy here. I had a great car and team, but to succeed at Monaco you need the right focus and commitment and I really put the effort in. I used to think about Monaco from the very first test with the new car because you needed a car that had mechanical response, whereas on other circuits you need aerodynamic downforce and other different things. You need to plan and think and develop the car throughout the year to give yourself the best chance at Monaco. Because there are higher risks here and a greater likelihood of damaging yourself and putting yourself out of contention, you have to be more focused to do well here.
“I used to get up early and go cycle the track at 5.30 or 6 in the morning when there was no one else out there, just building up familiarity with the track. I’d watch in-car footage from previous years to build up the mental image because it’s a timing thing, like if you stay at your home and all the lights go out then you know how many paces it is to the door whereas you wouldn’t in a hotel. It’s all about familiarity – why wouldn’t you make it as familiar as possible before you go and blast round it? More than at any other track, winning at Monaco is about attention to detail.”
Coulthard loves Monaco, which “has a special place in my heart”. While lots of drivers base themselves there to take advantage of its low taxes – fellow Scot Paul Di Resta is the latest to move there – Coulthard has lived there for 18 years, has his kids in school there and has no plans to ever leave.
Coulthard says his affection for the place is shared by the real racers on the grid, and that Monaco’s status as Formula One’s blue riband event comes from its dual appeal as the ultimate racing challenge allied to the glamour of race weekend at this seafront city.
“There are two priorities in Monaco,” he says. “You always try to get in the points because it’s a pretty volatile place and it’s easy to damage the car and not finish. More than virtually anywhere else you’ve got to finish in front of your team-mate because it’s seen as a badge of honour on a street circuit that’s a judge of commitment and bravery.
“Monaco’s so eagerly awaited because of the glamour and because it’s the most incredible place to have a grand prix. I was at the Cannes Film Festival last night with Jackie [Stewart] and Roman Polanski watching Weekend of a Champion [Polanski’s 1972 documentary about Stewart’s Monaco win that year], which is a classic documentary and which is based around a weekend in Monaco. What was incredible is that the place is largely unchanged since Jackie raced here.
“It’s the place where the crowd get closer to the track than anywhere else. I’ve just been out on the track watching practise and on the other side of the barrier where I’m standing – literally just a few inches away – is a racing car doing 140 miles an hour. You can’t do that at Silverstone or anywhere else: it’s unique, it’s special, it’s got the French spirit and this incredible history. It’s Grace Kelly’s race, it’s a place where history does make a difference. It’s so iconic because of the people who have gone before.”
If so, both Ferrari’s resurgent Fernando Alonso and Red Bull’s fading Mark Webber – the only two current drivers who have won here twice – should fancy their chances. But Coulthard instead picks out Mercedes as the team to watch, believing they can win for the first time since they saw off Bugatti and Alfa Romeo to win the final three races here before the Second World War.
But while he believes that Lewis Hamilton has “unquestionably been vindicated” for what has turned out to be an “inspired decision” to leave McLaren for Mercedes – Coulthard believes he will win a race this season – it is team-mate Nico Rosberg that Coulthard believes has the edge in Monaco.
“Lewis will want to come out in front, but Nico has been quickest in both sessions – it looks like he’s got his eye in and he’s always been quick around here,” said Coulthard. “The Mercedes are looking very strong and undoubtedly have very good single-lap pace, and track position in Monaco is always very important. If they are a bit heavier on the tyres and have to do two stops or more, then the opposition’s way of trying to stop them if they can’t outrun them is to do less stops and jump them up in the pits. So it’s shaping up to be an incredibly interesting race.”
Ah, the tyres. As Coulthard concedes, Pirelli could be the most talked-about name in Monaco today because this year’s deliberately soft tyres have made overtaking and pit stops so commonplace and are militating against the drivers who want to go full bore throughout. At Monaco, however, the circuit’s lower average speed means that Mercedes’ strength of fast qualifying might not be undermined by their weakness of excessive tyre degradation.
With Coulthard expecting the two Mercedes to lead the way, he envisages Championship pacesetters Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Alonso fighting for the remaining podium position, with Raikkonen his tip to prevail. “It’s by no means guaranteed that Seb will be leading the championship after this weekend,” he says.
If Coulthard has clarity regarding the top end of the field, he is bemused by the travails of his old team, McLaren, who “are having a dire time of it” despite making no major changes from last year. “All very tricky,” he says darkly.
But if McLaren cast a shadow, he can at least take comfort from the form of compatriot Di Resta, who has finished in the points in four of this year’s five Grands Prix, including a fourth-placed finish in Bahrain, and is 20 points ahead of team-mate Adrain Sutil.
“Paul’s doing a good job. He’s got great speed, and is showing himself in the best light so that he’s ready when one of the big teams comes calling. Although his car’s probably not fast enough, he has the right driving style for Monaco: I was out on track earlier and liked the way he was turning into Tabac, which showed enormous commitment and confidence.”
Commitment and confidence – it reminds me of a young Scottish driver who also came of age in Monaco almost 20 years ago.