2000 French Grand Prix
: 2000 French Grand Prix: Gesture and Win By Jeremy McMullen
Heading down the run through the Golf right hand flick toward the Adelaide hairpin Coulthard had pulled alongside of Schumacher in an attempt to outbreak the German on the outside of the corner. Schumacher would match Coulthard's late braking maneuver and then would proceed to drift abnormally wide in an effort to run Coulthard off the course. But the man in the blue saltire helmet was different this day. And though he would have to back out of the throttle slightly to remain on the circuit, he would make a gesture that made it clear Schumacher would not win the battle.
Over the previous couple of seasons David Coulthard had been considered the number two driver to Mika Hakkinen. This was never more evident than when he was ordered to slow down and let Mika take the win at the 1998 Australian Grand Prix. But it wasn't his abilities that was lacking. This would clearly not be the case as his feedback in a car was usually right on the money and he could more than hang with the best drivers in the field. It was something else. And 'it' was what was leading many in the Formula One community to cite as the reason as to why Coulthard would never be World Champion. But something would happen in 2000 and it would be clearly evident at the 2000 French Grand Prix.
Mika Hakkinen had come to repeat as World Champion. While Mika would be busy scoring victories over the course of those two seasons, Coulthard would struggle with a less reliable car. And then, when he was running well, he would have the memory of team orders constantly nagging his subconscious. On top of all this, Ferrari had become resurgent under the influence of Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher. And while Mika may have won the championship the previous couple of seasons it seemed more than clear Ferrari would have a good opportunity to earn its first Driver's Championship in over 20 years.
The 2000 season couldn't have started out any better for one team. While it would be Mika Hakkinen that would start on the pole for the first three races of the season. However, at the end of each of the races it would be Michael Schumacher that would come away the victor. In contrast, McLaren would be fitting just to make it onto the podium through the same three races.
With both McLaren pilots struggling through the first few races, Coulthard had the perfect opportunity to exert himself. Coulthard would have the perfect opportunity in the season's next race. At the end of April, the fourth round of the World Championship awaited. The race was the British Grand Prix. It was the home grand prix for both Coulthard and McLaren. And if he could put together a victory in this race he would score the first victory for the team and would be in a stronger position in the championship standings.
Rubens Barrichello would start the race from the pole. However, over the course of the race Coulthard would look the strongest of the two McLarens. While Barrichello was in the lead, Coulthard would pull even and would pull off an incredible move going around the outside of a corner similar to Mansell's move on Piquet years earlier. The move worked and Coulthard would find himself in the lead. In the waning moments of the race Hakkinen would catch Coulthard but would not be able to deny the Scot from taking the victory.
Coulthard had done it! He scored the victory of the season and would leave Silverstone with 2nd in the championship standings. Unfortunately, Hakkinen was just a couple of points behind in 3rd place.
Then, just nine days after the enthralling victory in the British Grand Prix, Coulthard would be involved in an incident that many would believe to change the young man's perspective and provide him the fire that would be seen throughout the rest of the season.
On May 2, just five days before the Spanish Grand Prix, David Coulthard and his then girlfriend Heidi Winchelski boarded a Learjet with a couple of other passengers for a flight from Britain to the French Riviera. The Learjet, owned by friend David Murray, would take off and would be over France when one of its engines would catch on fire. The crew would declare an emergency and would divert to Lyon-Satolas airport in Lyon.
The decent from altitude would be fast. As a result, the crew would have trouble stabilizing their approach. Though the crew would set the plane down safely power would be inadvertently added which would cause the aircraft to veer off the runway. Still travelling at a good rate of speed, the plane would crash heavily into the turf tearing the front of the plane away from the rest of the fuselage. The impact on the nose of the aircraft would end up taking the lives of the two pilots. However, Coulthard, and the rest of the passengers, would be relatively unharmed and would escape out of the emergency window over the wing where they would be picked up by ambulances and taken to the hospital. It wouldn't be too long before all of the passengers would be released from the hospital with nothing more than a few scratches. However, it would seem Coulthard would leave the hospital with something more.
Over the next couple of races, including the Spanish Grand Prix just a couple of days after the accident, Coulthard would drive superbly. And while Hakkinen would score victory in the Spanish Grand Prix, Coulthard would end the race right behind his teammate. In fact, the two races immediately after the accident would see Coulthard finish on the podium in each. And then came Monaco.
In qualifying, Coulthard was clearly faster than his teammate and would start on the second row of the grid in 3rd position. However, during the race, Coulthard would exert a lot of pressure on Trulli in 2nd place. Trulli's pace was not as good as that of Coulthard's and he was clearly holding the Scot up. While holding David up, Trulli would allow Michael Schumacher to pull away with the lead.
Finally, Trulli would retire with gearbox problems. Coulthard was now 2nd but still losing ground to Schumacher. As the race wore on, Schumacher was still holding onto the lead, but would slow down all of a sudden. He would then come into the pits, still in the lead of the race, but it would be found his car had a cracked exhaust. Schumacher would retire handing the lead to Coulthard. With Hakkinen mired down in 6th place struggling to carry on, it was David's time to shine. Coulthard would take a convincing victory and would retake 2nd place in the Drivers' standings behind Schumacher.
Ever since the narrow escape in the Learjet, Coulthard had displayed a dogged determination. He was showing a fight and an unwillingness to go down that was clearly showing how badly he wanted to win the championship despite all of the rather unfavorable conditions. Unfortunately, that unwillingness would come into play at Canada when he should have started from the back of the grid after car trouble on the parade lap. Deciding to take his chances, he would start from his 2nd place spot on the grid. He would be later penalized and would be denied the final points-paying position. But at least it was clear Coulthard was displaying some fight. But the fight within the Scot really wouldn't come out until the next race on the calendar.
The next race on the calendar would be the ninth round of the World Championship, the French Grand Prix held at the 2.64 mile Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours.
The Magny-Cours Circuit would originally open in 1960. At the time, the circuit's layout would be much different from that which Formula One would come to visit in early July of 2000. Originally, the circuit was named after Jean Behra. Behra was one of France's best drivers throughout the 1950s. However, at Avus in 1959, Behra would be launched over the top of the Nordkurve and would die in the resulting impact. In honor of him the circuit would come to bear his name.
As the teams unloaded and headed out to practice, Schumacher and the Ferrari team was quite fast. Among the McLaren team, Coulthard was showing the best pace. Throughout practice, David was fastest and looked to be in good shape to earn the pole for the race. However, a number of technical problems would spoil the day for the Scot. In spite of Coulthard's impressive pace, the problems would aid Schumacher in taking the pole for the race. While it would end up being Schumacher's third straight pole it was clear Coulthard would have challenged for the position had the problems not been there. Mika Hakkinen's rather sedated run for 4th place on the grid, right behind Coulthard on the grid, would also give the impression that there was something truly wrong with Mika and that Coulthard had truly assumed the leadership role within the team. But Coulthard knew there was still a race to go. He also knew he would need a great result in which to become the team leader.
So, Schumacher would be on the pole but Coulthard certainly appeared to be on a mission to prove himself as McLaren's team leader. He would give himself the best chance possible to prove himself when he would end up second-fastest in qualifying and would start alongside of Schumacher on the front row.
The day of the race was dry and warm, but also humid. On top of it all, there was a threat of rain for some time in the afternoon. At the start of the 72 lap, 190 mile, race, Schumacher would pull his 'Schumacher-chop' sliding over in front of Coulthard thereby slowing his getaway from the grid. Being slowed slightly by Schumacher's move, Coulthard would swerve over to the right before turning down to the apex for the first left-hand corner. As he turned into the corner, he would find Barrichello taking advantage of Coulthard's lost momentum. He was right where Coutlthard wanted to be, which would cause David to lift once again. By the time the field rounded Estoril and headed down the straight through Golf, Schumacher was in the lead with Barrichello in 2nd place holding off Coulthard.
Speaking of the start, and reflecting the anger with which Coulthard would drive the race, he would remark, 'I didn't try to run Rubens off the circuit. I gave him the room that I thought he deserved to have. We battled it through the corner and he won it. That's how it should be, it should be done in a sporting way, not in a ‘You lift, otherwise you will crash' sort of way.' Just by this comment it was clear Schumacher had rubbed Coulthard the wrong way. And the way David had been driving as of late, this would be the wrong thing for Schumacher to do.
Coulthard had fought with Barrichello and the gentleman side would lead to him not putting up much of a fight through the first few laps of the race. It appeared David was the Scot of old through the very early stages of the race as Barrichello was more than able to hold him off over the first ten laps of the race. It seemed Barrichello would be able to spoil the day for Coulthard after starting from the front row. But Coulthard was different.
Schumacher was in the lead of the race and pulling away slightly from Barrichello who was more than able to keep an advantage over Coulthard in 3rd and Hakkinen in 4th. One thing that had become apparent over the course of the first half of the season was Coulthard's ability to reach down inside himself and find something more. This is the difference between the champions and the good drivers. After the first dozen laps, or so, Coulthard would find that little bit more and would begin to reel in Barrichello in 2nd place.
Catching Barrichello was one thing. Passing him was something entirely different. David would catch up to Barrichello. And on the 21st lap of the race, he would make his move against Rubens. Rubens would be able to tell what David was going to do and would manage to block the Scot from pulling of his move.
Coulthard would be blocked from taking Barrichello's 2nd place position. The strong defense offered up by the Brazilian would also cost David some more time to Schumacher. But while the Coulthard most people knew may have been willing to wait behind Barrichello and let the pitstops gain the positions, on this day, he would not. This was not the same Coulthard. The very next lap would see Coulthard all over Barrichello once again. David would perform some maneuvers to set up Rubens and they would work to perfection as he would be able to gain inside positioning going into the Adelaide hairpin. That was it. There was nothing Barrichello could do; short of taking DC out of the race. Instead, Coulthard would power on by and would set off after Schumacher.
The short-lived battle with Barrichello would only stoke David's fire. And Schumacher would find his lead of a little more than five seconds begin to slowly dwindle down with each passing lap. There was very little Schumacher could do. Coulthard would continue to reel Michael in until the first round of pitstops. With fresh tires, Schumacher would be able to hold onto a very slim margin over Coulthard. However, on this day, Coulthard would just drive perhaps the race of his life and wasn't going to be denied unless something happened before the end of the race.
The tires began to fade on Schumacher's car. And though Coulthard would have the same struggles, it was clear David was driving to a whole different level on this given day and there was little Schumacher could do except to make his Ferrari as wide as possible. That is exactly what he would do and it would draw the ire of Coulthard. It would later draw his wrath.
After the first round of pitstops Michael had managed to get his lead back up to around four seconds over Coulthard. However, Coulthard's pressure would be enormous, and soon, the German would find his tires to be blistered and not nearly as effective as those on David's car despite the pressure David was putting on his own car. The fire was raging within Coulthard and in under ten laps the four second lead would be gone.
Perhaps for the first time since the 1997 World Championship battle with Jacques Villeneuve, Schumacher was on the defensive. A little less than halfway through the race Coulthard was right behind Schumacher ready to pounce. Then, on lap 34, Coulthard would get a good tow from Schumacher's Ferrari heading down the long straight through Golf and toward the Adelaide hairpin. The hairpin was about the only place on the whole circuit to really pass and Michael knew this well. Coulthard knew Michael would hold the inside line. Therefore, he would have to be willing to try on the outside, hopefully having enough power to out-drag Schumacher into the next corner. But it was all dependent upon being alongside.
And being alongside Schumacher was a dangerous proposition. And as the two cars headed into Adelaide side-by-side, Michael would prove why.
As predicted, Michael would hold the inside line into the corner. Coulthard would come down along the left side of the Ferrari. Tracking through the corner, the inside position meant Michael would be slightly ahead of David coming out of the corner. This would be dangerous as Michael would just let his Ferrari drift further out than what would have been normal had David not been there. It would be a good thing the track was wider in the corner than at other places on the circuit as it would provide time for DC to make a very important decision. He really wanted to push hard and try and out-drag the Ferrari to the next corner. However, by Schumacher drifting out wider than normal Coulthard ran the risk of being run right off the circuit.
Coulthard really only had one option left and it would absolutely stoke the fire from underneath the saltire-laden helmet in the number two McLaren-Mercedes MP4/15. Undoubtedly, Coulthard would speak some highly censorable remarks but they would not be heard. His physical gesture, on the other hand, would make it very clear the German had greatly angered the Scot.
With the move the already inflamed Scot would erupt into a barely contained raging inferno. And perhaps for one of only a couple of times, especially throughout those first few years of the new century, Schumacher had the look of wounded prey about to be devoured. Schumacher would no longer get his way. Coulthard was not going to be pushed around. The tough Scottish lineage had been awoken and it was clear Coulthard was brandishing his two-handed sword ready to strike.
Not used to being challenged, Schumacher would soon begin to draw fire. The very next lap, at the Adelaide hairpin, Coulthard would not make an attempt to pass but would again make an irate gesture. It would be a signal that likely could have been interpreted, 'I am coming for you'.
The following lap, Coulthard would be tucked right up under the Ferrari once again. But this time, Coulthard would shoot to the inside of the corner and would gain a bit of an upper hand which would force Schumacher to the outside of the corner. However, Michael would not concede the position and as they exited the corner he would not lift. And neither would David. Michael would not back out it until he touched wheels with Coulthard's left rear. This had the potential for being a very dangerous moment in the race. Amazingly, the McLaren would just bounce off and keep going. David had done it! He had showed the confidence and fortitude of a champion. He believed in himself to be capable and would not back down. As a result, a double World Champion could not hold him back.
Once in the lead, Coulthard would check out. While stuck being Michael, Hakkinen and Barrichello had managed to pull closer. However, after making the pass, David would leave everyone else behind.
Hakkinen would also have to deal with the stubborn German. Michael continued to hold the Fin behind him, which, in turn, pulled Barrichello even closer to Hakkinen. Out front, however, Coulthard would continue to pull away.
The final pitstops would see David continue in the lead of the race with Schumacher still in 2nd place ahead of Hakkinen. Barrichello had fallen out of the battle after a slow pitstop dropped him about ten seconds further back.
Only about 13 laps remained in the race. It seemed clear Coulthard would take the victory. But it also seemed clear Schumacher would hold on to finish in 2nd place. However, all of a sudden, smoke started to become visible from the Ferrari. Then, just like that, he would be out of the race. The engine had given up. This promoted Hakkinen to 2nd place. While this was fortunate for Hakkinen and the team, it would be frustrating for Coulthard as he would not pull out as many points as he would have from Mika.
Coulthard would fly to victory. After 72 laps, David would cross the line to take his 9th career victory and third of the season. It would be a demonstrative victory as Mika would trail by a little more than 14 seconds in 2nd place. Rubens Barrichello would finish a further seventeen seconds back in 3rd.
After the race, it was clear Coulthard had been an angry man at the wheel. He would comment, 'I have to apologize for my hand gestures. My emotions were running high…I just don't think that Michael is sporting in the way he drives on the track…A driver must be able to trust the people against whom he is racing because he is risking his life…' It was certainly clear that after the plane crash Coulthard's worldview had been changed slightly and he seemed to realize that if he was going to die, he was going to die. He needed not to be afraid. His stubborn refusal to give up when Schumacher was trying his best to claw the position back would be the best indication that he was currently driving at a whole different level than he had been.
As the team packed everything up at the end of the day, Coulthard would reestablish himself in 2nd place in the championship standings. He had three victories on the season to Mika's one. It certainly seemed Coulthard was taking over the reigns as the team's leading driver. Unfortunately for him, there would be too many races left on the season.
In spite of Michael Schumacher taking his third World Championship in 2000 and David finishing behind Mika Hakkinen in the standings, Coulthard could make his claim as one of Formula One's very best. And at one French Grand Prix, on a warm and humid day on the 2nd of July in 2000, Coulthard would have such a race to back up his claim. And after recalling the events of the race, it is highly unlikely anyone would challenge him.