The last thing you would accuse David Coulthard of is being vindictive. He has been charged with not being quick enough, being unable to handle a car that oversteers, past his sell-by date or even, on a cruel but humorous website, a new source of drag discovered by McLaren's technicians. But vindictive? No.
Yet as the shadows lengthened in the paddock in Melbourne's Albert Park after the first race of the new Formula One season earlier this month, and the 33-year-old Scot prepared to leave with his Brazilian girlfriend Simone Abdelnour, there was a fresh set to that famous Buzz Lightyear jaw and the blue eyes raked the crowd with undisguised glee, as if daring detractors to identify themselves.
He had already given Max Mosley's much-vaunted new rules both barrels earlier in the weekend. Now he had driven a beautiful race to fourth place for Red Bull and could regard himself as slightly unlucky not to have finished in the final podium slot. McLaren's cars, which Coulthard had driven for nine seasons until last year, were behind him and he had raised two fingers to his critics.
"Not bad, was it?" he said with a slow smile. "That should shut a few people up. I've got to be satisfied with the way things have worked out, and, yeah, I'm enjoying it. I know I have done the right thing, being here."
Sixth place in Malaysia 11 days ago brought him another three points, leaving him sharing third place overall with Jarno Trulli, Rubens Barrichello and Juan Pablo Montoya - the man who succeeded him at McLaren. The Malaysian result pushed him past Nigel Mansell to become Britain's highest-scoring driver. "It isn't the championship," he admitted, "but it's not a bad accolade, is it?"
Therein lies the rub, of course. The one thing Coulthard has never delivered is a world championship title, like great Scots Jimmy Clark or Jackie Stewart. And if there was a league of public comments drivers wish they could withdraw, Coulthard's words in Suzuka back in the late Nineties would surely rate close to the top when he said: "My problem is that I have always been in championship-winning cars..."
That is, after all, every driver's aspiration. The death of Ayrton Senna catapulted him into the Williams- Renault team alongside Damon Hill (with whom he had an uneasy alliance), and he moved on from there to McLaren for 1996. Strong championship challenges followed, but somehow he always seemed to be overshadowed, first by Mika Hakkinen, and then lately by Kimi Raikkonen. What he really meant by that infamous comment, to put it into its correct context, was that this raised the pressure of expectation upon him at times when he was still learning his trade. Once he had learnt it the cards never quite fell his way even though, at times, he proved himself capable of beating both Michael Schumacher and Hakkinen, the fastest men of their era.
When McLaren finally dropped him at the end of 2004, he was rejected by Williams and, worse still, Peter Sauber, who questioned his motivation and opted instead for Jacques Villeneuve, the man who replaced him at Williams and went on to win the 1997 title. Coulthard has never been a whiner, but his tone was wistful in Brazil last year when he said, almost sotto voce: "My credibility is far and away stronger than anyone else's. I've had pole positions, wins and fastest laps, and I have been involved in car and tyre development. I hope I can make people realise that I am the smallest risk available to them."
In the end Red Bull Racing saw the light, and the newborn DC emerged in Melbourne in a team which he feels understand him. Coulthard explained: "As professional sports people we earn our pennies because of the public interest and the link between the racing, the media and feeding the public, so I don't have a problem with people deciding their opinions, armed with the information that they have. But the reality is that you can't pass full judgement unless you're armed with all the facts, because otherwise you'd never have trials or court cases. You'd just walk in and go, 'Guilty, lock 'em up'. I'm armed with all the facts, because I've experienced the emotions involved with being a Grand Prix driver, and other people in the team are armed with all the facts from their own view. The outside world, depending on how close the relationship they have with either me or other members of the team, then get more or less of the facts.
"But I don't have anything to say to the critics because I'm not doing it for them. And yes, I probably did more damage on my own, through the difficulties I had with one lap qualifying [introduced in 2003], than any single person just saying, 'Oh yeah, he should go off and do something else.' I don't want to do something else. I just want to do my job and enjoy myself and go home. I don't need to feel the 'banging the head against the brick wall' frustration that sometimes has been there in the past. Why do I want to do that through choice? I actively pursued continuing my Grand Prix career because I enjoy the thrill of going racing on a Sunday."
He could not have been better tailored to fit the Red Bull team that was once Jaguar. Gone is the boffin approach of team principal Tony Purnell, and the down-to-earth Yorkshire drive of managing director David Pitchforth, both popular men in the paddock. In their place come the boyish rookie Christian Horner and affable Italo-Austrian Guenther Steiner, the front men for Red Bull's owner Dietrich Mateschitz and his dour but sharp lieutenant, former racer Helmut Marko.
Having won big in Formula 3000, Horner now has to prove himself at the top level; Steiner, meanwhile, is relishing his return to "Jaguar", having been sacked by Purnell and Pitchforth early in 2003 after helping to turn that team around. Then there is Coulthard, on a mission to prove himself all over again. Already, their 11 points from just two races in 2005 have eclipsed Jaguar's entire 2004 haul.
This is all part of the satisfaction Coulthard drew after blasting past Jaguar's former driver Mark Webber at the start in Melbourne and staying there to the flag. He has made a point. The trend may continue, it may not. But right now he is in a sweet spot, and he is savouring it. Problems? Minimal. Asked how it feels now that he does not have a Finnish team-mate, his response in Malaysia betrayed his newly relaxed mentality: "I have to buy my own vodka now."
CHEQUERED PAST: COULTHARD'S NEAR MISSES
World Championship finishes
1994 Eighth (Williams-Renault)
Debut: Spanish GP
1995 Third (Williams-Renault)
First victory: Portuguese GP
1996 Seventh (McLaren-Mercedes) No wins
1997 Third (McLaren)
Two wins: Australia, Italy
1998 Third (McLaren)
One win: San Marino
1999 Fourth (McLaren)
Two wins: Britain, Belgium
2000 Third (McLaren)
Three wins: Britain, Monaco, France
2001 Second (McLaren)
Two wins: Brazil, Austria
2002 Fifth (McLaren)
One win: Monaco
2003 Seventh (McLaren)
One win: Australia
2004 10th (McLaren)
Grands prix: 177
Pole positions: 12
Fastest laps: 18
Podium finishes: 60
Points won: 483 (more than any other British driver in Formula One history)
World Championships: None
Constructors' Championships: Two (1994, Williams-Renault; 1998, McLaren-Mercedes)
Other honours GT Class winner at Le Mans (1993), British F3 Championship runner-up (1991), McLaren Autosport Young Driver of the Year (1991).Reuse content