The 2010 AUTOSPORT International show got underway in Birmingham this morning with Red Bull's David Coulthard first to take to the stage.
AUTOSPORT was there to hear his thoughts on the 2010 Formula 1 season and the new Castrol Rankings system.
Q. The Castrol Rankings have been launched here for the first time. Can you tell us a little bit about it, as you are the ambassador?
David Coulthard: As a fan of motorsport who had the opportunity to be behind the wheel for many years, I have always been curious to know who are the best drivers? You tend to think F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport and getting most of the television coverage, that the focus would be on that. But, is it rallying? Is it sportscars? Is it some guy racing in Australian Formula 3, which I actually didn't know until last night that there is an Australian F3 championship?
I think that this initiative from Castrol gives us the opportunity to look at over 2,000 drivers and come up with a definitive ranking. I am curious to know what the future holds.
Q. As a young guy growing up in Scotland, looking at racing in F1, were you interested in any other formulae?
DC: I was. As a little boy back in Scotland I used to read AUTOSPORT cover-to-cover, so anything that was in there at that time I was just loving the idea of being behind wheel, irrespective of whether it was single-seaters or another form of racing.
Ultimately my journey took me to Formula 1 for 15 years. Today, now I'm not racing, I'm a big fan of motorsport in general. Being here at the AUTOSPORT show is a great opportunity to see all forms of motorsport. It's a great thing with this Castrol Ranking, that it literally looks at all the forms and gives us the opportunity to know who are the best drivers.
Q. Can we talk a little bit about the weighting, and the clever scientific weighting behind the Castrol Rankings. How does that work?
DC: It is a very good question - and one I am not able to answer. It's taken a team of analysts at Castrol something like the last seven years to try to create a system that weights the rankings in a way that would be fair. I am not going to do an explanation of exactly how it works justice - there is a link on the website that explains how they come up with the weighting system that gives us the opportunity to really understand who the best driver would be in any other given season.
In 2009, it was Jenson Button slightly ahead of Sebastien Loeb - they're two great world champions. Who knows what it will be in 2010? Maybe [Michael] Schumacher will be back at the top of the rankings, or maybe it will be someone in another championship we don't know about today.
Q. So there is a science to this then? Not a case of writing down or calculating off the top of your head who has won a race, or who has had a pole position?
DC: Absolutely. This isn't some sort of pub quiz written on the back of a beer mat. As I said earlier, a team of analysts have come up with a complex system of actually trying to understand in any given season who the star driver is - irrespective of how much television coverage that championship gets.
Q. Who do you think will be leading the way in 2010?
DC: You have to presume it will be the professional drivers, and by that not better drivers than a lower formula, but the guys who are paid to drive and have been doing it for a number of years are more than likely to be the ones that come out on top of the rankings. And if they didn't, then you would have to question why they are being paid to actually race in those championships. In 2009, it would have been Jenson who was at the head of the rankings, and I don't think anyone would doubt he was deserving of that position. He had got six grand prix victories and was world champion, and a lot of points scored.
The important thing with the actual ranking system is that it rewards finishing and consistency. It is not just about the glory shot of actually winning a particular race.
Q. Let's talk Formula 1 for a bit - and some of the guys who are going to feature in the Castrol Rankings this year. All change among the top teams. It is going to be really, really good isn't it?
DC: I don't remember any season as potentially as exciting as the 2010 season is going to be in F1 - other than maybe when you had the mix of the great names, your Piquets, your Sennas, your Prosts, your Mansells all those guys back in the late 80s and early 90s. The comeback of Michael Schumacher to Mercedes, Alonso at Ferrari, the two Red Bull drivers coming to the fore last year, obviously the all British world championship pairing at McLaren.
Jenson is literally putting his balls on the line going up against Lewis [Hamilton], and that is going to be very exciting as well. So there are so many great stories to be told in the F1 season, but outside of the grand prix year, there are many great championships out there. There lots of great cars, great designers, and great drivers. We are in for a great season of motorsport.
Q. What about you - do you miss driving?
DC: Yes I do. I raced for 20 something years from karting right through to F1. I didn't stop racing because I got bored with it and thought there was something more exciting to do. I just recognised that I had reached the end of my particular journey in F1, but it is very much in my mind to look at something to race in the future. I am pretty busy. I've got a 14-month old son, I started work last year for the BBC, and I am a columnist for AUTOSPORT which is kind of like the highlight of my career really, to work with AUTOSPORT! So there is lots going on, but maybe in the future I will get to race something else.
Q. Do you fancy having another go at something? Touring cars, sportscars, or a rally?
DC: Yeah, all of those things actually. I have had a chance to drive a Ford WRC car briefly in the Race of Champions last year in Beijing, around a little small circuit. But it was such a fantastic feeling to be behind the wheel of a car with so much technology. It is obviously very different to a grand prix car, but I am a racer. I am 38. I am not that old and wrinkly yet - so maybe I will race something in the future.
Q. Talking of rallying, let's talk about your old team-mate Kimi Raikkonen. He is moving to the WRC. Will that be a baptism of fire for him?
DC: It is just as well he is not the co-driver having to call the pace notes, because he doesn't say a lot! If he was a co-driver he would just say, 'start!' and then 'finish!'
What it does is show how motorsport is changing. A few years ago drivers tended to stick to one formula and that was it for their careers. But when you see someone like [Juan Pablo] Montoya going to NASCAR, obviously with Kimi going to rallying. Drivers move around now. We've seen Sebastien Loeb from rallying try F1, and he tested a Red Bull F1 car.
So what is being recognised now is that if you are a talented driver you are talented at driving irrespective of what vehicle you are behind the wheel of. That is why this Castrol Ranking system, it is so appropriate that it is being launched now - because it really mirrors the way the modern driver looks at the different formulae that he races.
As I said at the beginning, as a fan of motorsport I have always been curious - who are the best drivers? My gut feeling has always been that rally guys are potentially the best, because they have to deal with so many changing conditions. But the thing I don't know, because I have never rallied, is are they driving at 99 per cent, or are they - as I used to be - driving at 100 per cent? In F1 you can drive at 100 per cent because you know the circuit, but maybe in rallying the really skilled guys are those that can keep it at 99 per cent for the whole event. Anyway, hopefully with this ranking system we will have a better idea of who is hot and who is not.
Q. Michael Schumacher is back. Are you surprised?
DC: I am surprised. Three years out of F1. He has been off doing motorbikes and all sorts of other things, but to come back and sign a three-year contract to come back at 41 years old, that is tremendously exciting for motorsport in general. He is a great champion, seven world championships, and he is a generation ago. Now he is coming back and mixing with all these young guys in their young twenties.
I think it is fulfilling for guys like Lewis Hamilton who never had the chance to go wheel-to-wheel with Michael. And however tough Michael has been in the past, there is nothing quite like trying to argue over the apex with Schumacher because he defined the whole new era of motor racing. So I am curious to know will he be as aggressive and ultimately as quick as he was in the main part of his first career.
Q. Do you think he will be surprised trying to keep up with Lewis, Jenson, Fernando? He could get a nasty shock couldn't he?
DC: Well, Michael is an incredible champion in F1. He has won 90-odd grands prix and seven world championships. So I would be surprised if he is surprised that F1 is difficult. I actually think it will be more the other way. I think the young generation will be surprised just how ruthless Michael can be to achieve his goals. That is the thing I am curious to see - does he still have that last little killer instinct that made Michael such a dominant force in F1 before?
Q. And he is already down to his racing weight isn't he?
DC: I never really follow closely his weight and how he looked out of the race car. Unfortunately I had to just follow him on the race track. There is no question that none of us can hold back time and, at 41, physically he cannot be as strong and as fit and as sharp as he was when he was 21. But the great debate will be, what is it that makes a fantastic F1 driver? Is it the fitness? Or is it the intuitive ability to hang the car out on the limit? It is a real opportunity for us all to have a real life experiment to see just how good he is.
Q. He is one of only two drivers in the line-up who has raced without having to refuel in a grand prix. Is that going to be an advantage for him?
DC: He has a lot of experience of having to be able to drive with a heavy car. If you go all the way back to sportscars when he was with Mercedes, that was really how he developed himself before coming to F1 with Jordan. At the same time I think it will be an advantage, but great drivers adapt and I think it will be a short-lived advantage. Ultimately the season will be down to car performance, driver performance and all the things we want to see out on track. And at the end of the year, hopefully we will be looking at the Castrol Rankings and say, you know what, Schumacher was in the overall rankings, or he was first in the overall rankings. It is going to be interesting to see how the season develops.
Q. Another guy who is bound to feature at the top of the Castrol Rankings is Sebastian Vettel. Interestingly Red Bull is the only top team not to have had a driver change, so there is really continuity and consistency there. They are going to be good aren't they?
DC: Yes. I think so. Of course, they have a great management, a great design squad, and a great driver line-up. All of the boxes you would try and tick in creating a winning GP team, I think they have successfully ticked.
They had a very late decision on the engine choice, which means the car will miss the first test, but it will be out at the second test. Nevertheless at the end of the last season they had the fastest F1 car, and that is with a limited regulation change going into 2010. The biggest thing is the no-refuelling, but aerodynamically and a lot of the other regulations are essentially the same so they have to be feeling pretty confident for this year.
Q. Presumably Adrian Newey started to draw the car around the Mercedes-Benz engine while talks were ongoing - but it didn't happen. Did he have to start again?
DC: I think that there is a lot of standardised parts in F1 today - the crank centre line and things like that have been frozen. So, it's not as big a redesign as you would think from the past. Obviously the actual mounting points of the engine they knew from last year's Renault, so yes it does involve a bit of a redesign. But it is not something that requires weeks to do. A real issue would be if they were manufacturing, and then they had to change the back of the bulkhead.
But they have taken a strategic decision to spend more time developing in the windtunnel and on the drawing board before committing to that first iteration that we will see racing in Bahrain. We will know mid-February, later that month, who is going well in testing or not. Ultimately, in the middle of March we will go to the first grand prix and count the winners there.
Q. There is a premium on testing isn't there, as there are so few days to be able to test. It seems like a bit of a gamble?
DC: Yes, but you can spend a year testing a slow car and it will still be a slow car - you will have just tested it for a year. The key thing we have seen in the past - in 1988 McLaren didn't test until one test before the first grand prix. They went to Imola, tested the car and went to Brazil and won the race. They won 15 of 16 races. So if you have a great package, then essentially testing is about making it reliable. So you have to hope that they have designed a good car.
Q. Fernando Alonso at Ferrari. On paper it is wizard line-up...
DC: Well, that is why I think it is such an exciting season - and why it is appropriate to launch these Castrol Rankings. This system will enable us to not only look at who has won the championship, but to really understand who has been consistently performing during the year. So it could actually be someone who hasn't won the championship who comes out on top of the Castrol Rankings - and it may be Fernando, it may be Michael. Or someone in rallying or sportscars.
But I really think the 2010 F1 season is on paper, one of the most exciting seasons that we've seen for many years because you have got some great drivers who have won many championships, who are established in some teams that have some great history in the sport. And then to make it more exciting you have the most winning driver making a comeback and trying to relive his youth against these guys in their young twenties.
Q. With your driver's hat and your broadcaster's hat on, do you think the regulation changes for 2010 have gone far enough?
DC: I personally would have loved to have raced without refuelling. I always felt that that is the real test of a driver - during the GP, the hour-and-a-half, hour and 45 minutes, or however long the race happens to be, to adapt to the changing car and strategically make decisions. We haven't seen that for many years, where a lot of the strategy has been decided by software and analysts telling the driver you must pit now, or otherwise you will lose half a second.
Going into this season, the driver will have to say - can I make this set of tyres get to the end? Or should I pit now? The driver will be a much bigger part of the process and that is why I think it is great. That is why ultimately we want to see the best drivers out on track having a great race.
At the beginning of the grand prix they are going to be four or five seconds slower than they will be at the end of the race when the fuel has burned off. Because the fuel effect, 150 kilogrammes of fuel, is a massive amount of fuel to carry around in these cars.
Q. Broadcasting with the BBC. You took to it very well. Was it harder to do that driving a GP car on the limit?
DC: It is not more difficult than driving a GP car, but I have a whole new appreciation for broadcasting. Before as a driver, when you are just answering questions, you can talk for as long as you want, and you can say whatever you want, talk complete b******* and it doesn't really matter.
But obviously when you are on the BBC, it is a live show, and you cannot say b******* on the BBC! It is a whole new challenge and the thing with live television, which I never appreciated, is that you have to do everything to the second. You are talking about Schumacher's comeback and you have someone in your ear saying five, four, three, two, one - counting you out and heading into something else.
So it is a real skill and I enjoyed it more towards the end of the year. At the beginning of the year I was a bit of a rabbit in the headlights, but they have invited me back for this year so it must have been a reasonable job.
Q. And what about Eddie Jordan? Is he as mad as we all think?
DC: Eddie I need someone to come and translate half of the time, because I just don't understand. Given he has had such a successful career in team ownership, some of the stuff he comes away with is complete lunacy isn't it? He is a special case. I think they have invited him back for this year, so you are stuck with the two of us again.