A conversation with Coulthard

David Coulthard courtesy GQ

Former F1 speed jockey David Coulthard – he of the sparking white jeans, Scots accent and squarest of square jaws – had a cosy chat with men’s lifestyle magazine GQ recently. (Read it here.)

The conversation drifted onto the “underwhelming prospect of Formula E”, but the GQ scribbler missed an opportunity to really open up the dialogue. Here’s how the conversation might have gone had we been invited along. Maybe next time, right?

“I understand the concept and there are some great people behind it.”

Ah good: nothing worse than celebrities treating us to deep insights in popular magazines with large readerships when they don’t know much about the subject at hand.

There are indeed some good people behind the new series. Williams, for one, is supplying the batteries. Say, didn’t Williams get you started in F1? And then there’s McLaren, which is supplying the motor. Hang on – you drove for that team too, didn’t you? And Renault, of course, is overseeing technical integration and putting its name on the racing car. Is that the same Renault that supplied engines to Red Bull while you were racing for the energy drinks team? Good, so we’re all acquainted.

The concept of course, is a tough one. Let’s see if we can nail it down: single seat racing cars whizzing round street circuits in cities across the world. The cars are powered by batteries and electric motors.

That really was complex compared to, say, a formula involving single seat racing cars whizzing around race tracks across the world, powered by hybrid propulsion systems that burn carefully regulated amounts of fossil fuel while capturing energy lost through heat and braking to store and then release in carefully regulated doses, along with moveable aero devices which can be activated at carefully designated points around the track and which can be “upgraded” continuously throughout the season so that the cars at the last race look little like those at the first. That’s a much more straightforward concept to wrap your head round.

“But do we need a very quiet, not very fast motor race when we have Monaco and Singapore, which are fast with cutting edge technology and all the rest of it?”

Ahem. Monaco surely can’t be called a fast race. The average F1 speed there is less than 100mph, with a top speed in the mid-170s.

And if we’re going to apply the noise rationale, then let’s bin F1 right now. After all, there are an awful lot of fans and teams not happy with this season’s more muted soundtrack.

While we’re at it, let’s get rid of all athletics, cycling races, swimming, rowing, and yachting. They’re all so dreadfully quiet and slow, ergo they should be canned. No, we can’t see people missing them either. They’ve got F1 instead, remember? Oh no, because of the noise thing. Damn.

No one needs electric power, of course. It’s not cutting edge at all. It’s old hat. You wouldn’t catch the likes of F1 and WEC integrating electrical power into the hybrid drives in their cars.

“It’s a bit like me taking away your iPhone and giving you the brand new Nokia from seven years ago. It’s brand new, you should be happy, but actually you wouldn’t really thank me for it.”

Actually, please do take away our iPhone. It never works, we hate the touchscreen and the battery life is measured in “minutes after breakfast”. (For the record, we now use Samsung. See aforementioned points on touchscreens and battery life.)

The Spark-Renault racing car, however, borrows its motor from the rather wonderful, universally acclaimed McLaren P1. That is hardly yesterday’s technology. In fact, renowned petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson says of the P1: “It makes everything else look like the past.”

F1, of course, starts with all new technology every single year – oh no, wait, it doesn’t. It gets tied up in regulations that don’t permit any major innovations for years, and then bans anything ingenious that turns up. It’s a sport of marginal gains, rather than unbounded imagination.

Come to think of it, at this year’s testing the Nokia would have been faster and more reliable than the Red Bulls, even without wheels. Perhaps your former team would indeed have thanked you for it.

“Electric energy is clearly a big part of our future and somebody’s going to make the first step, but if you want excitement and you want the fastest form of closed circuit racing you go and watch Formula One.”

Excitement? Really, Dave? This, about a sport so often dominated by a single team and a single driver for years on end that the winners end up becoming villains? This, about a sport so predictable that many fans didn’t bother watching the tail end of last year’s season and where double points have been introduced just preserve interest to the final race? This, about a sport which began its brave new era by disqualifying the second-placed driver after the race, and which then instituted a lengthy judicial-style appeals process that could take weeks or months to conclude?

And of course, the only fans who can afford to actually go and watch the races now are those who have invented some sort of internet-based gizmo that helps geeks and teenagers avoid interacting with real people, or those who include “F1 racing driver” on their CV under the previous employment section. UK fans can’t even watch F1 free on telly any more, seeing as the BBC programme that you work for is mostly reduced to highlights.

The only thing Formula E is delivering which is different is a marketing opportunity. Has the world gone crazy for electric vehicles? Are the people literally lining up for the unveiling of the next electric car? No, I don’t think so.

Ah, “the people”. What a classic phrase. Actually, the people are all lining up to get a haircut that apparently used to be reserved for Chinese smugglers, in North Korea at least. Will we see you sporting that this season, Dave, as it seems so popular?

Class-laden overtones aside, someone please point David in the direction of the Tesla Model S, which is outstripping sales of BMWs, Audis and Mercedes put together in its sector in the US. Or, in fact, to any recent motor show, where all the major manufacturers are falling over themselves to unveil battery powered vehicles.

Is marketing such a sin? F1 itself is marketing gone quite, quite mad. The only thing it hasn’t yet done is confine its drivers to a Big Brother-style living compound where fans can watch every move of every minute of every day. But even that’s probably not far off.

(And just in case this gets really embarrassing, nobody mention that the GQ article itself is really a piece of marketing fluff, designed to promote the latest release from Coulthard’s endorsement deal with watch maker TAG Heuer…or that the watch company is also the official timing sponsor of the new electric series. Shhh.)


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