When David Coulthard accepted a job as a BBC commentator after retiring from Formula One, he fell back on his years of experience as a racing driver to help him find his feet in his new surroundings.
The Scotsman quickly discovered that the valuable lessons he learned figuring things out fast and getting on with the task at hand as a young driver rising through the racing ranks came in handy in those early broadcasts.
"It's like everything – in my life anyway – you adapt to your environment. It's sink or swim, isn't it?" said Coulthard, who Canadian F1 fans hear on BBC F1 broadcasts, which are picked up by TSN.
“You get on with it and do it, picking up experiences from friends, allies and those who have gone before you. When I did my first grand prix in 1994 and went out of the pits to qualify, I knew nothing about qualifying an F1 car because I had never done it before. Nothing really prepares you for just how fast and demanding F1 is.”
Then again, getting thrown into tough situations is something the affable Scotsman with the chiselled jaw knows all too well.
A test driver for the Williams team two decades ago, Coulthard was promoted to a race seat following the death of three-time world champion Ayrton Senna in a high-speed crash during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
F1 rookie Coulthard shared the Williams that first year with British 1992 world champion Nigel Mansell, who returned to Europe to race when there was no conflict with his Championship Auto Racing Teams (commonly known as CART) schedule. After he won his world championship, Mansell and Williams could not come to terms on a deal for 1993, so the Briton headed to the U.S. and joined the famed Newman-Haas squad. He won the CART title in his first season.
In the end, Coulthard started eight races in that first season, with a best finish of second in Portugal where he also scored his first career win the next year. He ended his rookie campaign placing eighth overall in points despite only starting half of the 16 races. The hugely experienced Mansell drove in four races and finished two, including a win in the season finale on the streets of Adelaide, Australia.
Coulthard went on to start in 246 grands prix and ring up 13 wins and 12 poles driving for Williams, McLaren, and Red Bull. His best year was 2001, where he finished second overall in points behind the all-conquering Ferrari of seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher.
Coulthard, 42, retired from Formula One in 2008 and quickly joined the BBC crew covering the sport as a commentator. He served as a pundit for two years before moving into the broadcast booth with former F1 driver Martin Brundle, who was also Coulthard’s manager for the 2011 season. He now shares the BBC booth with Ben Edwards after Brundle left for rival Sky Sports before the 2012 season.
Although he found being a pundit for his first two seasons in television pretty straight forward, colour commentary was a bit different.
“Being a commentator is obviously a lot more engaged because you are there to tell a story,” said Coulthard who grew up listening to the legendary F1 broadcast team of play-by-play man Murray Walker and colour commentator James Hunt, the 1976 world champion.
“What I realize more today than ever before is the impact of your voice in the commentary box. You are accepted into people’s front rooms, and they don’t always agree with you but they tune in and listen and trust in you to tell them how it is.”
And sometimes that means being critical of other drivers who he raced against in F1. At times, Coulthard has even found himself on the business end of some criticism from teams about the way he sees things in the booth.
While mistakes happen and need to be pointed out, Coulthard also insisted that it’s not about being negative towards anyone.
“In the case of someone like [Lotus driver Romain] Grosjean who is somebody I like as an individual, but who has made a series of mistakes, it would be remiss not to highlight them,” said Coulthard, who went back to driving in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters Series for Mercedes in 2010 and was the teammate of Canadian Robert Wickens in his final season last year.
“The way I see it, if somebody performs well – irrespective of what team they are with – they deserve praise, and if they make a mistake you have to talk about it.”
Although he’s on the other side of the microphone these days and a highly visible figure, Coulthard doesn’t consider himself a journalist.
While he’s settled into the BBC booth and gets a media credential on race weekends, he sees it as tool for him to do his work on television rather than recognition of a new status.
“I am an ex-racing driver, pundit-commentator,” he said.
“Just because you happen to go from the cockpit to the commentary box doesn’t mean you’re someone who can source a story, create content, and deliver it in a way that’s going to be acceptable to print. I can give an opinion, but I give it as an ex-driver and I am happy to fill that role.”
Oddly, Coulthard insisted he is busier now with his work with BBC as well as numerous personal sponsor commitments, such as an ambassador for watchmaker TW Steel and a demonstration driver for Red Bull, than he was when he was an F1 star.
And because Coulthard still gets behind the wheel of a F1 car every so often, he really doesn’t miss driving at all.
Besides, these days he’s finding lots of challenges – and satisfaction – in his post-racing television career.
“With each passing year, I’ve been given more and more responsibility and it’s to the point where I am in the commentary box, I am doing grid walks, and creating pieces of television where I am the main face working with the driver and I enjoy seeing the results of that,” he said.
“I am very happy to be involved in the sport because I am a fan. It’s been an interesting journey and this fits where I am in this stage of my career. Does it give me the adrenalin rush of driving a racing car? No, but nothing else does.”
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone