Fabian Coulthard Will Never Win a Championship
Valtteri Bottas is a placeholder driver. Anyone can see that. His performance is nowhere near that of Lewis Hamilton in the same car. He's only there because Esteban Ocon wasn't ready and there was no one else available. Barring a complete turnaround in Renault engine performance, Daniel Ricciardo will be announced as his replacement in 2019.
Fabian Coulthard finds himself in much the same situation. David's second cousin joined DJR Team Penske in 2016, driving the #12 FG-X Ford Falcon alongside Scott Pye in the #17. Penske had the choice of Coulthard, David Reynolds and Tim Slade, and deemed Coulthard the best. In late 2015 Slade had yet to win a race and Reynolds had come under fire for his infamous “Pussy Wagon” comment. So Coulthard got the job somewhat by default, as the only off-contract driver to meet Penske’s criteria. In early 2016, when it was announced that Scott McLaughlin would join DJR Team Penske in 2017, Coulthard got to keep his job and Pye was dropped.
Coulthard lifted his performance considerably in the early part of 2017. McLaughlin is one of the fastest drivers in Supercars, and with his contract up for renewal, Coulthard could ill-afford to be left behind by his fellow Kiwi. He got off to a good start, winning Penske’s first two championship races (McLaughlin won their first race at the non-championship F1 support round), and was generally more consistent than McLaughlin, who picked up a drive-through penalty at Adelaide. Shane van Gisbergen had an early championship lead, but Coulthard quickly took it off him and held onto it for about half the season. His results worsened from race two of round three at Phillip Island. He struggled at the Townsville and Gold Coast street circuits and wasn't particularly consistent later in the year. Four wins and a further seven podiums is impressive until you consider that his teammate won eight races. He also suffered two retirements, a 17th, 19th and 21st.
Coulthard finished up third in the championship behind Whincup and McLaughlin. But that was the result of others misfortune and mistakes. If Mostert didn't suffer a transaxle failure at Winton or had a better result at Bathurst, and van Gisbergen didn't get spun by McLaughlin at Sydney Motorsport Park, Coulthard would have finished fifth. Had points been awarded for the red-flagged race at Symmons Plains, van Gisbergen would have finished third in the championship.
The problem for Coulthard seems to be that he lacks outright qualifying pace and isn't a particularly good racer, particularly in the second half of the season. It was the same when he was at Brad Jones Racing. He would mount a very convincing campaign early on, only to run out of momentum after Darwin. Craig Lowndes and Garth Tander are far from the best qualifiers, but they are very good at making up positions. Coulthard has been unable to out-qualify all four of McLaughlin, Jamie Whincup, van Gisbergen and Chaz Mostert. He had just one pole and one fastest lap, both in round four at Barbagallo. Unless he can be consistently fast throughout the season, he will never win a championship.
Coulthard signed a fresh two-year contract with DJR Team Penske early last year that will see him remain at the team until the end of 2019. His contract was renewed early in the season when he was leading the championship. When negotiating begin for 2020, he will have two full years in a competitive car under his belt. Next time around, the team will have a much better idea of his performance. He will also be 37 years old. Coulthard could hang on to his seat by consistently finishing second to McLaughlin. But at 37, if he still hasn't beaten McLaughlin to claim a championship, he never will.
Who would replace him? On form alone, Penske would want Chaz Mostert, David Reynolds or Shane van Gisbergen. But talent isn't everything. Penske has a tendency to hire reserved, clean-cut drivers like Scott McLaughlin, Will Power n or Coulthard. Mostert and Reynolds are more than likely too characterful for Penske and happy where they are anyway. Van Gisbergen is probably too much of a loose cannon as well. Jamie Whincup would have been perfect a few years ago but is now at a point where he will retire at Triple 8. The only realistic choices are Todd Hazelwood and Jack LeBrocq. Richie Stanaway and Cameron Waters will still be under contract at Tickford.
Hazelwood will step up from Super2 to the Championship Series this year with Matt Stone Racing. MSR is also stepping up from Super2, having leased Jason Bright’s racing entitlement contract and purchased two ex-Penske Falcons. The second one will be used in Super2. Although a single-car team is a difficult environment for a rookie to succeed in, if Hazelwood and MSR get enough ongoing technical support from Penske, he might win a few races and prove he's worthy of driving for Penske. But at this stage, MSR’s deal with Penske is for the purchase of the car only. If Penske continues to disregard youth development, then Coulthard might keep his seat in 2020 simply because there are no good off-contract drivers available.
Once Coulthard loses his seat at Penske he'll be forced to step back from full-time driving, or potentially replace a retiring Garth Tander at Garry Rogers Motorsport if the timing is right. He won’t go back to BJR, and Tickford and Triple 8 have their own succession plans in place. Erebus would be an unlikely destination, given their current drivers, Reynolds and Anton De Pasquale, are younger and more promising than Coulthard.
This year Fabian Coulthard proved that he isn't really champion material. A year older than Whincup, with a much younger and more talented teammate to contend with, last year could well have been his only chance to win a championship. He needs to do better.