David Coulthard makes the breakthrough: 1997: prelude to seven world championship titles

Mar 16, 2017

On 9 March 1997, the Scottish racing driver David Coulthard drove to victory at the Australian Grand Prix in a McLaren-Mercedes. It marked the first win for the Silver Arrows since the Stuttgart brand made its F1 comeback. For at the end of 1955, following two world championship titles for Juan Manuel Fangio, Mercedes-Benz had pulled out of Formula 1 racing while at the height of its success. 40 years later, it teamed up with McLaren for the 1995 season, and in 2010 Mercedes-Benz finally set up its own Formula 1 team, MERCEDES-AMG PETRONAS. Since the triumph in Australia 20 years ago, the Stuttgart brand has racked up countless victories and its drivers have won the Formula 1 world championship on a total of seven occasions: 1998 and 1999 (Mika Häkkinen), 2008 (Lewis Hamilton), 2009 (Jenson Button), 2014 and 2015 (Lewis Hamilton), as well as 2016 (Nico Rosberg).

Stuttgart. The Silver Arrows are back: "Silver evokes memories of times gone by" wrote German motoring magazine "auto motor und sport" in reference to the new colour scheme of the McLaren-Mercedes racing cars before the 1997 Formula 1 season got underway. And reverting to the classic racing colours of Mercedes-Benz did indeed seem to bring the McLaren MP4-12 good fortune: on 9 March 1997, David Coulthard won the opening race of the Formula 1 season in Melbourne ahead of Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) and Mika Häkkinen (McLaren-Mercedes).

The British/German racing team tasted success on several more occasions that season: 3rd at the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim (Häkkinen), victory at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza (Coulthard), 2nd at the Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg (Coulthard) and a one-two at the European Grand Prix held in Jerez de la Frontera in Spain (Häkkinen followed by Coulthard).

Fans and experts alike were thrilled by the result of the Australian Grand Prix. It was, after all, the first win for McLaren-Mercedes since becoming partners and the first win for McLaren since late 1993. Coulthard's victory also has a symbolic importance as it marks the beginning of the renaissance of Mercedes-Benz and its Silver Arrows in Formula 1: it was the first step on the road to seven Formula 1 world championship titles that have been won by Mercedes-Benz drivers since then – including most recently three in succession between 2014 and 2016.

The future is silver

On 9 March 1997, Coulthard and Häkkinen started from 4th and 6th on the grid respectively in their McLaren-Mercedes MP4-12 cars. Quite a few drivers failed to finish the Australian Grand Prix, with some of them ending up in the run-off area next to the track. This prompted the magazine "auto motor und sport" to run its race report on 21 March 1997 under the heading "The gravel companions". In all, just ten of the 21 starters made it to the finish line. At the head of the field, however, a hard-fought battle ensued that required Coulthard to call on all his driving skills – and both car and engine to deliver unerring performance and reliability.

The Formula 1 Yearbook 1997 actually included a quote from Michael Schumacher, who was breathing down Coulthard's neck in his Ferrari, but eventually had to accept: "I would never have had enough to overtake on this circuit." The duel between the two race leaders closely following each other around the track was described by "auto motor und sport" as the "Coulthard/Schumacher express train" in its race report. And in the special edition containing a review of the 1997 season, the same motoring magazine summed it all up as follows: "David Coulthard controls Michael Schumacher, the man in his rear-view mirror. The Scot demonstrates a new level of self-assurance." The success of McLaren-Mercedes in Australia was also partly down to the superb performance of the pit crew: despite having a one-stop strategy, Coulthard and Häkkinen recorded the fastest pit stop times of the entire field.

The powerplant

The V10 racing engine built by the Mercedes-Benz subsidiary Ilmor had already been a key asset of the McLaren-Mercedes car in the 1996 season. McLaren-Mercedes started the 1997 season with a re-engineered version of the FO 110E. It weighed 124 kilograms, consisted of 6061 individual parts and generated an output of approx. 545 kW (741 hp) at 15,750 rpm from its displacement of 3000 cubic centimetres. Ahead of the French Grand Prix, the FO 110E with its 75-degree cylinder bank angle was superseded by the FO 110F (cylinder bank angle 72 degrees, displacement 2999 cc, 566 kW/770 hp at 16,500 rpm).

McLaren-Mercedes finished the 1997 season placed 3rd (Coulthard) and 6th (Häkkinen) in the drivers' championship and 4th in the constructors' championship. And just one year later, the Silver Arrows once again reigned supreme in motorsport's most elite discipline, when Häkkinen was crowned Formula 1 world champion. McLaren-Mercedes took the constructors' title too. By 2016, Formula 1 racing cars powered by Mercedes engines had notched up six more drivers' championships (Mika Häkkinen 1999, Lewis Hamilton 2008, Jenson Button 2009, Lewis Hamilton 2014 and 2015, as well as Nico Rosberg 2016). There were also three constructors' titles in succession between 2014 and 2016.

Silver Arrow on course for gold: David Coulthard (McLaren-Mercedes MP12-4, car number 10) leads Michael Schumacher (Ferrari F310B, car number 5) at the 1997 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
Renaissance of the silver colour scheme: McLaren-Mercedes lined up for the 1997 Formula 1 season with cars painted partly in silver for the first time. It evoked memories of the classic racing colours of Mercedes-Benz. The Australian Grand Prix on 9 March 1997 was won by David Coulthard. The photo shows him (front) during the race. He won the race ahead of Michael Schumacher (Ferrari, top right). Mika Häkkinen, also driving for McLaren-Mercedes, finished 3rd.
Mercedes-Benz racing driver David Coulthard, winner of the 1997 Australian Grand Prix.