Motor racing: Coulthard and Hakkinen going through the motions

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The Independent Online
IF THERE is a sporting nirvana, then McLaren-Mercedes are likely to find it here tomorrow. The rest appear condemned to a respectful distance.

Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, first and second in the world championship, were just that in practice for the Spanish Grand Prix, yesterday, seemingly going through the motions. An improbable third fastest was Johnny Herbert, driving a Sauber, but then that is Friday for you. Any day of a racing weekend, especially Sunday, is likely to be a good day for McLaren.

And even more so here. As Coulthard has observed, he knows this place better than Silverstone, having virtually moved in for winter testing.

The only issue appears to be: which McLaren will win the race and lead the championship going to Monaco. Hakkinen won the first two races and was second in Argentina, but Coulthard's victory in the San Marino Grand Prix, a fortnight ago, lifted him to within three points of the Finn and suggested he might have tilted the psychological balance.

That is the interpretation of Damon Hill, Britain's last world champion. Hill, consigned to a bit-part with Jordan, believes his compatriot and former team-mate has the momentum and the ingredients to beat Hakkinen.

"David has definitely got what it takes to win the Championship," Hill said. "He has an excellent chance of cracking it. As we stand here now, I would put my money on David.

"I think David has taken the psychological advantage. Massively. After the first two races Mika will have thought it was easy. Everything was looking hunky-dory for him. He must have thought he had it in the bag. But then David was the quicker in Argentina and really should have won there. He won easily at Imola. He's learned a lot since we were team-mates. He's matured as a person and a driver."

Schumacher hovers in third place in the title standings, doubtless hoping to pick up the scraps of a domestic skirmish, and just now it looks like a championship McLaren can only throw away.

Hill had to resist a developing threat from his Williams team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, to fulfil his championship ambition in 1996 and, in a sideswipe at McLaren, he urges Coulthard to savour the experience.

"I just hope David enjoys it and doesn't get too tied up in McLaren- speak. He's got a lot of personality, and so has Mika," Hill said. "They should show that and forget what they are told to say. The problem there is that you sense the drivers have to toe the corporate line, for the benefit of the sponsors. They should be allowed to be themselves."

Hill, who had unproductive talks with McLaren last season and was stranded in 14th place here yesterday, patently wanted to get that off his chest. Corporate McLaren have the car of the year.

Herbert's sights are set high, even if he does not anticipate third place again in this afternoon's qualifying session. "I am hoping for a top 10 qualifying position, top six would be a dream," he said.

Ferrari spent most of their winter working in Italy and it showed yesterday. Eddie Irvine, fourth fastest, was 1.2sec slower than Hakkinen, a place and a tenth of a second ahead of Schumacher. "Our performance is more or less what we expected," Schumacher solemnly conceded.

Williams were still further adrift, Heinz-Harald Frentzen sixth and Villeneuve eighth. They were separated by Rubens Barrichello, dispensing a much needed tonic for the Stewart Ford team.

More characteristic of their season was Jan Magnussen's spin into a gravel trap. The Dane, who almost lost his job last week, was in 22nd and final place on the time sheet.

SPANISH GRAND PRIX (Barcelona) Times for unofficial practice: 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes, 1min 22.147sec, ave speed 207.199kph (128.775mph); 2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:22.965; 3 J Herbert (GB) Sauber- Petronas 1:23.237; 4 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:23.421; 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:23.468; 6 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Mecachrome 1:23.843; 7 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 1:24.037; 8 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams- Mecachrome 1:24.198; 9 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 1:24.257; 10 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot 1:24.272; 11 A Wurz (Ger) Benetton-Playlife 1:24.286; 12 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife 1:24.311; 13 R Schumache (Ger) Jordan-Mugen Honda 1:24.420; 14 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen Honda, 1:24.888; 15 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot, 1:24.897; 16 S Nakano (Japan) Minardi- Ford 1:25.280; 17 T Takag (Japan) Tyrrell-Ford 1:25.336; 18 E Tuero (Arg) Minardi-Ford 1:25.525; 19 P Diniz (Bra) Arrows 1:25.770; 20 M Salo (Fin) Arrows 1:26.285; 21 R Rosset (Bra) Tyrrell-Ford 1:26.371; 22 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 1:26.606.