Motor racing: Coulthard maintains McLaren's grip

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THE ATMOSPHERE of the paddock was as flat here yesterday as the topography of the race-track in Buenos Aires' Parc Almirante Brown, as much a contrast with the Brazilian Grand Prix a fortnight ago as was the performance there of the McLarens and the Ferraris.

At Interlagos all the talk was of protest and controversy, as the Italian team argued successfully against its British rival's unusual braking system. Here, however, it is as if everybody is on their best behaviour, aware perhaps of the tarnish that has marred Formula One's global image since the controversial outcome of the Australian Grand Prix in March.

Yet, as the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, carefully continued to play down the dominance of his silver cars, the World Championship leader, Mika Hakkinen, who has become something of a human disaster area when it comes to public speaking, amused his audience while trying to outpsyche his competitors.

"I don't think they can catch us," Hakkinen smirked cheerfully, blaming illness for his apparently morose expression in the immediate aftermath of his Brazilian triumph. Vowing to work harder still to maintain the edge that has garnered him an eight-point lead in the drivers' championship, he concluded: "Unless the regulations are changed, or something like that, it will take a miracle to catch us."

As far as past and present champions Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve are concerned, that miracle may be round and black and have the name Goodyear stamped on the side. In an effort to get on terms with the Bridgestone tyres used so successfully thus far by McLaren, Goodyear has responded with a wider front tyre here to give better front-end grip.

"I expect to make a step forward here which may even give us a chance to get between the McLaren guys," Schumacher said. "They have done the right job, which we know we haven't done yet. But we know where we have to improve, and we are fairly confident we can do that.

"We had to take steps backwards at the beginning of our car's development because of a problem with the reliability of the exhaust system. That cost us some performance, which we expect to get back in time for Imola in two weeks. Goodyear is working hard and making improvements."

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Villeneuve's team-mate at Williams, suggested that it might be the middle of the season before the modifications come on stream. "I'm not interested in waiting for mid-season before we get on terms with McLaren," Schumacher said. "I want to get the job done earlier."

The German used a combination of the new tyres, a more powerful engine and a high-downforce rear wing to good effect yesterday when he set the fastest practice time of the morning as his partner, Eddie Irvine, split the Williams duo. But as McLaren admitted to taking it easy, David Coulthard pushed up to second place right in Schumacher's wheel-tracks. Hakkinen was a relaxed eighth behind the Jordans of Ralf Schumacher and Damon Hill

"The track was dirty to begin with," a McLaren spokesman said, "so there was no point in trying too hard too soon." Let the others clean up the track, was the inference. When you have the advantage, you can get away with that.

Rain blighted the anticipated confrontation when practice resumed in the afternoon, but as the track dried in the closing minutes Coulthard pushed easily ahead of Schumacher by almost one second. Hakkinen improved to third place before spinning in the tricky conditions, but at least one of the McLarens had restored the status quo.