Motor racing: Coulthard safe with McLaren

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The Independent Online
DAVID COULTHARD leaned back in his chair in an Italian restaurant beneath his apartment here yesterday and saw off the rumours of threats to his job as if they were afters.

Stories of McLaren-Mercedes' intent on luring Michael Schumacher from Ferrari have gathered fresh momentum in the gossip that accompanies the Monaco Grand Prix. Ron Dennis, the McLaren team principal, has been quoted as saying: "When you have a very good car you want the best and Michael is the best."

Coulthard is constantly hearing of approaches for the German, of course, and he has, he claims, been given assurances by Dennis that he need not be worried about his position in the team. "Ron has told me not to concern myself with the rumours and that is a nice commitment from the man," Coulthard said. "People may say I'm naive but why worry about it? The crunch time will come in the future. I'll be talking about my contract in the middle of the year and worry about it in the unlikely event that it will be necessary."

Coulthard's team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, is generally perceived to be the favoured son of McLaren, a privileged position that has as much to do with his near-fatal accident at the end of 1995 as his ability or personality. "I've said in the past I felt uncomfortable with Mika's relationship in the team, but I understand that because of all he's been through with the team," Coulthard said. "If I have equal machinery and emotional support, then I'll be happy. Success will help strengthen my relationship in the team and I've no reason to doubt I'll be with the team beyond this year."

Coulthard could suppress the rumours by beating Hakkinen tomorrow and closing the seven-point gap at the top of the championship. He said: "Mika is hungry and fired-up, but I think I can do it. I'm the only driver who has finished all five races and I've been on the front row of the grid for every race."

Earlier, Hakkinen sat chatting in the McLaren hospitality enclosure. He wore dark glasses and a demeanour of calm self-assurance. Not arrogance, not over confidence, but an unmistakable look of a racing driver who had found his intended course.

Body language has been one of the more fascinating features of Hakkinen's duel with Coulthard. The message now from the Finn was as clear. He had again been fastest on the first day of practice here, while Coulthard had been relegated to third by Benetton's Giancarlo Fisichella.

It can all change in practice today, of course, and Schumacher, ringing every last drop from the Ferrari, could yet defy them all. But so far, Hakkinen is following his home strategy.

"I started this weekend confident," he said. "I just felt good, like a I knew what I was doing. I tried to continue from Spain. I had a plan to go with here also and up to now it is going well."

Hakkinen has a poor record here - a sixth place by default is his best result - and had two below-par performances before Barcelona a fortnight ago. A win here might prove a crushing blow, extending as it would his lead over Coulthard to at least 11pts. And this time home comforts appear to be helping Hakkinen's cause.

He said: "People ask me if it is an advantage that I live here and as far as the driving is concerned it isn't really. You are on another racing track, nothing like Monaco at other times. The fact that you may be passing your favourite restaurant doesn't matter. But I do feel comfortable here. I am relaxed. I go to my own place and sleep fantastically. I believe it is how I feel that is important to me. If I am in control of my plan, then I do not fear anyone.

"Do not misunderstand me, I'm not saying I'm confident, I'm definitely going to beat David and Michael in the race. I respect them and they're very strong, very dangerous. But I now know what I can do. I am working all the time to get the car I want, and that plan is working for me. If I stay focused like this, I have what I need."

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