'At times, I felt like the odd man out'

THIS was the year when grand prix racing ran the gamut of emotions from tragedy and exhilaration to acrimony and frustration, and David Coulthard's eventful if brief season proved a microcosm of the campaign as a whole. While Damon Hill had the r esponsibility of team leadership thrust upon him after Ayrton Senna's death in the San Marino Grand Prix, that same tragedy gave the 23-year-old Scot his big chance as he was propelled suddenly from test driver to race partner for the Briton in the Willi ams-Renault team.

Notwithstanding the cause, it was a dream opportunity for any hungry young racer, and the manner in which he seized his chance marked him out as a driver of rare promise, and the subject of a tug-of-war between Williams and McLaren.

"The day that Ayrton was killed, I was at Silverstone for a Formula 3000 race,'' Coulthard recalled last week. "I've never been one to suggest that you should not compete, but that day if anyone had proposed that we didn't race on the Bank Holiday Monday, I'd have been the first to raise my hand to second it. I finished second, but my mind was elsewhere.

"Once I was driving the Williams my lowest point was in Hungary, where I crashed in qualifying and again when running third in the race. A friend picked me up from the airport afterwards and said I was like a little boy lost. I had started to pull away from Martin Brundle and the pressure was coming off. I was starting to relax again and think about the finish. Maybe my concentration slipped. It's not that I don't want to admit to such mistakes but, genuinely, I don't know how it happened.

"It was disappointing not to finish second at Monza, where I was well within myself, but these things happen. That wasn't my mistake, like it had been in Hungary. I just hate making mistakes.

"With the return of Nigel Mansell, I knew all along he would take the wheel for the last three races but it really hit me immediately after Portugal when I wasn't allowed to do the tyre test that followed. I was really starting to enjoy things. I was on the crest of a wave and it was a body blow. I had to keep a low profile after that and, what with other things that were happening at McLaren, at times I felt like the odd man out.

"The high points were a combination of driving well at Monza, then finishing second in Portugal after leading for the first 18 laps. I don't want to sound too big for my boots, but I stood on the podium very happy for my mechanics and the people who'd supported me, rather than for myself. After all, winning is the only reason we are in this business The minute you finish second you want to be first, especially when you're so close.''

Jackie Stewart was once one of Coulthard's mentors, and there is much of the great triple champion's self-assurance in the young contender. Setting aside Damon Hill's own brilliant graduation you have to go back to the older Scot's first Formula One season in 1965 to find anyone who came in with a similar impact to Coulthard's. He has Stewart's speed and his innate awareness of the way things are in an aggressive world. His steel has been given harder temper by the off-track grievances that have developed since he was "replaced'' for those final three races by Mansell, and his future now looks much more settled.

Despite the acrimony behind the contractual battle, Williams are expected very shortly to confirm Coulthard as Hill's partner for the forthcoming season, after the Contract Recognition Board in Geneva ruled in their favour. Coulthard's management companyhas negotiated less restrictive terms and the incident is now history.

Although Coulthard has yet to win a grand prix, the fact that Williams are prepared to place him above an established fighter such as Mansell says it all. As the Scot prepares for his first full season, the indications are that Hill may have to deal withfar more than just Michael Schumacher's challenge in the months ahead.