Coulthard confident of his position

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The Independent Online
Championships and contracts are powerful incentives, or perhaps it was just coincidence. Either way, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard backed up their causes with emphatic statements on the track here yesterday.

Schumacher arrived for tomorrow's Hungarian Grand Prix with a 10-point lead in the championship and collected a new Ferrari chassis. Despite a late spin, he made good use of it, registering the fastest time in unofficial practice.

Second best was Coulthard, a timely performance to reinforce his prospects of staying with McLaren-Mercedes next season. Damon Hill is coveting one of the silver cars and the Scot is intent on ensuring it will not be his.

Schumacher dominated proceedings all day, apparently confirming the optimism he expressed a fortnight ago. The German, however, is a master at containing Italian euphoria and again urged caution in his camp and among his followers.

He said: "It is very much like last year for us here. We are quick on one lap, but I'm not so sure about a race distance. We have not done enough work yet to know."

Schumacher had a more positive view on the contribution of Eddie Irvine, his team-mate for another season, in testing last week. "Eddie did a lot of work and did a good job," he said.

Much the same can be said of Coulthard's labours yesterday. A season which began with a win and continued with a series of impressive drives lost a little momentum in the last two races and Hill's seemingly strengthening links with McLaren intensified the pressure on the Scot. Suddenly he, as well as Mika Hakkinen, was under threat.

Coulthard responded in the most eloquent manner. He was only two-tenths of a second slower than Schumacher and, off the circuit also, he presented a strong case for another season's employment at McLaren.

"I don't feel I'm under threat. I think I have done a strong job for the team. I'm not saying Damon has had his day because Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost won titles in their late thirties," Coulthard said.

"Damon is a quick driver, although its difficult to gauge what his motivation has been this year. I don't know whether he would do a better job. It's a question of whether or not people see him as the future. I'm not a boxer, standing here saying I'm better than him and can do this and that. I have confidence in my ability and can do my talking on the track.

"I am comfortable with my performance. I am in only my third full season in Formula One and think I have a lot to offer. I think I can still improve. I'm 26 and have another 10 years before I get to Damon's age. It's impossible to say whether or not Damon will improve any more, because maybe he can show he is a born again driver.

"I don't think there is any danger he will be given my place, but then I am looking through my eyes at my performance and how I compare with him. McLaren-Mercedes may look at it differently, but I have shown I can win races and I am going to be cheaper and younger."

Hill, his talks with Sauber having ended, boasted his own market value with fifth place in the Arrows Yamaha, so how about an all-British line- up at McLaren?

Coulthard, who partnered Hill at Williams-Renault in 1994 and 1995, said: "I don't see why there shouldn't be two Brits in the team. You have to go with the best drivers. I would be happy to be Damon Hill's team-mate again. I think we work well together. But Mika and I are both quick drivers and we've been getting as much out of the car as possible."

Hill was grounded for much of the afternoon session with a gearbox problem, but was instantly quick once released, taking advantage of tyres patently suited to the circuit. He finished just behind the Williams of Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Jacques Villeneuve, Schumacher's closest challenger, in the other Williams, was a distant 11th.

Villeneuve and Williams are in danger of losing more and perhaps even decisive ground to Schumacher and Ferrari here. The Canadian said: "Ferrari have obviously been doing something and it is working. It's annoying because it makes our life harder. But we are also working on a few things. We are confident. We must close the gap on Ferrari."

The competition between the two teams, and especially the resurgence of Schumacher and Ferrari, is proving good for business here. Ticket sales have been booming. All welcome news for the promoter, one Bernard Charles Ecclestone, Formula One's impresario.

His influence here appears to know no bounds. He vented his displeasure last year, when his chauffeur-driven limousine was held up on a narrow access track by the volume of traffic. This year a new road conveys card- carrying personnel to the circuit gate. It is called Bernie Avenue.

HUNGARIAN GRAND PRIX (Sunday) Practice times: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 17.583sec (114.432mph); 2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:17.810; 3 J Trulli (It) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:17.848; 4 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams- Renault 1:17.884; 5 D Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha 1:18.161; 6 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Peugeot 1:18.368; 7 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford 1:18.565; 8 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot 1:18.686; 9 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:18.734;10 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas 1:18.796; 11 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams- Renault 1:18.805; 12 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 1:18.856; 13 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1:18.923; 14 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 1:19.346; 15 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:19.358; 16 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi- Hart 1:19.521; 17 G Morbidelli (It) Sauber-Petronas 1:19.567; 18 P Diniz (Br) Arrows-Yamaha 1:20.002; 19 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 1:20.106; 20 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:20.176; 21 S Nakano (Japan) Prost- Mugen-Honda 1:20.414; 22 T Marques (Br) Minardi-Hart 1:20.707.