Coulthard plays; ace after Irvine runs wild: Motor racing

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If Damon Hill was a less forgiving character he might have drawn a measure of vengeful satisfaction from the failure of both Williams-Renaults in yesterday's Australian Grand Prix, especially since his own car had ignominiously failed to last even the grid formation lap.

Instead, sportsman that he is, he put a brutally disappointing day behind him to tip his hat to the achievement of his former Williams team-mate David Coulthard in pushing McLaren back into the limelight for the first time in three years.

Calmness and composure under intense pressure, and McLaren's slick pitwork, brought the stylish Scot a surprise victory. It has to be said, though, that the misfortune of the pre-season favourite, Jacques Villeneuve, at the start, and brake failure for the Canadian's partner, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, close to the end, contributed to Coulthard's success.

Villeneuve had been expected to dominate, but he wasted the brilliance of the qualifying effort that had won him a decisive pole position the previous day by making a poor start, and by the first corner his race had ended in controversy.

As the track funnelled to the right, Eddie Irvine made a very late braking move down the inside in his Ferrari, hit Villeneuve's Williams and pushed it into the fast-starting Sauber-Petronas of Johnny Herbert, who had squeezed into second place from seventh in the starting line-up. Villeneuve and Herbert were eliminated as they slid on to the grass and gravel on the outside, while Irvine limped on only a little further.

It seemed at this point that the gods had smiled on Frentzen who, after a dismal performance the previous day, seized his opportunity and opened up a commanding lead over Coulthard and Michael Schumacher's Ferrari. After 17 laps the German was a majestic 18.6sec clear, but Williams' two-stop refuelling strategy became apparent when he swept into the pits the following lap, resuming just under 10 seconds behind Schumacher.

At the head of the field, Coulthard was driving with superb consistency, avoiding errors as he maintained a small but stable margin over the former champion. Frentzen regained control when Schumacher made his sole scheduled stop on lap 31, followed by Coulthard two laps later.

However, as these two prepared to run to the finish, Frentzen had one more stop to make. When it came on lap 40, the Williams plan went awry as mechanics struggled for agonising moments to refit the right rear wheel. By the time Frentzen rejoined, the race had suddenly been brought to life as a dramatic three-way fight to the finish. Both Frentzen and Schumacher closed the gap on the McLaren driver, but the Scot kept cool and controlled the margin, despite their efforts.

Just as the prospect of a no-holds barred duel between the two German drivers edged tantalisingly closer to long-awaited reality, Schumacher stopped unexpectedly for fresh tyres with seven of the 58 laps left to run.

Frentzen was having brake problems and, as he crossed the line to complete his 55th lap, a brake disc malfunctioned and threw his car into the same gravel bed that had earlier claimed its sibling. For the first time since 1991, Williams failed to bring a car home in the opening race of the season.

In the McLaren camp the statisticians went into overdrive as they prepared to celebrate the team's 105th victory and the first for Mercedes-Benz since the Italian Grand Prix in 1955.

"This was my best win," said Coulthard, whose only previous F1 success had come in Portugal two years earlier. "It was more emotional than that first one with Williams, I think because of the effort put in by the team. There was a lot of pressure as to whether McLaren could win and we proved that we can."

McLaren, who won 15 of the 16 races in 1988 in the heyday of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost but have struggled these past three years, were further delighted by Mika Hakkinen's third place, just ahead of Gerhard Berger's Benetton. Olivier Panis gave Bridgestone and the new Prost team their first points with fifth place, ahead of Nicola Larini in the second Sauber.

Frentzen was not the only first-corner survivor to fail to last the distance. Jean Alesi was fifth, just ahead of his team-mate Berger, but the Frenchman ignored signals to stop for refuelling on no fewer than six consecutive laps. He continued even when the team director, Flavio Briatore, resorted to having his two largest employees lean over the pit wall and wave wildly at him. Alesi subsequently rolled to a halt on lap 35, his tank dry.

Villeneuve and Herbert were critical of Irvine's overtaking attempt at the start. "He's an idiot sometimes," said Herbert who had high hopes of a podium finish with Sauber after qualifying in seventh place. "I am angry with Eddie, but not so much with what he did. That's him, he's a bit of a wild man at times.

"I'm angry because he never admits it when he makes a mistake. There is no point going up to him afterwards because he just brushes you off. All he'll say is, `It was my line, it was my line'. That's the wrong attitude to take."

Villeneuve admitted his start was not one for the textbooks. "I had a pretty bad start," he said. "Johnny was on the outside and I was on the inside and suddenly Eddie, who was on the dirty side, was there and the next thing I knew we were out. There was no way he could have turned in, while both Johnny and myself could have made the corner."

Irvine, whose first F1 race back in 1993 resulted in a post-race fracas with Senna, fell back on the time-honoured claim that it was just another racing incident, but many onlookers were angered by his tactics.

"It was simply a typical racing accident, one of those things that happen," the Ulsterman said. "Jacques got a bad start and I just went for the gap on the inside.

"It was like the one I had with Mika Hakkinen in practice. It was a shame as I had done a lot of work on my racing technique over the winter."

The incident did, however, set the foundation for an unexpected result that kicked the world championship off to a start that departed radically from the anticipated script.

Australian Grand Prix details

1 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes, 58 laps, 1hr 30min 28.718sec (203.926kph/ 126.717mph)

2 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:30.48.764

3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:30.50.895

4 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1:30.51.559

5 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:31.29.026

6 N Larini (It) Sauber-Petronas 1:32.04.758

7 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda, 56 laps; 8 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams- Renault, dnf; 9 J Trulli (It) Minardi-Hart, 55 laps; 10 P Diniz (Bra) Arrows-Yamaha, 54 laps.

Did not finish: R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford, 49 laps; M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford, 42 laps; J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford, 36 laps; J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault, 34 laps; U Katayama (Japan) Minardi-Hart, 32 laps; G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot, 14 laps; J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell- Ford, 2 laps; R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Peugeot, 1 lap; E Irvine (GB) Ferrari, 0 laps; J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault, 0 laps; J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas, 0 laps.

Did not start: D Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha.

World drivers' championship standings (after one round): 1 Coulthard 10 points; 2 Schumacher 6; 3 Hakkinen 4; 4 Berger 3; 5 Panis 2; 6 Larini 1.

Constructors' championship: 1 McLaren-Mercedes 14 points; 2 Ferrari 6; 3 Benetton-Renault 3; 4 Prost-Mugen-Honda 2; 5 Sauber-Petronas 1.