reports from Monza
David Coulthard timed his performance to perfection: not only provisional pole position, but at the Italian Grand Prix, just when he is endeavouring to secure a job with Ferrari.
The 24-year-old Scot, to be released by Williams-Renault at the end of the season, was always an elusive target for the World Championship contenders, his present team-mate, Damon Hill, and Benetton-Renault's Michael Schumacher. A current Ferrari driver, Gerhard Berger, pushed the Englishman and German further back with a last-lap lunge.
All could change in this afternoon's qualifying session, but Coulthard is patently intent on business here and predicts still greater success in tomorrow's race. "I'm going to win," he said.
Coulthard picked up where he left off early in the German Grand Prix a fortnight ago, ahead of the rest on an urgent mission. He is apparently now one of the two leading candidates to partner Schumacher at Maranello next season, and this is the perfect platform on which to present his case.
His main rival for the vote is Jordan-Peugeot's Rubens Barrichello. Gianni Agnelli, the president of Fiat and captain of all who sail in her - including Ferrari - is said to favour the Brazilian because of the commercial potential he could tap in South America.
Of the two, Schumacher would opt for Coulthard, and the champion's arrival is thought to have influenced the severing of on-track ties between the team and Nikki Lauda. The Austrian, countryman and mentor of Berger, has been offered an ambassadorial role.
Schumacher said: "I have a good relationship with David and would have no problem working with him, but it is not up to me. I think he has had a good performance not only here but also in Spa and at other races, and is now showing his real potential."
Coulthard's motivation has not been lost on Hill, who is seeking maximum dividends here to reduce Schumacher's 15-point advantage in the title standings. The last thing he requires is serious opposition from his own team-mate. Hill said: "David's fired up. I expect him to be trying his damnedest."
The senior Williams driver is also concerned about the threat from Ferrari on this circuit. "You don't want Berger in front of you," Hill said. "I'd like to see an all-Williams front row. But I'm quite happy because my car was much improved in the afternoon and times should be faster in the second session."
Jean Alesi, in the other Ferrari and destined to drive for Benetton, was fifth yesterday and Johnny Herbert, leaving Benetton but without new employment so far, was sixth.
Herbert has ruffled a few well-groomed feathers with his assertion that the team concentrated their efforts on Schumacher to the extent he felt an outcast. Schumacher challenged Herbert on his comments here, and the Englishman told him they were aimed at the team.
Schumacher said: "I don't believe this is coming from my team-mate. It's normal if a driver is leading the championship that there is more concentration on him, but to say the fault is with the team, I'm not sure that is right."
Flavio Briatore, Benetton's managing director, is one of Formula One's more phlegmatic characters, yet he could not contain his dismay with some of Herbert's accusations and responded with a few stinging points of his own.
He said: "I don't want Johnny to tell me how to run my team - I don't tell him how to drive his car. Maybe he has forgotten already that he won the British Grand Prix in our car."
FIRST PRACTICE TIMES FROM MONZA
1 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 25.516sec (ave speed 150.939mph); 2 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:25.904; 3 D Hill (GB) Williams- Renault 1:25.912; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault 1:26.098; 5 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:26.323; 6 J Herbert (GB) Benetton-Renault 1:26.631; 7 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:26.981; 8 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber- Ford Zetec 1:27.245; 9 M Blundell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:27.308; 10 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:27.573; 11 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:28.418; 12 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:28.895; 13 M Brundle (GB) Ligier- Mugen-Honda 1:29.200; 14 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:29.535; 15 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford 1:29.936; 16 T Inoue (Japan) Footwork-Hart 1:30.632; 17 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:30.731; 18 J-C Boullion (Fr) Sauber-Ford Zetec 1:30.997; 19 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:31.399; 20 A Montermini (It) Pacific-Lotus-Ford 1:32.121; 21 R Moreno (Brazil) Forti-Ford 1:32.491; 22 P Diniz (Brazil) Forti-Ford 1:32.540; 23 G Lavaggi (It) Pacific-Lotus- Ford 1:32.395; 24 M Papis (It) Footwork-Hart no time.Reuse content