Coulthard returns to basics

Hill claims second pole in a row for Williams as former team-mate struggles in new colours
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A YEAR ago David Coulthard upstaged his Williams team-mate, Damon Hill, with pole position for the Argentinian Grand Prix. Yesterday a place in the first three rows would have been almost as satisfying. Instead, he was powerless to challenge as Hill secured the top slot for the second race in a row.

Fresh from a mandatory "bonding" holiday with Ron Dennis and other key members of the McLaren squad, after a Brazilian Grand Prix that was as depressing for him as it was exhilarating for Hill, the 25-year-old Scot remains philosophical in McLaren's slough of despair. "A lot of performance, when you come to the last little bit, comes from confidence," he said. "And confidence comes from knowing what a car is going to do every time you approach a corner. Naturally your confidence goes down if you are not getting the results, and you need that confidence. If you understand the car you will be able to get more out of yourself." At McLaren, understanding the MP4/11 is something they only dream of.

The enduring irony of it all is that Coulthard and his advisers, IMG, might never have proceeded down the McLaren route but for a conversation on the pit wall in Jerez back in 1994. There, Nigel Mansell firmly gave the Scot cause to believe that he, Mansell, already had the Williams drive sewn up for 1995 after the two of them had alternated in the car since Ayrton Senna's death at Imola in May.

The crunch point came midway through 1995 when, having eventually opted for Coulthard, Frank Williams had to choose which of his drivers to keep once he had taken the decision to hire the IndyCar champion, Jacques Villeneuve. Williams went for Hill, only to see Coulthard set a string of pole positions and win his first race. Those days must seem a long, long way away.

"If I'm honest," Coulthard said without a trace of rancour, "Frank made the right decision as things stood, because my performances at the beginning of the year had been crap. If I had been as good in that first half as I was in the second, I like to think there might have been a good chance that I would have stayed at Williams." Hill did stay, and though he appreciates Coulthard's confidence crisis he has had to fight out of his own. Suzuka last October was the nadir, but by Adelaide he was a new man. He has since won the last three grands prix and may make that four in a row here after dominating the weekend so far.

"I know I can drive well and I just don't like it if I don't fulfil myself," Hill said. "I knew I could do a better job in 1995, and fundamentally I just wanted to enjoy myself. I got to the point last year when I just didn't enjoy what I was doing and I couldn't possibly perform to my ultimate level. I always knew I was good enough, but I wondered if it was right for me to be doing it. And I came to the conclusion that it is right."

Others have come to agree with that viewpoint after Adelaide, Melbourne and Interlagos, and Hill's performance here has done nothing to disabuse them. Michael Schumacher drove with terrific panache and commitment in a Ferrari that has yet to be tamed, and held fastest time until the closing minutes of official qualifying, when Hill finally dug deep and found the lap that won him his 13th pole position. "It was always going to be a close thing," Hill said. "We left it very late to go out - I was biting my nails."

Schumacher was none the less satisfied with his effort, having expected nothing better. "It's a fantastic result. I'm delighted. I would have been very surprised to be at the very top."

As in Brazil, Jacques Villeneuve found his rhythm when it mattered to produce the third fastest time ahead of the still troubled Benettons of Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger.

To a man, the drivers have criticised this once-great circuit. In particular the bumps on the first corner created many problems as it forced drivers to compromise entry lines. "When you go over the two worst bumps," Hill said, "you really take a whack and it becomes difficult to see."

The scene is thus set for a replay of Hill v Schumacher this afternoon, and the bump in the first corner may well play a crucial role at the start. As the two top contenders plan their strategy on a track where overtaking is extremely difficult, Coulthard, ninth and struggling, can only dream of better days.