Coulthard revels in revivalism

Monte Carlo at full thrust: As one Monaco resident lifts a fallen giant, another attracts a growing band of admirers; David Tremayne outlines the part played by the Scot in McLaren's return to prominence
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The Independent Online
A month ago David Coulthard could only dream of the sort of performances he has turned in for the McLaren-Mercedes team in the last two grands prix. In Argentina, he struggled home in a humbled seventh place, overtaken at one stage by the upstart Jos Verstappen in a Footwork whose Hart engine was designed and built on the sort of budget Mercedes spends keeping its old Silver Arrow racers of yesteryear in exhibition trim. It need hardly be said that this produced particularly red faces in the McLaren and Mercedes- Benz camps.

In the days when the red and white McLarens could regularly be counted upon to win races, the team chief Ron Dennis, scowling then in victory rather than in defeat, said: "In Formula One if you stand still, you go backwards." Of late, Mr Coulthard has been going forward faster than anybody else, and usually at the start of races. In Germany two weeks ago, he swept from sixth place on the grid to second by the first corner, and went on to finish third. In Imola last weekend, his adrenalin-surge took him from fourth to first, and though he subsequently retired with hydraulic failure, it was a watershed for the rejuvenated McLaren team.

In Argentina, Coulthard had walked a tightrope. He did not wish to appear an inadequate as he struggled with a difficult car and was overshadowed (as detractors had expected) by his mercurial team-mate Mika Hakkinen, but at the same time he could hardly be heard to rubbish yet another bad car from the Woking design office.

"It's quite simple, really," he said then. "A lot of performance, when you come to the last little bit, comes from confidence. And confidence comes from knowing what a car is going to do every time you approach a corner. How it's going to react when you brake, what will happen if you brake a bit harder, what will happen when you come off the brakes. Somewhere in that car is a balance that suits my driving style, and/or my driving style will come to me from the basics of the car. Either way, it hasn't quite happened yet."

His confidence, he agreed, had been battered. "Naturally it goes down if you are not getting the results. I've never had the sort of personality that struts around bubbling with confidence. I've always been a very much toe-in-the-water sort of person rather than someone who says, 'Let me at it'."

He insisted that the basic information remained within the car, "But it's quite tricky to understand in a way you can improve it, to make it less nervous on the entry and to get more out of it in the corners. It's about finding stability on entry because that's where you build your whole corner, and at the moment I haven't found that."

By the Nurburgring he was beginning to. Then a test session before Imola identified the need for two small aerodynamic fences on either side beneath the front wing, whose mounting structure had already been beefed up. The car's front-end grip was transformed, and suddenly he found the inter- team roles reversed. Now he could find the balance, and Hakkinen couldn't. When he led the San Marino Grand Prix for 19 laps, it was the first time a Mercedes-engined McLaren had been out front. It would seem this was no flash in the pan, either.

Michael Schumacher, who followed closely the entire time, was complimentary. "David was holding me up a little, but not that much. Three or four tenths, perhaps. He was quite quick, I must say. He was driving well and there was no way to pass him."

Mention to Ron Dennis that everyone loves an underdog and all you get is a scowl. Try to talk with his beleaguered engineering staff, and the hatches are battened down. But McLaren's return to competitive speed is good for Formula One.

Everyone will tell you that the sport would wither without Ferrari, but let us remember that McLaren have won only one fewer grands prix. The score is 105 to 104, and while Ferrari started in the World Championship in 1950, McLaren did not enter until 1966. Monaco marks the team's 30th anniversary, and its first victory since Australia in 1993 would make a timely present. McLaren's revival is to motor racing what Boris Becker's is to tennis, adding spice as Benetton regroup and Ferrari's challenge to Williams gathers momentum.