Formula One: McLaren's confidence tinged with caution

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THE PENDULUM has swung again and all logic suggests the force will carry it beyond Ferrari's recall. Unsurprisingly, McLaren-Mercedes prefer a more cautious perspective.

A season that has bordered on the surreal began to make sense when Finland's Mika Hakkinen and Britain's David Coulthard gave McLaren first and second in Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest.

Ferrari's Eddie Irvine, relegated to third after running off the circuit under pressure from Coulthard, now leads Hakkinen by a mere two points with five rounds of the World Championship remaining, and must fear that unless McLaren revert to self-destructive tendencies he will be powerless to prevent the Finn's second consecutive title success.

However, events of the recent past, such as Hakkinen's wheel-nut problems at Silverstone, the collision involving the two drivers in Austria, and a refuelling hitch and tyre blow-out on the champion's car in Germany, have served to fend off any possibility of overconfidence infiltrating the Woking camp.

Coulthard said: "It's too early to say Mika has tilted the balance. We've seen what's happened in previous races and, if we make mistakes or have problems again at Spa, the chances are Eddie will be there to take advantage.

"Things were back to normal here, and that is how it should be. Given normal circumstances, we would expect to have 1-2s. We do have the edge and Eddie is scrambling to stay with us. But we can't afford to give him any chances. Ferrari have an excellent record of reliability and will always be there. There's no way we'll assume we've got them now."

McLaren consider this victory vindicates their policy of appointing joint No 1 drivers - as opposed to Ferrari's strategy - and allowing them to race.

It is anticipated Hakkinen and Coulthard will have the car superiority and therefore the opportunity to compete for the first two places in Belgium, on Sunday week, and again in Italy, a fortnight later, where Ferrari hope to restore their regular No 1, Michael Schumacher, to his car. Two further victories for Hakkinen would probably inflict terminal damage to Irvine's cause.

Of course, the elements could intervene to complicate McLaren's plan of action. Rain is always likely to turn Spa into a lottery and could be a factor at the Nurburgring, which follows Monza. After that comes the unknown quantity of Malaysia and finally Japan, Irvine's old stomping ground.

Despite the lurking prospect of these various hazards, Hakkinen oozes authority and McLaren are patently a united operation. The signs are that Irvine's campaign is being held together by sticking-plaster.

It is generally thought that Irvine is not held in the highest regard by some of the team's hierarchy and the post-race comment of Jean Todt, the sporting director, appeared to aim an underlying rebuke at Irvine. "Despite good work from the mechanics in the pits," the Frenchman said, "Eddie lost second place when he went wide at a corner."

Irvine's future remains unresolved according to official statements from Ferrari and Stewart Ford/Jaguar, the team understood to have negotiated a pounds 6.5m-a-year contract with the Ulsterman. But a source close to the Italian team is adamant the deal is done and that Irvine's departure will not be lamented.

Much as Irvine's "if you don't like me the way I am, tough" attitude has proved irksome, his performance has to be judged alongside that of Mika Salo, Schumacher's deputy. The Finn, who drove splendidly at Hockenheim, was never able to get his act together on the far from straightforward test of the Hungaroring and finished an "embarrassed 12th", two laps down on his countryman. Irvine expressed his bewilderment that the team as a whole underachieved on a circuit he felt would suit their car, yet offered the hope that the pendulum might swing once more in the Belgian Grand Prix.

Salo has clearly forfeited bargaining muscle and the Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, currently with Stewart, is still regarded as favourite to replace Irvine at Maranello, even if he is said to be having second thoughts about committing himself to the role as team-mate to Schumacher. One theory circulating the Formula One paddock is that Ford will announce their driver line-up for 2000 and the revamping of the team under the Jaguar banner at next month's Frankfurt Motor Show. Jackie Stewart, whose position in the new organisation has yet to be clarified, insists no such plan is in place.