Mature Coulthard vaults to pole

By David Tremayne in Monza
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE NAME David Coulthard, it has to be admitted, does not normally dominate conversations after grand prix qualifying, but the 24-year-old Scot sprang a big surprise this weekend with an impressively mature performance in which he dominated both days of practice. His new-found pace left his team-mate Damon Hill coughing in a dust cloud of his own making, and evoked more than a few rueful expressions in a Williams camp that has already opted to replace him with Jacques Villeneuve next year.

The irony has not been lost on Coulthard, who waged a gripping battle for pole position with Hill's arch-enemy Michael Schumacher, as everyone struggled in his turbulent wake. He has several points to prove, especially bearing in mind the threat posed to his future at McLaren by a possible return to that potentially overcrowded team by the former champion Alain Prost. Ferrari, too, is taking a strong interest.

"I'm very happy, especially after being quickest yesterday as well," he said. "Maybe it's not such a big advantage on a track like Monza to be on pole, but it's very satisfying. I'm getting back a bit of the confidence I lost mid-season through my tonsillitis problem. It was a little difficult to guess the level of grip in the two Lesmo corners, but I guess I was just clean in all of them and that put the lap together."

The hard compound tyres used here needed a few good, clear laps before drivers could exploit their grip fully, and throughout the session track conditions were changing, with lots of dirt thrown up. In particular, there were two heavy but harmless and separate accidents involving the Minardi drivers Pedro Lamy and Luca Badoer, but Coulthard judged things to perfection. Gerhard Berger attacked hard at the end for the crowd's beloved Ferrari team, but was slowed by dust thrown up when Hill had an alarming moment at the second Lesmo, trying to match his team-mate's speed. "There was no way to catch David," said Berger simply.

Schumacher admitted his surprise at taking second place. "It's been a tough weekend, and I didn't expect this. I thought I might be happy with third or fourth but suddenly we made another change to the set-up and went quicker. I never had a weekend where it took me that long."

It is a curious situation, for besides Coulthard, Schumacher and Berger are also, of course, headed for pastures new in 1996. The Austrian will be joining his present Ferrari team-mate Jean Alesi at Benetton-Renault at the end of the season, as Schumacher prepares to ride a Prancing Horse whose saddlebags are now stuffed with dollars. Yet to look at the grandstands opposite the pits, where traditionally the hyper-enthusiastic "tifosi" broadcasts its messages of support to its drivers, there is no sign of a welcome for Schumacher the way that there was in 1989 when Prost was poised to switch from McLaren.

"Gerhard: Look at the sky; it's the only thing greater than you," said one. "Jean, Ferrari does not deserve you," said another. There would seem at this stage to be little affection for the German driver in the hearts of the Italian fans. Perhaps it is just a little too early; perhaps the tifosi can only truly identify with drivers of less studied coolness than the world champion. Schumacher does not appear unduly worried either way, and was cheered to see Hill struggling to only fourth place after a difficult weekend. The Briton desperately needs to win here to keep his World Championship hopes alive but lost time on Saturday morning when his engine broke, and then ran off course in the afternoon. He shrugged it off: "It's not the end of the world," he said.

With its very long straights Monza provides overtaking opportunities that even Spa- Francorchamps cannot. Hill, recalling their recent clash in the Belgian Grand Prix, is hopeful that Schumacher will not risk repeating tactics more usually seen in clips from the television show Police Stop.

This is Coulthard's first pole position since Argentina in April, and today's race may well determine his future. At Hockenheim in July he failed to grasp the nettle and take the fight to Schumacher when Hill spun off; more recently, he was walking away with the Belgian race until his gearbox failed.

A win at Monza would, of course, have the indirect effect of helping Hill's world championship cause, but of much greater significance to Coulthard it would help to exorcise the ghost of bottling out in Germany and endorse his claim to the McLaren seat alongside Mika Hakkinen.

Thirty years ago to the race, his former mentor Jackie Stewart won his first grand prix here for BRM; emulating that feat will do David Coulthard no harm at all. It is time for him to deliver.