McLaren-Mercedes slip into top gear

Derick Allsop watches ITV react slowly to a Scot's arrival as championship contender
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The Independent Online
David Coulthard was as good as his word, taking up the standard wrenched from Damon Hill and leading the British cause in Melbourne. But even he, let alone his detractors, could not have envisaged such a glorious opening to the Formula One season.

Coulthard's ability has been questioned almost as forcefully as Hill's in the hypercritical world of grand prix racing, and some suggested his career would go into freefall this year while Mika Hakkinen led the McLaren- Mercedes recovery. One race into the championship it would be foolhardy to draw too many conclusions, yet it is abundantly clear that the 25-year- old Scot has not only copious quantities of natural talent but the nerve to be a front-line Formula One driver.

Poignantly, Hill parked his car at the side of the road as Coulthard lined up for the Australian Grand Prix. A little over an hour and a half later, Britain's new No 1 and world championship contender was confirmed. It was a hugely satisfying win for McLaren, their first since Ayrton Senna's last appearance for them, at Adelaide in November 1993, 50 grands prix back. It was similarly satisfying for Mercedes, their first win since 1955. As for the team's new sponsors, they could scarcely believe their luck. Hakkinen had been outclassed by Coulthard all weekend but his third place completed a result made in heaven.

Above all, the satisfaction was Coulthard's. He resisted pressure from the world's greatest driver, Michael Schumacher, for virtually the entire race, never deviating from his course or strategy. At the end he climbed from his cockpit as fresh and unruffled as we have come to expect of the German. It might have been very different, of course, had Jacques Villeneuve not started so poorly and been eliminated in a first-corner collision, or if the other Williams-Renault driver, Heinz Harald Frentzen, had not been hampered by brake problems.

No matter. Even if the McLaren is still no match for Williams this season, Coulthard proved himself equal to the task presented at Albert Park. His consistency and composure were the hallmark of a future champion. Coulthard's accession patently caught ITV off-guard. The significance of what was unfolding seemed not to register. Presumably Murray Walker was still in shock over Hill's misfortune. He was certainly his muddly old self.

Much of ITV's dressing was embarrassingly amateurish, or at best more befitting a children's programme. The ITV team were not helped by poor sound quality in the pit lane link-up and early-morning viewers were left waiting for a post-match interview with the winner.

On the credit side, Jim Rosenthal gave his usual polished performance as the front man - although why he is talking about cars and not footballers, instead of the wishy-washy Bob Wilson, remains one of broadcasting's great mysteries - and Martin Brundle came up with a couple of nice lines. He described the early chaos, which accounted also for Eddie Irvine, Johnny Herbert and Ralf Schumacher, as "like the first day back at school; everyone's all over the place".

When Jean Alesi ignored his crew's signals and ran out of fuel, Brundle advised him against returning to the pits. "If I was you, I'd head for the airport," he told the Frenchman. The report on ITV's debut could apply to a number of others on their first day of term: must do better.