Motor racing: British Grand Prix - Coulthard cuts Irvine to the quick

British Grand Prix: Scot's fast stop proves decisive in holding off Ulsterman as Schumacher and Hakkinen crash out
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The Independent Online
THE STAGE was left to the understudies and it was David Coulthard who came through with the bouquets and expressions of joy and gratification.

As Michael Schumacher was airlifted to hospital and Mika Hakkinen succumbed to impossible odds with his car, the other drivers of Ferrari and McLaren- Mercedes turned the British Grand Prix into a domestic affair.

One lapse of judgement by Eddie Irvine, in the second Ferrari, overshooting at his first pit stop, handed the initiative to Coulthard, in the second McLaren, and he was never able to retrieve it. That he could not was testament to the nerve and concentration of Coulthard, a driver aiming to prove he is worthy of Formula One's best car. He had waited 15 months to do so.

If the home crowd relished the distinction of a UK one-two, they were appreciative of perhaps the most courageous drive of the day, produced by Ralf Shcumacher to take third place. For 40 minutes, before the restart, he had waited and wondered about the condition of his brother. Assured Michael had not sustained serious injury, he went about his work and gave Williams an improbable appearance on the podium.

It is, of course, what they all do and what makes them able to race high speed cars in the first place, but when it was over both Coulthard and Irvine were vociferous in their condemnation of the current gravel traps as efficient safety devices. They were united also in relief to hear that the driver acknowledged as the best in the world ought to make a full recovery and resume racing, if not in the near future.

Schumacher's accident inevitably cast a sobering spell over proceedings and as Hakkinen again went clear at the restart, it seemed the race was condemned to the formality of another parade behind the impeccable world championship leader as he built a six-second advantage over Irvine.

Hakkinen negotiated his first scheduled pit stop without concern but suddenly began to slow and Coulthard went by. The Scotsman completed his advance from third place when Irvine tripped himself up with that lengthy pit stop.

Hakkinen stopped again, dropped down to 11, and responded with the fastest lap of the grand prix. On the following lap his rear left wheel came off and the Finn coaxed the hideously tilting McLaren to the pit for a third time. His fourth stop was his last, the team decided he should not be exposed to further risk because of the recurring wheel problem.

All of which had presented the opportunity to Coulthard and Irvine, and although the former led the dual into the middle sector of the race, the task was far from done.

Irvine hounded the McLaren with characteristic zeal and Coulthard, often criticised for lacking the mental toughness for such challenges, resisted with strength and composure. Another slick pit stop by the McLaren crew effectively completed the mission. Irvine was resigned to second place.

Ralf Schumacher was similarly resilient as the Jordan-Mugen of his fellow countryman Heinz-Harald Frentzen closed on him and claimed the four points. Frentzen's team-mate, Damon Hill, gave the home fans a third place in the top five to celebrate, and in the process probably bolstered his prospects of retaining the job for the rest of the season.

Coulthard, bedevilled by misfortune this season yet rarely driving with the conviction of a possible championship contender, sensed the burden of pressure falling from his shoulders.

He said: "It is fantastic, absolutely fantastic. It's the best feeling I've ever had in racing cars. It's definitely the biggest achievement of my career.

"When I was young, I remember standing here, ironically down at Stowe, watching a Ferrari coming down and being absolutely spellbound. But I never thought I would be in Formula One and enjoying this experience. I have to say, though, that the win has to go down to my guys in the pits. It could have gone either way between me and Eddie and track position was everything. They sent me out ahead of Eddie and that did it.

"Mind you, it was nerve-racking towards the end. Eddie had been close to me in the middle part of the race and although I got away from him later I was imagining all sorts of noises in the car. But I made it in the end.

"I realise I didn't achieve this with the two top drivers in the championship race, but my confidence will improve with this. Hopefully I can build on it the way that Mika has built on his wins."

Irvine conceded he had given the race to Coulthard with that clumsy pit stop. He said: "I overshot, losing my way a bit with the McLaren guys standing there, and went perhaps a yard too far. No doubt about it, that cost me the race."

The Ulsterman admitted also he had been able to shut out his team-mate's accident from his thoughts. He said: "I know it's hard but I didn't think about it. I've been in races where team-mates have been killed at the start. It's an awful thing but it doesn't affect me, only afterwards. I'm hard like that. It's the way you've got to be but Michael was lucky, he got away with it."

Irvine is now Ferrari's championship contender. He is level on points with Schumacher, eight behind Hakkinen. Then he said: "It is always difficult for me with Michael around, with all the focus of attention around him. It always makes me feel stronger when the team is focusing on me."

The younger Schumacher said: "It's not nice when your brother has an accident but the team kept me informed about him. You have to be professional and do your job."

Hill's content with his job, but insisted he was still not ready to comment about his future. An announcement is expected today. The former champion said: "I'm very satisfied with that, especially as I might not have finished. All the warning lights were coming on five laps from the end."

Johnny Herbert, in a Stewart-Ford, was on course for points, too, until he incurred a stop and go penalty for overtaking under the safety car restrictions.