TOMORROW'S man, or yesterday's? That is the question Frank Williams is asking as his team prepares for the return of Nigel Mansell. Mansell will partner Damon Hill for the last three races of the season and is hoping to secure a contract for next. But most of those in the paddock believe that the latter description applies to the 1992 world champion and that the man of the future is David Coulthard, at present in possession of the Williams No 2 car.
Since he burst on to the Formula One scene in Spain, taking over the drive after the tragedy suffered by Ayrton Senna, the 23-year-old Scot has made a devastating impression. He is quick and forceful, articulate, smart-looking and he says the right things. The sponsors adore him, too. The only reservation you hear in some circles is that he is almost too good to be true.
His progress and demeanour bear an uncannily close resemblance to Jackie Stewart's at a similar stage of his career. But where Stewart was initially naive, Coulthard has come into a high-pressure sport fully capable of holding his own on and off the track.
Frank Williams is clearly a fan. 'David has surprised many people, and astonished some. In the absence of Ayrton Senna, this has brought a great deal of satisfaction to the team. He is very, very talented. When you talk to the engineers, you realise how good he is.'
Williams holds no brief for Mansell after their last two spells working together, and nor does the technical director, Patrick Head. Indeed, their former driver's imminent return is a hangover from Renault's post-Monaco desperation to have a star partnering Damon Hill, and the situation has changed since then. But probe Williams on his likely solution to the three-into-two driver conundrum and he refuses to be drawn. 'It's all hypothetical, and I won't make any statements whatsoever,' he insisted, pausing to choose his words carefully. 'It's a fast-moving situation, and we shall review it after Australia.'
If Williams opts for another volatile alliance with Mansell, a man whose emotional hand-baggage is the stuff of legend and whose best years may be behind him, he risks his arch-rival Benetton's snapping up the discarded Coulthard on a long-term contract. And it isn't just Mansell's confrontational style that nags him, but the memory that he let Senna slip through his fingers back in 1983. He clearly does not want to make the same mistake with Coulthard.
''We are not always in control of our own destiny, but we will not let David go if we can possibly avoid it,' he said. Mansell has recently been banging his own drum as Renault's support for him is said to be decreasing and as the chances of Williams signing Michael Schumacher recede. Williams adds what may prove to be a telling rider: 'David could be the next Schumacher-basher. In fact, if you compare his first eight F1 races with Michael's, what each has done is very similar.
'If you look at his performance versus his experience, you can't help but be impressed by the bloke,' the Williams team manager Ian Harrison said of Coulthard. 'You have to think that, given a secure drive - which would in turn give him more experience - he has got to be a potential grand prix winner. A couple of times this season he has been heading for a podium finish, only to have problems through no fault of his own.
'He's a bit frightening for a 23-year-old, and you can forget how young he is. He comes across as a much more experienced campaigner than he really is.'
None of that is lost on Williams, as he ponders a tough decision. This weekend Coulthard has one last chance before the Mansell roadshow rolls back into Formula One. But unless the former world champion produces stunning form, he may well find that the spotlight will be focusing on the ostensible understudy when the circus begins again in 1995.Reuse content