Motor Racing: Coulthard back in spotlight

Before the start of the Formula One season in Melbourne on Sunday, Derick Allsop talks to the Scot who aims to become the UK's No 1 driver
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The Independent Online
Exit Damon Hill, enter David Coulthard. That, at least, is the way it would seem and the way the latter would have it.

Hill's unceremonious shunting into Formula One's sidings means the drivers' championship will change hands this year. So, too, will the torch of the United Kingdom's leading driver.

Now that may smack of being dammed with faint praise in an arena where we are told only winning counts, but the tag of the nation's No 1 is much coveted. It bolsters the ego, carries kudos and wields commercial clout. It can also generate the kind of momentum that conveyed Hill, and Nigel Mansell before him, all the way to the world title.

It does not take a bright 25-year-old to work that out, but since Coulthard has intelligence and youth on his side, he might well be able to make the most of this opportunity.

He will also be aware that his first concern must be to match and then beat his team-mate at McLaren-Mercedes, the Finn, Mika Hakkinen. Few question Hakkinen's pace or courage, but some wonder about his judgement. Others wonder about Coulthard.

One team boss suggested recently: "It's not going to happen for him, and if he gets blown away by Hakkinen, which I believe will happen, Coulthard's history."

That is how brutal it is in Formula One. However, another senior team official, who is prepared to be named, Patrick Head, the technical director of Williams, envisages the possibility of a different scenario.

Head, who worked with the Scot in 1994 and 1995 and once declared his "dream team" to be Michael Schumacher and Coulthard, said: "I don't necessarily see it going all Mika's way. If this McLaren is quick, and the indications are that it may be, then it wouldn't surprise me if David was quicker than Hakkinen."

He explained that Coulthard preferred a quicker, "truer" car to one which was unpredictable and undermined his confidence.

Winter testing has encouraged Coulthard to believe that the car, no longer bearing the colours of Marlboro but a silver livery and the name of their new sponsor, West, will be quick. "I wouldn't go so far as to say we have solved all our problems, but we have made encouraging progress," is Coulthard's carefully balanced assessment.

He feels less restrained by political correctness in considering his relationship with Hakkinen. "We're team-mates and there's no real problem in a working sense, but we're not friends and he makes no particular attempt to be friendly. That doesn't bother me. In fact, I think it's a bit of a compliment. It means he respects me.

"He is highly regarded and certainly he's quick. But even in my first season for the team last year, when I was rather inconsistent, I made considerable progress on him and, overall, was only about two-tenths of a second down on him. I know I can improve on that."

Head goes on to say: "McLaren may win a race, but I'd be surprised if they won the championship." That appears to be the consensus of opinion within the sport. Coulthard does not argue, yet is not prepared, before Sunday's opening race in Melbourne, to lower his sights. He said: "You have to go into the season aiming for the championship and believing that is possible. Sure, the Williams will still be good, Benetton will be strong, and Michael Schumacher will get the best out of the Ferrari. But anything can happen."

Not, though, a successful championship defence by Hill. "No, I can't see Damon being able to do that," Coulthard said.

So we come to the question of national succession. Johnny Herbert is stuck in the middle lane with Sauber, even if he does have Ferrari power this season, and, as Eddie Irvine is not allowed to overtake Schumacher, the UK title is there for Coulthard's taking.

"That's the situation and the responsibility I relish," he said. "I'm a proud Scot and a proud Brit, and it would be an honour to fly the flag for the whole country.

"Both Damon and Nigel have enjoyed the privilege and advantage of that position. You draw on the support and undoubtedly it gives you lift. I am sure that helped carry them to their championships and I liked to think it could eventually help me in the same way. Hopefully, the car will be competitive enough to make that possible and I will be able to respond.

"Of course it means more pressure when you have not only your team but your country looking for you to produce the goods, but it ensures there is no complacency. Sometimes when you are not in a position to win, your form can dip a little and you need a kick up the backside.

"I'm not afraid of pressure and it's nothing new to me anyway. You couldn't have a much higher level of pressure than I had when I first came into Formula One and was put into the car left by the best driver in the world.

"I couldn't fill Ayrton Senna's shoes, but the spotlight was on me and I believe I came through that reasonably well. By the end of the following season I'd got my first grand prix win and was quicker than Damon."

His first season with McLaren took him out of the spotlight, while Hill went on to claim the championship. Another season, another ball game. And, he would have you believe, another Coulthard.

He said: "I honestly feel better prepared for this season than any in the past. I've worked at my fitness, trained really hard and feel I have so much energy. I really am eager to get on with it now.

"Until we actually start racing we can't know exactly where we are in relationship with the other teams, but I certainly believe we won't be too far away from the best.

"My goal is to be in a position to win races and start winning them on a regular basis. If you do that then you don't have to worry about the championship, because that will come along anyway.

"But for now all I want and need to think about is racing at the front, and showing I can compete with these guys, because when the lights go out I genuinely believe I can run with the best and beat the best."