Motor Racing: Coulthard `cleared' by Schumacher

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER made a humble and very public retraction yesterday, exonerating David Coulthard over their controversial collision at the Belgian Grand Prix. A contrite Schumacher admitted: "It's clear he did nothing wrong at Spa."

The two drivers had a one and a half hour private meeting in a neutral motor home here, emerged shaking hands, and vowed to join forces for clearer guidelines on lapping and overtaking, especially in the rain.

Coulthard and his team, McLaren Mercedes, will now feel a little easier going in to Sunday's Italian Grand Prix in Ferrari's homeland. McLaren's other driver, Mika Hakkinen, leads Schumacher by seven points.

Schumacher, who in the heat of the moment at Spa accused Coulthard of trying to kill him, called for a meeting last week, which was brokered by the Austrian, Alexander Wurz, a spokesman for the Grand Prix Drivers' Association.

Schumacher left the meeting smiling and then, in more serious mood, reflected on the fateful incident when he ran into the back of Coulthard. "Initially it was not so clear," he said. "After looking at it, it was an unfortunate situation but I wouldn't say again he did it purposely to get me out of the race."

Schumacher declined to reveal if he had apologised to Coulthard, insisting he did not intend the saga to develop into a comedy or theatre. "It was the idea of both of us to talk. I know David quite well and there was no point in keeping this going. It was just a question of the right opportunity and I am happy it is now sorted.

"I can't remember ever losing control in that way and hope it will never happen again. It was a natural reaction to the circumstances. But I never would have hit him, I have never hit anyone."

Coulthard, who was given a hostile reception by Ferrari fans at testing here last week, said: "We have cleared the air and discussed a number of matters which we intend to put to the other drivers and FIA [the governing body]. I saw things differently to him and what he said at the time was hurtful because it questions your integrity.

"But I'm thick-skinned, I'm a big boy. I'm prepared to go out and battle with the best. It's not a war, it's a sport. I'm happy to fight wheel to wheel with him on the track as I always have done in the past and I'm sure it will be fair.

"The Ferrari fans are very passionate about their team and Formula One and it would be great to have that passion at all the races. Sometimes they jeer or whistle at us but it's very tame in Formula One compared with what footballers take. Look at David Beckham."

Jordan formally announced that next season Damon Hill would be partnered by Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the man he gave way to at Williams. The German's place at Williams is to be taken by his compatriot Ralf Schumacher, released by Jordan in an out-of-court settlement.

"This is the ideal line-up for us," the team owner, Eddie Jordan, said. "I tried to sign Heinz-Harald two years ago and he may settle better in our team situation than he did at Williams."

Hill, who gave Jordan their first Grand Prix victory at Spa, said: "This is not a rest home for ex-Williams drivers. Some drivers flourish in certain environments and some don't. Frentzen obviously has a lot of talent."

Frentzen described Jordan as a team for the future. "I especially like their power. They have good engineers and they have great support from Mugen-Honda," he said. "It's a very good combination. I don't want to make any rash promises but I think we are going to be a good, strong team next year."

He thought the new arrangements for himself and Ralf Schumacher provided a perfect solution for both of them. "Basically we have swapped," he explained. "Ralf wants to drive for Williams and I want to drive for Jordan - so as you can see it is a swap."

But he added: "It remains to be seen who will get the better end of the deal."