Motor racing: Coulthard confident of coping with rivals

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IF IT comes down to temperament, you sense it would be no contest. David Coulthard is as likely to lose his head in the domestic duel with Mika Hakkinen as Des Lynam would be perplexed by a missing cue card.

Championship points may be won in the mind as well as on the track these coming months and Coulthard is unsurprisingly self-assured that he will cope with the psychological challenge.

The balance shifted when Coulthard won at Imola, a fortnight ago, and climbed to within three points of his McLaren-Mercedes team-mate. Victory in Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix would take the 27-year-old Scotsman to the top of the standings and, crucially, undermine the Finn's confidence.

Coulthard, conscious of the opportunity, said last night: "I hope my temperament may give me the edge over Mika. I've got to look for his weaknesses and play on that.

"The last two races have helped a lot. I think he probably felt he would remain quicker but that hasn't happened. His strength is that he has usually been quicker than his team-mate but what has happened in the last two races might gnaw at his self-belief and I've got to keep doing that. The important thing is to keep on top of him. We are so close it could go either way."

Coulthard's superior speed in Argentina and his lights-to-flag win in the San Marino Grand Prix have given the championship an entirely different complexion.

There remains, however, another dimension to this series and Coulthard is aware a McLaren squabble could be exploited by Michael Schumacher. The German, driving an inferior Ferrari, is only three points further back, and his team promise imminent improvements to the car.

Schumacher's team-mate, Eddie Irvine, emphasised the danger to the McLaren pair, saying: "I think Michael has a very realistic chance of the championship. The McLaren drivers are taking points off each other. Our start hasn't been as bad as it might have been, but we certainly need to improve."

Coulthard countered: "If we are finishing one and two, then we are taking points off Michael. It's only a problem if he beats one of us."

That problem would eventually force McLaren to concentrate their efforts on one of their drivers. Coulthard is optimistic he can avoid such an elimination, but would prefer it not to come to that.

"I want to race fair and square," he said. "Formula One races should be about a battle out there. People shouldn't view it as Michael against the two of us, but the three of us."

Coulthard extended his call for a level playing field by suggesting that if, in the future, he were to partner Schumacher, he would not care to accept No 2 status, as Irvine has.

"I believe I deserve to race on an equal footing with anyone. I've proved my speed and that I can win races. People probably feel Mika is naturally quicker, but I say please look at the performances."

Coulthard says he knows this circuit better than Silverstone, such has been the team's test programme here, and McLaren, again, start the weekend as favourites. Williams patently do not expect a significant improvement, with Heinz-Harald Frentzen saying: "We should be in better shape in the next races, but here we have to bite on the problem we have."