Motor Racing: Coulthard emerges as a contender

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The Independent Online
DAVID COULTHARD'S cover is blown. He believes Mika Hakkinen, his McLaren-Mercedes team-mate and the championship leader, now recognises his emergence as a genuine contender and that the Finn has to defend his title on two fronts.

Hakkinen's second place in Belgium, 12 days ago, was sufficient to lift him to the top of the standings, by one point, from Ferrari's Eddie Irvine. However, Coulthard's victory in that race leaves him 14 points off the lead with four rounds of the championship remaining.

The Scotsman is on a roll, he is driving positively, and Hakkinen knows he cannot be discounted as they prepare for Sunday's Italian Grand Prix here. Coulthard suspects that, as much as the aggression he demonstrated at the first corner in Spa, infuriated Hakkinen and will generate renewed effort from the champion in this race.

"I think I've surprised Mika by coming into the reckoning," Coulthard said. "It was the realisation that it was getting quite tight that got to him at Spa. When someone is beaten they are unhappy, that's understandable. I certainly am. That's why I'm sure you'll see a fired-up Mika here. He'll be trying extra hard to extend his championship lead."

McLaren have done their utmost to put an end to the very public friction between their drivers with an in-house meeting. They studied footage of the first-corner incident in Belgium and apparently convinced Hakkinen he had no grounds for complaint.

Coulthard said: "It's standard practice for us to deal with these things internally. We looked at the video and it was clear I had done nothing wrong. Mika and I spoke and there is no problem between us. He has nothing to apologise to me for."

Hakkinen has publicly acknowledged the team were justified in allowing Coulthard to race but may now feel he has to confront a challenge he did not bargain for. Coulthard has accumulated 34 points from the last five races, compared with Hakkinen's 20. Coulthard said: "I do believe I can win the championship but 14 points is still a big gap. If I win here then I'll start thinking more about the championship. If I can bring the gap down to 10 points or less I'll certainly be working out the figures."

One theory circulating the Formula One paddock is that Ferrari, still deprived of Michael Schumacher's services, may be less than enthusiastic about supporting Irvine's cause, since the Irishman is bound for Jaguar next season.

Coulthard said: "I don't see that at all. It would be ridiculous for Ferrari not to want to win with Eddie. They've waited a long time, 20 years, for the championship, so they'll take it any way."

He added: "It's quite tight now in the championship but all I have to think about is this race. I'm relaxed about it and I think that goes for Eddie and Mika also. I don't analyse the situation - I just go out and race."

Rubens Barrichello, the Brazilian who replaces Irvine at Ferrari next season, admitted here yesterday that he would not have joint No 1 status with Schumacher.

He said: "I am a No 2 but perhaps more of a 1B. I could not come in and demand to be No 1. I have to drive the car and show what I am capable of doing.

"If I am, by accident, in front of Michael there would be no need for team orders. I would be the first to let him by. But if I am in front because I deserve to be, then I'm sure I would be allowed to win. I have to prove how good I am. This is the challenge for me. They give me the same equipment as Michael, so it is up to me."

Irvine is hoping that the large Italian support will get behind him despite the absence of Schumacher. "Racing in Monza for Ferrari is always a bit special," Irvine said. "This year will be even more special because it will be my last time in front of the tifosi."

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