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MOTOR RACING: Coulthard presents case for opposition

THEY SAT together, the four contenders for the Formula One world championship, and only one of them played down his prospects here, leaving the others to advance their causes.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, whose victory in Italy 12 days ago left him within 10 points of the title leaders, believes his Jordan-Mugen will be less effective in the Grand Prix of Europe, to be contested on this slower, meandering circuit.

So that leaves three, and all are talking a good game. Mika Hakkinen, level at the top with Eddie Irvine, on 60 points, and David Coulthard, the outsider on 48, presented cases for enhancing their challenges.

Hakkinen remains the favourite, despite his costly and tearful exit at Monza. He has claimed 11 poles out of 13 and his McLaren-Mercedes is unquestionably the best and most versatile car in the field. Irvine, however, has somehow managed to maintain parity with a distinctly outperformed Ferrari and his new car ought to be better suited to the configuration here.

Coulthard must finish no lower than fourth if either Hakkinen or Coulthard wins this race, otherwise he is out of the equation. Team orders, which could be imposed, depending qualifying positions, would effectively scupper his course anyway. But the Scotsman goes into the race with the attitude he has nothing to lose and, in this bizarrely unpredictable season, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that circumstances could pave his way for a genuine tilt in the final two rounds of the championship, in Malaysia and Japan.

Hakkinen's most serious threat could come from within himself. He admitted he had struggled to overcome the setback of Italy and the psychological debris may still be cluttering his mind. The Finn said: "It was a disaster. It was very difficult to put it out of my mind. My emotions were high and I just lost it, I lost control.

"But you have to continue your life and look to the future. This is a new challenge and although I could be happier, I am all right. We are strong on every circuit and we've done extra testing. The car is very strong."

Irvine is content to nurture any doubts in Hakkinen's head, stressing the greater potential of the Ferrari on this circuit. The Ulsterman said: "It's now up to us to start performing. I think we'll do that here. We've had a five-day test and made good progress. This circuit suits us a lot better than the last two and even without the improvements we've made, I'm sure we'd be a lot better."

Coulthard can count on a competitive McLaren and hope he just happens to dial into one of his inspired days for this race.

"I'm not worried about my championship chances because I wasn't even in it early in the year," he said, "and it's only in the second half that I've come into it. I am in with a shout and if I win this race I will definitely have a chance. We can't say anything about team orders because as yet we have no plan to talk about."

Coulthard sensed the opportunity to pinch a few psychological points at Irvine's expense, saying: "I've got a better chance than Eddie, because I'm a better driver... I mean, I've got a better car."

Irvine, who can take it as well as dish it out, was unmoved. Whatever happens this season he has a three-year contract with Jaguar.

Frentzen is realistic about his prospects, saying: "We are not as good on the slower circuits like this."

He had a word of sympathy for Hakkinen: "There's nothing wrong with a driver showing emotion. Some people think it's a weakness but I think it shows you are human, so why not show that?"