Motor racing: Coulthard questions the fitness of Irvine

EDDIE IRVINE has the eight- point lead and the momentum yet he remains cautious about his prospects and the rival camp suggested yesterday that he might not be fit - in the purely physical sense - to sustain his championship challenge here.

The Hungarian Grand Prix is recognised as one of the most gruelling on the tour and Irvine confronts a test of his stamina as well as his driving ability as he continues his quest to beat Mika Hakkinen and deliver Ferrari their first title in 20 years.

Michael Schumacher, the man scheduled to head the cause of the Italian team, demonstrated his pre-eminence in both categories to win the race last year. But Hakkinen's team-mate at McLaren-Mercedes, David Coulthard, wondered aloud whether Irvine can pose the same threat on Sunday.

Coulthard, insisting he is not out of the frame despite the fact that he trails Irvine by 22 points, said: "I would be more nervous of Michael than Eddie on this circuit, purely because Michael appears to be fitter than Eddie. I could be wrong, but if you look at their times in past years Michael has been up to a second a lap quicker than Eddie here.

"Because there are so many corners, and high speed corners at that, you have to work hard all the time and it is usually very hot."

McLaren's errors and tricks of fate have conspired to undermine Hakkinen's defence of the championship and, purely on the law of averages, the drivers feel their luck has to change.

Coulthard said: "So many things have gone wrong you have to ask, `Why us?' But we should be first and second here and I am confident a McLaren driver will be champion. There are six races left and we have to go for maximum attack."

That need for all-out assault, Coulthard argues, renders team orders injudicious. Hakkinen, fortunate to escape unhurt when a tyre blew in Germany 12 days ago, will settle for a trouble-free race, secure in the knowledge he has the means to deny Irvine a third consecutive victory.

The Finn, just returned from a one-week holiday sailing off Corsica, said: "I was very lucky to get out of the accident at Hockenheim in one piece. Things that have happened in the last three races have been difficult and challenging psychologically. We've had so much bad luck it's not normal. But we still feel very strong."

Irvine senses as much, and approaches this race almost as a damage limitation exercise rather than another stride towards the championship.

The Ulsterman said: "The only way we can win the title is if we keep it simple and don't make mistakes. In the last couple of races we've managed to do that, but it could turn around here. I'll be disappointed if I'm 30 seconds behind him, but I'll feel better if I'm right up his gearbox. Expectations have changed. I'm looking for three in a row. And it should have been three already if I hadn't made a mistake at my pitstop at Silverstone. But that is one of only two mistakes we've had this season. I think our car should go quite well in Hungary and I like the track as well. It's a track where you can really drive the car and throw it around. It's a fun place to drive."