Motor Racing: Coulthard ready to show loyalty

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The Independent Online
PARTNERSHIPS ARE dubious affairs in Formula One but two Britons were pledging loyalty and togetherness with their other halves here yesterday.

David Coulthard, the Man Friday of this championship saga, was again fastest in practice for tomorrow's Hungarian Grand Prix and then promised to move over should he be required to, and help ease the path of his team-mate at McLaren-Mercedes, Mika Hakkinen.

Next door at Jordan, Damon Hill was a satisfied sixth and then took up the happy families theme by urging his team to conclude contract negotiations with himself and Ralf Schumacher and ensure that they remained in tandem for next season.

Jordan want to pay Hill less than this year so they can afford to give Schumacher the extra money he is seeking.

Coulthard's propensity to find his rhythm on the first day of practice only to cede advantage through the course of the weekend has become a feature of grands prix recently, and the trend has put paid to any realistic prospect the Scot had of winning the championship.

Hakkinen heads Ferrari's Michael Schumacher by 16 points, with Coulthard a further 18 points adrift. Acknowledging this scenario with just five races remaining, Coulthard, already signed by McLaren for next year, is prepared to help Hakkinen, who was second yesterday. Schumacher was third, suggesting the anguish of Hockenheim is behind him and he will again represent the sternest competition for the McLarens.

"I don't think it would be strange if the team asked me, or unfair to ask me, given the position in the championship, to support Mika," Coulthard said. "Looking at it from the team's point of view, it makes sense. They want a one-two, and they would prefer the one to be Mika.

"I want to win races. That's why I'm in Formula One. I'm not here to finish second. But unless something unforeseeable happens I'm not going to win the championship this year. You have to be realistic.

"Michael and Ferrari had a bad race in Germany, but he qualified well here last year and I would expect him to provide us with the strongest opposition in this race. I still think, though, we will have the edge.

"I think I go well on Fridays because I get dialled into the circuit straight away. Unfortunately, I've not been able to keep it up over the weekend. Perhaps I can change that here."

Hill's fourth place in Germany, ahead of the Schumacher brothers, buoyed his confidence and he is optimistic of following up with another place in the points here. That would no doubt give him a little more muscle in his negotiations with Jordan.

Eddie Jordan is juggling his resources, but contends he cannot change the laws of mathematics: "Two twos will go into four but four twos won't."

The convenient solution would be for Hill to accept something less than the pounds 5m he is receiving this year and free it to be added to the pounds 1m currently being paid to his team-mate.

Schumacher's manager, Willi Weber, who also handles the affairs of elder brother Michael, has also been involved in discussions with Williams and the new British American Racing team, and is endeavouring to double his younger client's income. Schumacher has strengthened his hand by finishing in the points at the last three races.

Hill continues to express his confidence that an agreement can be reached, maintaining he and Schumacher give the team the ideal combination to sustain their rate of progress. The former champion said: "We have a good pairing here and I'd like us to stay together. Ralph is quick and getting better all the time. If he keeps pushing me that's no bad thing.

"If I can't hold my own against somebody who's 23 then it's time to stop, but there's no evidence of that yet."

Schumacher was a couple of places down on Hill yesterday, but has been the more consistently quick in qualifying and Eddie Jordan is eager to keep him on board. A pounds-for-points arrangement could provide the payment compromise which Hill could accept as a solution to his problem, and ultimately the team's sponsors may have the decisive say - and input. Jordan anticipates making an announcement at next month's Italian Grand Prix.

"I've always said I want to support the drivers and I want continuity, and that hasn't changed," Jordan said. "I want to keep the same partnership but maybe we'll have to wait until Monza.

"People raise their eyebrows when we put Damon and Ralph together, given Damon's history with Michael. Damon might have been suspicious but any doubts have been dispelled and they work well together."

Looking to business here, Hill said: "We are within touching distance of the quickest cars and looking good. Practice can be deceptive but I am fairly confident there is something to go for in this race. It is the acid test, because on a similar track at Monaco we performed badly. A good showing here would confirm we are on the right track."

Jacques Villeneuve indicated that Williams' recovery can be consolidated with fourth place yesterday. Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari, was fifth and Johnny Herbert, in a Sauber, was 11th.