Motor racing: Coulthard's seat looks safe

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DAVID COULTHARD should soon discover the depth of McLaren-Mercedes' forgiveness. All the indications are that it will run to a contract for next season.

The beleaguered camp have already accepted Coulthard's apology for shunting his team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, out of contention for victory in Sunday's Austrian Grand Prix here. They know the best way of endorsing that support would be to now re-employ him.

McLaren are planning to announce new agreements with their drivers, perhaps before next Sunday's German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, and Coulthard's "nightmare" race will apparently not cause a late change of mind.

Ron Dennis, the team principal, said: "That does not affect in any way what we do next year. Why should it? It's nothing to do with next year. David could and should have won the race to put him in the position to have a real go at the world championship, but he has closed the gap to two points."

Coulthard's second place and Hakkinen's charging third served to trim the Finn's in-house advantage to 16 points. However, another lapse by the Scotsman in the middle of the race ceded the win to Ferrari's Eddie Irvine, who now stands just two points behind Hakkinen.

A downcast Coulthard will require all the moral support he can muster. He spurned another opportunity for victory in the San Marino Grand Prix, but on the credit side he has endured several mechanical failures without complaint and appeared to be finding his best form when beating Irvine to the flag in the British Grand Prix.

"I don't believe Sunday's race should affect my future," Coulthard said. "I'd be very surprised if one race made a difference. I've apologised to Mika and to the team, and I've acknowledged publicly that I made a mistake. I've suffered in the past because of problems on the car and I've also helped Mika in the past. We do things as a team and if Ron is publicly giving me his support it is no less than I would expect of him."

Coulthard will be comforted, too, by the backing of Mercedes' motor sport chief, Norbert Haug. "David admits the incident was his fault and he was destroyed," Haug said. "But we have told him to forget it. That is now in the past. We have let him down on a number of occasions and he has always been strong about it. I admire him and respect him for that, and also as a driver.

"I do not expect any driver changes for next year. I hope things stay as they are. We still have a few issues to sort out."

Those almost certainly involve the terms of Hakkinen's new contract. As world champion and title leader - and with Michael Schumacher committed to Ferrari - he may never be in a stronger bargaining position. Hakkinen is understood to be seeking pounds 8.5m a year, and may want guarantees of a long-term role in Mercedes' affairs. Schumacher has a similar, ambassadorial pledge from Ferrari.

Coulthard, on the other hand, will presumably be content to keep his job with a modest rise. It is thought his retainer would be in the region of pounds 3m. Dennis has rejected the option of team orders to fortify Hakkinen's championship defence and Haug suggests the driver is capable of accomplishing the task without overt assistance from Coulthard.

"Mika is flying so perhaps he doesn't need team orders anyway," Haug said. "Driving as he is he deserves to be world champion. You have to be fair and it's not easy to keep these guys motivated."

Irvine's immediate motivation is the championship but he is also mindful of his stock in the market place and that will have risen again after his second win of the season. All weekend the impression was that Ferrari were ready to part company with him, while he has been saying he does not wish to spend the rest of his life as Schumacher's No 2.

He is said to want pounds 6.5m a year and, at the very least, joint No 1 status. Ferrari are unwilling to accommodate him on either count. Ford, new owners of Stewart, are obvious contenders for his signature, the more so since Rubens Barrichello is seemingly infatuated with the lure of Ferrari.

Ford are determined to be major players in Formula One and are expected to confirm plans to run their team under the prestigious and evocative Jaguar banner.

Jordan, requiring a replacement for the retiring Damon Hill, might be bidders for the Ulsterman as long as their sponsors come up with additional funding, as they did to secure the signing of the former champion. Eddie Jordan has been looking at younger, less expensive options, such as the Italian Jarno Trulli, currently with Prost-Peugeot. He has also spoken to Coulthard and could offer him a new home should McLaren decide to release him after all.

Ferrari's plans are complicated by Schumacher's injury. They will need assurances about his recovery before they make firm arrangements with any other driver.