Motor Racing: Dennis has faith in Coulthard

Canadian Grand Prix: McLaren chief eases driver's anxieties with robust endorsement of status
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DAVID COULTHARD will have one less thing to worry about when he sits on the start-line for tomorrow's Canadian Grand Prix, after his team chief, Ron Dennis, yesterday offered a robust endorsement of his contribution to McLaren's efforts.

Coulthard's performances came under the microscope when his team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, beat him to the World Championship crown last year, and again this season after the Finn has been consistently faster. At the beginning of the year the 28-year-old Scot vowed to come out fighting, "because Michael [Schumacher] was challenging us so strongly last season, from the midpoint onwards I was obliged to play a supporting role to help Mika's campaign."

But while Hakkinen's chase of Schumacher so far this year has underlined his status as champion, Coulthard has come in for strong criticism. In particular, his failure to win the San Marino GP in Imola, after attempting to overtake intransigent backmarkers, placed a question mark over his prospects of staying with McLaren beyond 1999.

Dennis outlined a very different viewpoint yesterday, however, while also making it clear he had no intention of hiring Eddie Irvine.

"David's position within the team has never been more secure," he said. "I believe that he has raised his game season on season, and he is doing everything you would expect of a guy who is struggling to come to terms with our failures. We have had some difficult initial races this season, and most of our unreliability problems have been focused on David's car."

He was also quick to defend the incident in Imola when Coulthard's attempts to lap Olivier Panis were generally adjudged to have been tentative at best.

"The only question mark of any description is: `Should David have been more aggressive at Imola?' And the answer is: `He shouldn't have had to be.' That was my position then, and it's my position now. If the drivers who were in front of him had observed the blue flags, it wouldn't have been an issue. The fact is that he slid off the road momentarily having been forced off line, and that cost him time, so that was a clear example of it not being a particularly smart thing to do to get aggressive in the overtaking manoeuvre. At the time I was supportive of that drive and I still am. Overall his performance this year has been as good, if not better, than all of his performances last year."

Coulthard has an impeccable record on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Two years ago he was leading comfortably when Dennis brought him in for a precautionary pit stop, against his own wishes. While in the pits his McLaren developed a clutch problem, just as the race was being red-flagged after Panis had crashed heavily. Last year he was edging away from Schumacher's Ferrari when his McLaren suffered gearbox failure. On both occasions Schumacher went on to win.

"David has always had exceptional races here," Dennis continued. "Each time the equipment has failed him. I am comfortable that, whatever the outcome of Sunday's race, he will continue to deliver."

Coulthard's position of late has not been helped by the stance of rival Irvine. Last week an Italian magazine quoted the Ferrari driver as saying that he is better than the Scot: "Than Coulthard? Certainly, I've never had any doubts that. He is in a very weak position. His ratings are going down race after race."

Dennis is too old a hand in the F1 game to play tit for tat, and couched his response in typically reluctant fashion. "I take great exception when other drivers' opinions, wishes and desires are voiced in such a way that throws doubt on our commitment to either David or Mika," he said. "We are completely committed to them both. I can see no way that they will not be our drivers again next year."

In yesterday's free practice Irvine stole the show with a bullish display, resisting the efforts of his team-mate Schumacher throughout. Coulthard, meanwhile, settled for a comfortable second place, ahead of Schumacher, Alesi, Fisichella, the impressive returnee Ricardo Zonta and Hakkinen.

CANADIAN GRAND PRIX (Montreal) Leading provisional practice times: 1 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1min 20.576sec (197.522 kph); 2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 1:20.664; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:21.276; 4 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber 1:21.510; 5 G Fisichella (It) Benetton 1:21.724; 6 R Zonta (Bra) BAR 1:21.810; 7 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 1:21.950; 8 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan 1:22.002; 9 J Villeneuve (Canada) BAR 1:22.021; 10 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart 1:22.167.

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