Motor racing: Drivers join Coulthard in battle over back-markers

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THEY ARE talking again of the uniquely demanding challenge here, but this time there is an additional concern, the re-emergence of the obstinate back marker.

It is an issue that is exercising the minds of all concerned in the build- up to Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix, a race in which overtaking is notoriously difficult.

The drivers will endeavour at their meeting this morning to clarify the rules on overtaking competitors a lap or more down, after the events at Imola, earlier this month, where David Coulthard complained that back- markers obstructed his path and swung the San Marino Grand Prix in favour of Michael Schumacher.

Coulthard's boss at McLaren-Mercedes, Ron Dennis, defended the Scotsman against charges he should have been more aggressive, and reaffirmed his faith in the driver's ability. Dennis also suggested some drivers deliberately held up opponents as payback for previous incidents and questioned their mental capacity.

Many of the outstanding drivers, Schumacher included, are renowned for carving through traffic. Coulthard's apparent problems with back-markers are widely perceived as a weakness. However, Dennis said: "I don't think it would have been fair on David to have told him to be aggressive. Those were not the circumstances to adopt an aggressive strategy. All drivers are different and I don't think he should change his style.

"People are quick to judge and forget. David has had some great races. He's got it in him to be aggressive when he needs to be. He is an extremely talented driver and has his place in our team because he is capable of winning races.

"There are those who make life more difficult then others. Drivers have memories. When a driver comes up behind them all sorts of things go through their minds. Some of them are lacking in grey matter between their ears - and there are a few of them out there."

Schumacher is among those who sympathise with Coulthard. He said that he, too, was held up at Imola as he advanced to the top of the world championship. He wants the Grand Prix Drivers' Association to demand strict enforcement of existing regulations, which stipulate a driver being lapped must move over after no more than three blue warning flags.

Coulthard confirmed the matter would be discussed before today's first practice session. "I'll be saying something about it," he said. "The problem of back-markers was bad a few years ago, then it got better, but it's bad again this year.

"I understand people don't want to lose a second because it's sprint, sprint, sprint all the way. But people should abide by the rules. If they don't, they should be penalised. It should cost them fines and points."

Coulthard does, however, concede he produced a substandard drive at Imola, but contends he will be stronger for the full distance run. "I know it was not my best race or performance," he said, "but it was my first full race since Japan, last November. I'm being honest, I'm not looking for excuses.

"I definitely think I'll be sharper for having done that distance. Now I want to channel my thoughts positively. I believe I can win here. I would be more confident if I had won the first three races, but there is no desperation about it. I'm only 10 points behind the leader of the championship. I feel relaxed, good and prepared."