Suddenly they had a struggle on their hands and the spectacular scale of Michael Schumacher's victory for Ferrari was matched only by their own capitulation. In terms of reliability, performance and, crucially, strategy, they had been given a comprehensive hiding in Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix.
Any thoughts of a cruising formality - which in fairness appeared to beckon as Mika Hakkinen and Coulthard dominated the early stages of Sunday's race - were dispelled by the manner of Schumacher's retaliation. Coulthard, inheriting the responsibility of pursuing the German when Hakkinen's car encountered problems, watched in ever-distant dismay as the Ferrari pulled away.
The Scot was a figure of stunned disbelief. He had pledged his support to Hakkinen but could offer nothing. The Finn, able to salvage only sixth place, now has a fragile seven-point advantage with four races remaining. McLaren head for Silverstone this week and what becomes an even more important test programme. Ferrari, buoyed by a result they did not dare contemplate, go to work at Monza.
They meet again at Spa, on Sunday week, for the Belgian Grand Prix, a race that has assumed pivotal significance as the season enters its final quarter.
McLaren will want to know if a failed shock absorber really could have disabled Hakkinen's car to such an extent, why Coulthard could not keep in touch with Schumacher and how they allowed Ferrari, improvising with a three-stop strategy, to outwit them.
Coulthard complained his tyres were gone 15 laps from the end, but by then Schumacher had inflicted the damage. He had obliterated Coulthard's challenge with an extraordinary third sector that accommodated the extra stop with something to spare. Hakkinen has taken his occasional setbacks this year with philosophical restraint, and he will need to hold his nerve now as never before.
"This result has made the championship more exciting," was how Hakkinen chose to interpret events after he had the opportunity to reflect and prepare his message of defiance. "Formula One needs excitement," he persisted.
"It's down to seven points but I never though the title would be easy. You have ups and downs in motor racing and have to be able to cope. We'll look at what went wrong and hope to be in better shape for Spa. You can't expect things to go smoothly all the time.
"It was very disappointing not to be able to fight because the car was so difficult to drive, especially as there were so many of my fans at this race. But one point is better than no points, because it could be vital at the end of the season.
"We are testing this week and we have a lot of hard work to do. I'm confident we will be better at the next race."
Hakkinen and McLaren recovered from an uncertain mid-season spell which left him just two points clear but a championship run-in is uncharted territory for Hakkinen and Schumacher, twice world champion, is a master at applying pressure off the circuit as well as on it.
Schumacher is entitled to relish the prospect of Spa. The scene of his debut, in 1991, it has yielded him four wins since and on another, infamous, occasion he crossed the line first only to be disqualified because his car was deemed illegal.
He, too, will go about his business this week with added incentive, although it is difficult to imagine anyone could be better prepared for racing. Therein, perhaps, lies another explanation for his remarkable performance here.
Others, including Coulthard, looked drained after the race. Damon Hill, a creditable fourth for Jordan, admitted he was exhausted by the 77-lap ordeal in the heat. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, fifth in a Williams, was taken to hospital with dehydration.
Winning helps, of course, but Schumacher, having produced qualifying lap speeds during that decisive period of the race, was in his customary, energetic, bone-dry condition at the end. No driver is fitter for the job.
In the marketplace, Hill is still hoping to confirm he will be staying with Jordan, who in turn are endeavouring to retain Ralf Schumacher. The German has had talks with Williams, who have also been linked with Stewart- Ford's Rubens Barrichello. Johnny Herbert, disenchanted at Sauber, senses an opportunity to reinvigorate his career at Stewart.Reuse content