Motor racing: Imola's twists open up a three-force race

David Tremayne says Schumacher and Coulthard have driven back into the frame
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THE San Marino Grand Prix at Imola suggested that we really are going to have a three-way fight for the World Championship, just as it seemed that David Coulthard was in danger of falling by the wayside and out of the race.

Coulthard's victory - the fourth of his career - allied with the retirement of Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher's second place, could not have been better scripted if this was Sly Stallone's forthcoming Hollywood take on life in the fast lane.

After being brushed aside by Schumacher in Argentina, Coulthard was in danger of stumbling, but Imola brought him precisely the result he needed. The 27-year-old did exactly what he had to do by taking his car by the scruff of its neck and wringing pole position out of it, and then leading throughout the race. Some worry that he lacks the basic "bastardness" to win, but he proved equal to the task and signalled a clear warning.

Schumacher showed the battling qualities for which he is famous to finish in second in his Ferrari. "It was very obvious that David was just cruising. I was pushing, because you never know what might happen. I don't ever want to give anything away until the chequered flag falls, and that is what I did. But there wasn't anything I could do about him," Schumacher said.

A gap of 25 seconds between them had shrunk to 4.5sec by the time the flag fell to end the 62-lap race, but Coulthard was taking it easy with a gearbox that, the team could tell from the onboard telemetry, was overheating. "We didn't tell David, because we didn't want to worry him," the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, explained, and Coulthard himself was happier not to know. "If I had," he revealed, "I would only have been thinking about it all the time, and hearing all sorts of things that weren't really there to be heard."

These are tricky times for Ferrari (what times aren't?). There are rumours that the president, Luca di Montezemolo, is fighting for his autonomy within the camp that he brought within an ace of the World Championship last season. At the same time, he is ardently pursuing long-term contracts with the sporting director, Jean Todt - whom many expected might face an unjust axe after the 1997 defeat - and with Schumacher. Di Montezemolo makes no secret of his wish to retain the German for the remainder of his driving career.

At the same time, however, Schumacher has a clause in his contract which enables him to walk at the end of the year if he doesn't have a championship crown to wear, and it is obvious the direction in which he would head. Mercedes and McLaren personnel deny that any approach has been made to him, but it can only be a matter of time.

All of this adds spice to the contest. If Hakkinen or Coulthard win the championship, there is every chance that their pleasure may be diluted by the arrival of Schumacher, regardless of their achievement. It seems logical in such a situation that, whichever of them fails to take the crown, would face replacement by the German for 1999. If Ferrari fail to win, they can almost certainly kiss goodbye to Golden Boy. And if that happens, Ferrari's structure might well collapse. Once you have secured, then lost, the best driver in the business, recovery can be a very long and painstaking road, especially in a team already raddled with polemics.

Spain next weekend will favour McLaren and Mercedes again, and Hakkinen prefers such fast tracks. The Finn and the Scot are cast in the young lion roles that Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins played to the great Fangio back in 1957. They have the machinery to do the job, and the team with which to do it. But with Schumacher assuming Fangio's mantle, they will never be able to relax. Argentina was a graphic illustration of that. Whichever of them maintains the greater consistency and the stronger nerve is likely to emerge as champion. Thankfully, that issue is by no means clear-cut.