Motor racing: Make or break time for Coulthard

Motor racing: Heat on McLaren's Scottish driver as Formula One returns to the grid in Melbourne on Sunday
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The Independent Online
By Derick Allsop

FOUR MONTHS on they are ready to resume hostilities, and it is as if nothing happened save for a deep intake of breath. Formula One acknowledges McLaren-Mercedes are out in front and that Ferrari are their only serious challengers.

They could be wrong, but that is unlikely. They know their business and they have watched in trepidation, then dismay, as McLaren redesigned and unleashed their new car.

It looked even better than the 1998 model, which brought the team the constructors' championship and, in the hands of Mika Hakkinen, the drivers' title too.

Stable regulations - apart from a fourth groove on the front tyres - should mean a bunching of the competitors, and the scramble for places in the points may well be more frantic and engaging than last year. All the evidence in pre-season testing, however, suggests McLaren have retained their advantage, and that Ferrari or, more specifically, Michael Schumacher, should be a step ahead of the rest.

The sports promoters anxiously await the opening round of the season, Sunday's Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne, for confirmation that Schumacher, at least, will be capable of pushing McLaren.

For all the German's less acceptable traits, he has cajoled inferior equipment to the wire these past few championships and provided Formula One with an improbable spectacle to flaunt before its enormous audience.

Hakkinen v Schumacher Part II has global box-office appeal but British consumers would doubtless welcome more prominent roles from their team- mates, David Coulthard and Eddie Irvine respectively.

Since Northern Ireland's Irvine is employed as a No 2 and frankly does not rank in the same league as Schumacher it falls to the Scotsman, Coulthard, to bring a little variety to the show.

Whether or not Coulthard has it in him to challenge for the championship has been one of the main discussion points in the build-up to the season.

Last year he was, in football parlance, chasing the game from the moment he honoured an agreement with Hakkinen and slowed to allow the Finn through to win in Melbourne. By the midway stage of the season he had conceded it was not to be his championship and committed his support to Hakkinen's cause.

Coulthard's critics contend he is simply not fast enough. His admirers emphasise his misfortune in the first half of last year when breakdowns sabotaged some of his strongest races, and they remind us that he finished the 1995 season outpacing his team-mate at Williams, Damon Hill, who went on to become champion in 1996, by which time Coulthard had joined McLaren.

That might, of course, say more about Hakkinen's talent than anything else, but it is fair to counter that Coulthard is no slouch. Those prepared to take an objective view suspect his failing so far has been a matter of application rather than ability.

His compliance with the pre-race deal in Australia is cited as proof that he lacks the ruthless instincts of a true winner, a champion in the making. His ready smile, good manners and pleasant demeanour are presented as damning evidence. It is widely supposed he should be meaner, more arrogant, more aggressive, more selfish.

Coulthard defends himself with a pragmatic: "I am what I am." And he adds: "Such talk is ridiculous."

He does acknowledge he has to be more consistent but figures that, since he is not yet 28, he is still learning, still improving. He calculates that Hakkinen, two and a half years his senior, is unlikely to be quicker this season.

There is also a school of thought that Hakkinen, having achieved the sport's ultimate goal, may suffer some reaction; that he might be less motivated, less inclined to make that crucial but risky manoeuvre.

The signs over the past few weeks indicate the contrary, that Hakkinen could be more formidable than ever, buoyed by self-confidence and fuelled by a new-found pride. He claimed the most significant pre-season prize, beating Schumacher by almost half a second in a test at Barcelona.

Coulthard maintains he is under no additional pressure this season, but time is not on his side. Others, even those prepared to take the objective view, sense his patience may be misplaced. Unless he produces the genuine championship challenge he aspires to he could be seeking another team at the end of the season, and that most assuredly does amount to additional pressure.

Over the course of the past couple of years McLaren have approached Hill and made offers to Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, a strange kind of endorsement of their faith in Coulthard. He will ignore the warnings at his peril.

Hill, beginning his second season with Jordan, ought to find himself embroiled in the fight expected to rage behind the main event. His victory in the Belgian Grand Prix, ahead of his then team-mate Ralf Schumacher, propelled the team to fourth place in last year's constructors' championship.

If they are to go one better they must overcome Ralf Schumacher's new team, Williams, a tough but not impossible mission. Williams are using Renault customer engines for a final year before joining forces with BMW and have to acquaint themselves with not only the younger Schumacher but also with Alessandro Zanardi, the Italian returning to Formula One with two Champ Car titles on his CV.

Frank Williams has admitted the team's tumble from the top of the pile last season was a "humiliating" experience and they will be pushed further down the order only with great difficulty.

Benetton held third place in the early stages of last season but faded badly. They parted company with their team principal, David Richards, and finished the year a timid fifth. This is a big championship for the team and their much vaunted young drivers, Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz.

Stewart-Ford are another team required to improve their performance this season. To that end they have reorganised the team structure, brought in Johnny Herbert to partner Rubens Barrichello, and developed what should be a more competitive, car-engine package.

Jackie Stewart's team will do well to top the "second division", company that Formula One's newest entrants, British American Racing, vow to leapfrog at the first attempt.

A team that can sign the former champion, Villeneuve, should not be taken lightly. However, more seasoned hands at this game warn them the road ahead is more demanding than they appear to have bargained for, and they may learn a little humility the hard way.

If nothing else, BAR have managed to stir a few emotions during the dark months of inactivity, and that global audience will be hoping for more attacks on their senses through the season proper.

A stern defence of the title by Hakkinen seems inevitable, while Schumacher can be relied upon to demonstrate his genius. The onus is on Coulthard to provide a new twist to the tale.