Motor racing: McLaren fair play benefits Irvine

Belgian Grand Prix: Coulthard's victory over Hakkinen in absence of team orders aids Ferrari's pursuit of title
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The Independent Online
DAVID COULTHARD presented himself as a credible world championship contender here yesterday, much to the chagrin of his McLaren-Mercedes team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, and the gratitude of Ferrari's Eddie Irvine.

Coulthard emerged from another potentially costly skirmish with Hakkinen at the first corner of the Belgian Grand Prix, holding the lead, and from that moment his command was unchallenged. Hakkinen patently felt the Scotsman would defer and perhaps thought the team ought to instruct his partner to give way later. On both counts the Finn was disappointed and he had to settle for second place.

That was still enough to give him the lead in the drivers' championship table, by one point from Irvine. But the Ulsterman, fourth here, immediately behind Jordan-Mugen's Heinz-Harald Frentzen, would have paid good money for such a result after struggling all weekend to coax the best out of his car.

Now Coulthard, too, has title aspirations. With four races remaining, he is 14 points behind Hakkinen and in the frame of mind to carry the fight to him. Coulthard acknowledged responsibility for colliding with Hakkinen in Austria and has been vilified for lacking aggression in the past. This time he, rather than the champion, had the support of their team director, Ron Dennis.

Hakkinen was fortunate not to be penalised for jumping the start from his pole position. He, to his credit, stopped and then resumed a moment after the rest. By then Coulthard was ahead of him approaching La Source and turned in to find Hakkinen attempting to dive inside. They touched, Coulthard instinctively veered away, but still had the advantage existing the hairpin. The suspicion that Hakkinen was sulking in the car appeared reinforced by his reaction at the end. He offered no handshake of congratulation to his colleague and shunned the podium celebration.

Dennis said: "There was an atmosphere between the drivers, but it is very clear what happened. David made a better start, he was nearly a car's length ahead, coming into the first corner, and my view is that it was his line and Mika should have lifted. But Mika wants to be world champion, as does David. If you have a racing team the object is to let the drivers race. This philosophy has an inherent risk of things happening, but that is a price we will pay if we have to for our integrity. This was the correct result.

"Both drivers get the same support. They have to earn their race wins and world championships. The team is not going to step in at this stage and influence the outcome. If there was blame to be apportioned here, the blame was with Mika."

Dennis's honourable stance could spare the championship an ignominious finale. McLaren are back on song, while Ferrari without Michael Schumacher are woefully out of tune. If Dennis had shackled Coulthard here, Hakkinen would have had one hand on his second title. The Finn said: "It was an experience and not very pleasant at the start. I did expect to be further ahead in the championship after this race but I'm not upset."

The message, though brief, was clear. So was Coulthard's conscience. The Scotsman said: "I wasn't thinking about being aggressive. I had a good start and Mika had a bad one. When he came inside me we did touch and I turned away. In fact, I expected him to take the lead. But there were no team orders and I didn't expect any. In the end it was easy and I was able to slow down a little going through Eau Rouge, which is good for the heart. It was a very important race for me. I do now think I can win the championship."

As in Hungary, a fortnight ago, Irvine could not match the pace of the McLaren, and here he feared one or two other teams might have been faster. An excellent start propelled him from sixth to fourth and there he remained, relieved to learn of the ongoing confirmation of McLaren's sporting intent.

Irvine said: "Considering our situation today I'm happy I'm only one point behind in the championship. I thought the gap would be bigger."

Patrick Head, Williams's technical director, was equally appreciative of McLaren's philosophy, and critical of Ferrari's. He was angered by what he considered overt blocking tactics by Schumacher's understudy, Mika Salo, as he endeavoured to protect Irvine from attack by Ralf Schumacher.

Schumacher senior is testing at Monza this week with a view to returning at the Italian Grand Prix, on Sunday week, and Ferrari are in desperate need of his leadership and inspiration. The team now trail McLaren in the constructors' championship also.

Jordan consolidated their third place in the standings thanks to Frentzen's latest contribution and Damon Hill's point. Johnny Herbert careered out of the race with brake problems on his Stewart-Ford.

SPA DETAILS

(44 laps, 306.592 km, 190.55 miles)

1 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes

1hr 25min 43.057sec

(214.595kph,133.37mph).

2 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +10.469sec

3 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen

Honda +33.433 sec

4 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari +44.948

5 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-Supertec

+48.0067

6 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen Honda

+54.916

7 M Salo (Fin) Ferrari +56.249

8 A Zanardi (It) Williams-Supertec +67.022

9 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas +73.848

10 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford +80.742

11 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife +92.195

12 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot +96.154

13 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot +101.543

14 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Playlife +117.743

15 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Supertec +1 lap

16 M Gene (Sp) Minardi-Ford +1

Did not finish:

17 P De La Rosa (Sp) Arrows, 35 laps completed

18 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford, 33

19 R Zonta (Bra) BAR-Supertec, 33

20 J Herbert (GB) Stewart-Ford, 27

21 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber-Petronas, 19

22 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows, no laps completed.

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