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Motor racing: Time for Coulthard to move out of neutral

David Tremayne says that the Scot must prove his ability to compete
IT TOOK less than a second of the Brazilian Grand Prix for David Coulthard's hopes of a strong start to the season to stall as embarrassingly as his Mercedes engine just had. Going into this weekend's San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, the 27-year-old Scot has no points on the board and his back to the wall. "I know what I have to do this year," he said before the season began in Melbourne last month. "And I intend to come out fighting."

But so far he has not been punching hard enough. It is now five years since the tragic events at Imola thrust him on to the F1 stage as Ayrton Senna's replacement at Williams, where he showed sufficient speed and flair to win the Portuguese GP. Ron Dennis then partnered him at McLaren with Mika Hakkinen, the man most believe comes closest to Michael Schumacher on sheer speed. Initially Coulthard thrived as he and the Finn rode a seesaw; one week one of them would be up, the other down. The next race the status quo would be reversed. On several occasions, notably Canada in 1997, Coulthard had it made until mechanical gremlins singled him out.

Yet there were underlying factors which continually suggested that Hakkinen was Dennis's golden boy, the chosen one to whom Coulthard must defer. But this was not Ferrari, where Schumacher's status over his team-mate Eddie Irvine has never been in doubt. At McLaren, the most corporately obsessive team in the paddock, it had to be seen to be an even playing field, even if insiders suggest that on more than one occasion Coulthard had to back off when he was running quicker than Hakkinen. In Germany in 1997, as the two McLarens chased one another, Coulthard was allegedly slowed on team orders because with one planned pit-stop it was clear that his pace would take him ahead of the Finn, who was scheduled to stop twice. Later that year, in the dramatic race in Jerez where Jacques Villeneuve clinched his world crown, Coulthard was forcibly instructed over the radio to make way for Hakkinen. The Finn won his first grand prix that day.

Since then Hakkinen has had things pretty much his own way, and last year his superior consistency won him the world championship and left Coulthard floundering. And as Ferrari's challenge increased and Hakkinen's advantage came under threat, Coulthard was obliged to ride shotgun. By the end of the season the Sir Galahad,who had obligingly handed back the lead to Hakkinen in the opening race in Australia after the Finn pitted by mistake, was looking a little shop-soiled.

Heading for Imola, the sole race he won last season, Coulthard acknowledges that his season had better kickstart itself, pretty damn quick, if he is not to be thrown yet again into the sort of supporting role that could jeopardise his future.

"Most of last year I was doing the lap times, I was qualifying and racing well, but sometimes that got lost due to the fact that I wasn't the main contender," he said. "What I did got lost behind Mika's fight with Michael. People should remember that for the second half of the season I was working solely to help Mika win the world championship."

Teamwork became ever more an issue as Ferrari put the squeeze on. "No one could count against McLaren their desire to get back up and win the championship again," Coulthard pointed out. "And they had to do whatever they needed to do in order to achieve that. Outsiders probably wouldn't believe that the team spirit could be so strong between two drivers. Both of us had a genuine chance to fight for the title, to begin with."

Dennis admits to the special relationship between himself and Hakkinen, forged from the problems they endured together since 1994, and the Finn's near-fatal accident in Adelaide at the end of 1995. It cannot do Coulthard's psyche much good, but Dennis insists: "Both Mika and David will start on a level playing field and this status will only change in the event that a situation similar to last year's arises."

For all his disappointment, Coulthard remains upbeat and objective, a smart driver able to see the big picture. "The reality is that the world championship represents everything we are racing for as a team. Going against any team requests would be a quick way out. I'm with the best team, but in any case you need an engine and you need a car; I've said it before, I'd look pretty silly sitting on the grid with just my pyjamas and no car to race. Last year, if you like, I was investing in the future."

When Hakkinen clinched his title in Suzuka last year, his first words as he embraced his partner were: "Next year it's you." Now, as he heads to Imola, Coulthard must start to make the investment pay off.