Coulthard continues quest for excellence

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The Independent Online

All the plaudits raining down on Mika Hakkinen must have compounded David Coulthard's discomfort. Not that the Scotsman is the jealous or vindictive type. Indeed, there are those who believe he is too decent and honourable for his own good in the brutal world of Formula One.

All the plaudits raining down on Mika Hakkinen must have compounded David Coulthard's discomfort. Not that the Scotsman is the jealous or vindictive type. Indeed, there are those who believe he is too decent and honourable for his own good in the brutal world of Formula One.

Coulthard's principles on the track have been made evident through his well documented condemnation of Michael Schumacher's driving. He is also a team player, a factor which weighed in his favour when McLaren-Mercedes decided to retain him for yet another season. However, as he sees the championship again slipping out of his reach, he justifiably senses it is high time he adopted a more assertive approach to his racing if he is to give himself any realistic prospect of achieving his ambition.

Coulthard was an ineffectual, disconsolate fourth in Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix, rendered almost anonymous by the acclaim for his team-mate's stunning manoeuvre to beat Schumacher into second place. Hakkinen now heads the championship table by six points from the Ferrari driver, with Coulthard a further seven points adrift. Four grands prix remain: Italy, United States, Japan and Malaysia.

Worse still for Coulthard is the nagging feeling that critical tactical decisions by the team in the heat of battle are working against him and for Hakkinen. At Spa, McLaren were more hesitant than the other teams in calling in their cars for dry weather tyres. Hakkinen was kept out at least a lap too long, but Coulthard was delayed a further lap. Ron Dennis, the McLaren team principal, acknowledges it was a mistake that cost Coulthard an opportunity to claim third place.

Coulthard presumably did not question the team's judgement. He indicates he may do so in future. "I have to learn from what happened at Spa and try to understand what more I need to do to help the team make decisions," he said.

Dennis attempted to assuage Coulthard by reaffirming his commitment to giving the driver every chance to compete for the championship and insisting his cause was far from lost. "David's championship is not over," Dennis said. "It is just ridiculous for anyone to suggest that it is. There are still four races left, a long way to go, and anything can happen. Mika could have a non-finish and suddenly the situation changes completely. There are no team orders and won't be unless it is in the best interests of the team."

Coulthard, too, is endeavouring to talk a positive game. The chase resumes at a modified Monza, on Sunday week, when anything less than victory will surely scupper what little chance remains for Coulthard. He said: "I'm not giving up on the championship just because I had a bad weekend. There are still 40 points to go for. I won't be going to Monza just to score points. I'm looking to take all 10 points.

"I expect to have the opportunity to do so and things the team have told me in private make me very confident. I don't believe team orders will come into play. I'll be allowed to race and take my own chance. I'm going to Monza to do the best I can. I am not giving up on the title yet, although I know it is going to be very difficult to win it now."

Much of the in-paddock banter about No 1s, No 2s and team orders is frankly irrelevant anyway. The fact of the matter is that Hakkinen is almost as distinctly the superior driver at McLaren as Schumacher is at Ferrari. When a team is faced with a vital, even decisive, issue of preference, they will naturally go with their better prospect of success. Hakkinen has earned his standing at McLaren by virtue of his consistent results over a period of years rather than months.

The resurgence of the Finn - registering three wins in four races - following a mid-season lull has patently knocked back Coulthard. The body language delivers the tell-tale message that he fears he missed his moment. What will concern Coulthard now is the possibility that he may never be able to get the better of Hakkinen. They have now been together for five years and more grands prix than any other pair of drivers, and familiarity could breed only frustration for Coulthard.

Some distinguished voices within the sport have urged Coulthard to move on and try to reinvigorate his career with another team. He has rejected the advice, maintaining his best opportunity of fulfilment lies with McLaren. Alas for him, Hakkinen shows no sign of accommodating his aspirations.

FORMULA ONE STANDINGS

1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 74pts 2 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 68 3 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 61 4 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 49 5 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams 20 6 G Fisichella (It) Benetton 18 7 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR 11 8 J Button (GB) Williams 10 9 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan 7 10= J Trulli (It) Jordan 6 10= M Salo (Fin) Sauber 6 12 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar Racing 3 13= J Verstapppen (Neth) Arrows 2 13= P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows) 2 15 R Zonta (Bra) BAR 1

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