David Coulthard has grown a little weary of hearing: "This is his best chance of winning the Formula One world championship''. However, even he is prepared to acknowledge that the forthcoming season just might be. Britain's only realistic challenger for the title will be embarking on his seventh tour of service with McLaren, starting in Australia on Sunday, but for the first time his team-mate will not be Mika Hakkinen and that, he believes, could significantly influence his prospects.
Hakkinen's strong bond with the team, forged in the emotional aftermath of the Finn's near-fatal accident at Adelaide in 1995, tended to cast Coulthard as the under-privileged relation in the McLaren camp. The team principal, Ron Dennis, made no apologies for the extended protective arm thrown around Hakkinen.
Coulthard, bright and well-adjusted, understood and made no complaint. He had to recognise also that Hakkinen developed into an outstanding driver and for a period was the only man capable of sustaining the challegne to Michael Schumacher. Hakkinen won the championship in 1998 and 1999.
And yet there were occasions when Coulthard felt deprived of sufficient care and attention to realise his own potential. Even last year, when he emerged as McLaren-Mercedes' main contender, crucial pit stops and strategic decisions appeared to favour Hakkinen.
That apparent preferential treatment failed to rekindle Hakkinen's flame and, when negotiations for a new contract broke down, he announced he would be taking a sabbatical this year. His countryman, Kimi Raikkonen, was lured from Sauber and Coulthard assumed the position of senior driver. Now, he senses, atonement and fulfilment could be at hand.
"I was definitely distracted a little by Mika's relationship with the team,'' Coulthard said. "And there were certain things on the track that didn't help me either. But things are different now. I feel more comfortable in the team environment.
"I signed for McLaren to have equal technical equipment and opportunity, and I've never questioned that. But there is more to it. The psychological aspect is also important. It's something you can't really put your finger on or quantify. It's not like mathematics, where two plus two equals four and that's it. And yet it is there and it does have an effect.''
Despite the constraints, Coulthard has resisted any natural impulse or hard-headed business incentive to crave deliverance. He has rejected offers of more lucrative contracts, reiterating his faith in McLaren. "There have been opportunities in the past to move on, and, yes, I could have earned more money,'' Coulthard said. "But the contract I have at McLaren is something I am very happy with, and that includes the financial terms. I am doing fine.
"My main consideration, though, has always been the capability to win races and championships, and I believe McLaren give me the best opportunity to achieve success.
"I do feel it is my destiny to win the championship one day. I have no doubts I have the ability. I have beaten Mika and Michael in individual races. Given the package, and the bit of luck I haven't had in the past, I know I can win the championship.''
There are those who do not subscribe to Coulthard's theories of deprivation and misfortune. They would argue that he has had ample opportunity and that, approaching 31, he is unlikely to find extra speed.
He counters: "I think the question is: Was everything working for me? I think it's a fact that I haven't had total support in every area. I need the right ingredients. All I've ever asked for is a level playing field. Last year it became clear to everyone at a fairly early stage of the season that our car wasn't quick enough.''
Coulthard was second in the 2001 championship yet so far behind Schumacher that the German had his fourth title wrapped up in Hungary, with four races to spare. Ferrari compounded McLaren's discomfiture with a third consecutive constructor's championship.
McLaren have responded with a car considered by Patrick Head, Williams' highly experienced and respected technical director, to be more radical than Ferrari's and "potentially a very strong contender".
Coulthard said: "The key thing for us was that the car had to be quicker, and it has shown in testing that it is quicker than last year's car. Step by step it will get better. We have time to develop it. Whether we have a championship-winning car I honestly can't say at this stage. No one can.''
What he and others do say with a degree of certainty is that the top three teams will be Ferrari, McLaren and Williams-BMW, just as they were last season. Not so predictable is the finishing order, and Coulthard believes that, as in football's Premiership, the money-laden team in red will encounter sterner opposition this time.
Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya won four races for Williams last season and are fancied by many to represent the more serious threats to Michael Schumacher. Raikkonen, gifted and precocious, just might be good enough to complicate Coulthard's ambitions, if not experienced enough to be a challenger for the title this year.
Coulthard said: "I think there's little to choose between the leading three teams and I expect them to trade victories. Williams have two very good drivers and I think the balance of power there will shift back and forth through the season.
"Kimi is quick and eager, but he is still in his learning period so any result he gets on the podium will be regarded as an excellent achievement. Nothing less than wins are expected of me.
"I think Sauber will be there or thereabouts as well. They look very good again. Ferrari don't have their new car for the first race and could have a lot more to think about this year. That will be good for Formula One.
"To keep something exciting you need change. People get fed up with the humdrum of life. Sport offers them a little bit of fantasy and when it's predictable it loses some of its appeal. But then if you manufacture change in sport it becomes Hollywood.
"Michael has won back-to-back championships and it's up to the rest of us to change the show by stopping him from winning it again. The history of Formula One demonstrates that no one stays at the top for ever. I really do see it being an exciting championship this season.''
Coulthard also has a clear vision of his own role in this road show. "In previous years things have been more of a blur, but I've been able to get my head around the job and keep track of things better for this year.
"I'm pretty relaxed. I feel good. As if I've been able to find myself. Everything looks calm. Instead of going through life on automatic pilot I've stopped, taken stock and set my goal. Whether I will be able to reach that goal this year, I can't say. All I can say is that I will try to get there, and that given the opportunity I can.''
* Juan Pablo Montoya has criticised Michael Schumacher's right to be regarded as the world's greatest driver. The Colombian said Schumacher owed his 53 grand prix victories to being in the best car. "If you put Michael in a Toyota, a Minardi or any car that is not a front-runner, then he wouldn't win," the Williams-BMW driver said of his Ferrari rival. "It is not a question of how good Michael is, but how good Ferrari are. It's not a question of just the driver, but the whole team from the engine manufacturer to the tyres. The car is more important than the driver."Reuse content