Coulthard home and dry for the duel

It was the qualifying lap of the season, and David Coulthard knew it. The threat of rain at the beginning of the all-important session always sends every driver out hunting for a quick banker lap. At Hockenheim, where the moisture hangs in the air, trapped by the tall pines in a pall that makes visibility worse, the situation becomes even more critical.

It was the qualifying lap of the season, and David Coulthard knew it. The threat of rain at the beginning of the all-important session always sends every driver out hunting for a quick banker lap. At Hockenheim, where the moisture hangs in the air, trapped by the tall pines in a pall that makes visibility worse, the situation becomes even more critical.

As rain spots fell just before one o'clock yesterday afternoon everyone had their cars ready to go the instant the track opened. Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher made the most of their opportunities before the heavens really opened. The local hero annexed a temporary pole position with a lap of 1m 47.163sec, before Hakkinen shaded him by a thousandth of a second. But while the two recognised pacemakers of F1 were doing their thing, Coulthard - under-rated - was busy lapping a similar car in similar conditions, but in a very dissimilar time. His subsequent pole time of 1m 45.697, a whopping 1.465sec quicker than his team-mate and Schumacher, the man who refuses to acknowledge him as a serious rival, was the product of hunger, determination and sheer bottle.

It was a stunning performance that firmly threw his hat back into the ring as a title contender after he had dented his new "hardman" image by settling for second place to Hakkinen last time out in Austria.

"A perfect result," Coulthard beamed happily. "I was probably able to read the conditions better than everybody else and managed to be very quick in the middle sector." A modest assessment, given his margin of superiority. Had the Scot not gone tiptoeing so boldly across the high wire early in the session, Schumacher would have given the massive crowd what they came to see.

Yesterday morning his Ferrari left the track in the final corner and spun heavily into the safety wall, sustaining rear-end damage. But with his customary cool Schumacher shrugged off the occupational hazard. With just a minute of qualifying left he beat the chequered flag and embarked on a lap every bit as committed as Coulthard's. But the track was still in unyielding mood, and though he moved himself from fourth to second, displacing Giancarlo Fisichella (who had taken advantage of a brief spell to redeem himself after spinning on his first run), Coulthard remained untouchable.

Even so, the gods were smiling on Schumacher, for even as he was finishing his lap the rain came down again heavily enough to kill any chance Hakkinen had of moving himself higher than fourth place.

How, Coulthard was asked in a deliberately loaded question, would he be handling the start? "I'm going to take a strategy that ensures that I come out of the first corner in the lead," he responded, tongue-in-cheek. Even Schumacher smiled.

For a moment F1 did indeed appear to be "drinking coffee in a happy families" situation, the very thing Schumacher had disparaged so vitriolically two days earlier in a decidedly bad-tempered press conference in which he was called to account for the weaving tactics he likes to employ at starts to defend his own pole positions.

Twice this year - at Imola and Magny-Cours - Schumacher's penchant for violent changes of line, intended to discourage the overtaking aspirations of rivals when leaving the startline, have come close to causing accidents. In recent weeks Coulthard, Jacques Villeneuve and Eddie Irvine have all been highly critical of the former champion. Villeneuve said he lacked ethics, Irvine that he was a bully.

"Listen," Schumacher hissed, "I don't take these two guys seriously and I don't want to discuss their comments at all. There is no point in that for me. Let's talk about serious matters." But for others of a more safety-conscious mindset, this is a serious matter. Several of Schumacher's peers are convinced that it will take an accident before the FIA accepts that the so-called "one move" anti-blocking rule needs to be more of a regulation and less a piece of advice to be taken into consideration in the event of collisions on the track.

Coulthard and Villeneuve have voiced the fear there will be a shunt unless Schumacher accepts there are times when even he should back off. "So it is a rule so far, about what we can do," Schumacher said angrily, referring to the decision handed down by the FIA safety delegate Charlie Whiting.

"And he has said that as long as you make the move in a safe way, it's OK. Correct? So what are we doing here? Is this Formula One or is it drinking coffee in a happy family situation? We are racing in a very hard and fair way, in my view. Nothing else. It has always been like this. If you want to change the rule, we can discuss it. But this is the way it is. And please don't suggest that it is only me who is doing it.

"That is completely untrue, because if you look through the field you will see many drivers doing it. And some of the same drivers who complain about me are people who have also done it themselves, maybe not at the start but in other circumstances during the race."

Most observers have been hard pressed to identify which drivers he had in mind. The advantage lies with McLaren, but a new aerodynamic package has given Ferrari fresh hope. The race could go either way. "It will be close," Coulthard conceded. "But I want 10 points."

Precedent for a McLaren one-two came yesterday afternoon when their junior team dominated the F3000 race. Tomas Enge, of the Czech Republic, scored the first high-level international win for an Eastern European with a last-ditch success over Tomas Scheckter, the younger son of the former world champion Jody.

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