Coulthard loses his rhythm

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The Independent Online

It is a knack that David Coulthard seems to have perfected in a year that, perhaps only coincidentally, has been his most convincing since he came into Formula One back in 1994. Never worry about what might have happened, and move on to the next thing.

This season he has finished every one of the seven races, but at least twice ­ in Spain and in Monte Carlo a fortnight ago ­ his final points tally was a lot less than it should have been. By a conservative estimate, the failure of his McLaren-Mercedes to get off the line during the formation laps for both races cost him 12 points. That has dramatically benefited Michael Schumacher, the man who may yet destroy Coulthard's aspirations to follow Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart as Scottish world champions. The German is 12 points ahead.

Having risen to the occasion brilliantly to deprive Schumacher and his own McLaren team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, of pole position in Monaco, Coulthard was obliged to start from the back of the grid. At a stroke he went from hero to zero and worse, for he failed to overtake the rookie driver Enrique Bernoldi for the first 43 laps and moved up only when the young Brazilian made his pit stop.

For some it was a source of mirth to watch Coulthard's half-hearted attempts to pass, but what was he to do? Had he tried something that failed to come off, there would have been no points salvaged from a disastrous situation. As it was, he took home two. Damage limitation. Common sense. Coulthard is driving like a man with his mind on the title chase.

But yesterday neither he nor Hakkinen could find a good rhythm, and qualifying went the way of Schumacher and Ferrari. Right until the last minute, both Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli were also ahead of Coulthard, until a dramatic effort by the Scot saw him improve to third place. Hakkinen was eighth, behind his compatriot Kimi Raikkonen in the Sauber-Petronas.

Michael Schumacher put in a blistering lap at an island track where he has already won more times than any other driver and is now chasing a fifth Canadian triumph. His time of 1min 15.782sec was more than half a second faster than his sibling's Williams and he slashed two and a half seconds off his 2000 pole time of 1:18.439 in a session that was twice interrupted by crashes. Rubens Barrichello, in the other Ferrari, and the Sauber of Nick Heidfeld both slammed into the wall on the exit to the chicane before the start-finish straight.

Disappointing as qualifying might have been for McLaren, it is their inability to get both cars off the line that continues to trouble them, and that may well influence the outcome of the world championship struggle between Schumacher and Coulthard. At the back of every McLaren team member's mind is the knowledge that grid positions are rendered academic if the cars do not start properly, as in Monaco and Barcelona.

Coulthard gives a good impression of being above such concerns. "The problem in Monaco wasn't actually launch control," he admits, "it was an engine-management something or other. I don't know the technicalities of it all, but Barcelona was launch control and Monaco was just unfortunate. As I've said before, of all the hundreds of starts I've done using this system I've only had three failures. One was in testing and two have been in racing. That's just a bit unlucky, but we've tested extensively again and we're confident we've cured both the problems."

Encouraging words, but so were those from the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, in Austria, when he declared his team's start problems to be a thing of the past, only to have Hakkinen stranded on the line. Ferrari, by contrast, have not had aproblem in a raceso far.

Another 10 points for Schumacher here and further problems for Coulthard will seriously jeopardise the Scot's challenge. He needs a big score, preferably with the world champion scoring low or not at all. But there may be a further complication ­ in the form of Hakkinen. Dennis has made it clear that he will not yet impose team orders, even though the Finn has only four points to the Scot's 40.

"I think I've got every opportunity at McLaren to go for grand prix wins," the Scot says, "but it's not something I go to Ron to discuss ­ or Mika. How can worrying about what is a competitor help me get the best out of myself and the car and the people who have to work on making it as fast as possible? I just channel my energy towards things that I can influence."

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, just outside Montreal, is very demanding on brakes, which require adequate cooling. Parts of the circuits are very quick, particularly the approach to the hairpin, where Hakkinen locked up his front wheels yesterday morning before sliding into the gravel bed. It also places a premium on power and low drag, both areas in which Ferrari and McLaren are evenly matched. Fuel consumption is a key factor, too, and Coulthard believes McLaren have an advantage here which could enable them to run long first stints before making a single refuelling stop, just as they did when Coulthard last won, in Austria, and again at Monaco.

One thing Coulthard is resolutely ignoring is the animosity that has developed between McLaren and Jaguar over which of them can claim the services of McLaren's technical director, Adrian Newey. He has allegedly signed contracts with both teams

Jordan's test driver Ricardo Zonta has replaced Heinz-Harald Frentzen after the German crashed yesterday and aggravated the headaches he has been experiencing since crashing in Monaco.