Coulthard rides out Schumacher's bumps

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The Independent Online

David Coulthard believes that Michael Schumacher should button his lip and focus on his driving. Amid the acrimony that has already characterised their battle for the world championship, Ferrari and McLaren continued to slog it out on the track here yesterday as the Scot gave short shrift to Schumacher's revelations that he does not figure on the German's list of rivals.

"I'm not interested in the politics or semantics of the sport," Coulthard said. "As far as I am concerned all I want to do is get on with the job in hand. The rest doesn't interest me. I prefer to do my talking on the race track.

"Everything that Michael said after winning in Australia was gamesmanship. He can't know what was going to happen in the race there any more than we did. He's just trying to show an absolute belief in his team and his car. Is he trying to convince himself, or other people? Whatever, it won't have any effect on us."

The Scot, who turns 29 on Monday, stuck to his word during yesterday's practice sessions for the Brazilian Grand Prix, setting the third fastest time behind Mika Hakkinen and Schumacher and ahead of Rubens Barrichello.

McLaren are confident that they have solved the problem in their Mercedes-Benz engines which cost them the Australian race, by fitting new filters in the pneumatic system which opens and closes the valves. Hakkinen, the world champion, was unhappy initially with his car's performance and said it felt less poised than last year's model, but by the afternoon the Finn was flying.

Though it is a pale shadow of the great circuit of the 1970s that was truncated for the 1990s, Interlagos remains a test of man and machine with its long, sweeping corners. Its anti-clockwise orientation is unusual and puts a heavier strain than normal on neck muscles, but as far as the drivers are concerned the overriding shortcoming is its bumpiness.

"If you go round in a road car they're not so bad," the Sauber-Petronas driver, Mika Salo, said, "but when you are in a racing car they are bad news. They resurfaced the place for this race, but when they resurfaced it three years ago all they did was resurface the bumps and make them even more undulating. There are times when the wheels spend 50 per cent of the lap in the air."

Johnny Herbert, whose Jaguar proved more reliable than it did in Melbourne, described the bumps leading on to the start-finish straight as "horrendous," raising concerns about a repeat of the accident suffered in last year's race by the Minardi driver Stéphane Sarrazin, whose car suffered suspension failure. "On the rest of the track things are pretty much the same," Herbert said, "but the main straight is just appalling."

Historically, McLaren's technical director, Adrian Newey, has been the most successful at conjuring up a sufficiently compliant suspension system to damp out bumps and maintain a car's traction and balance.

Ferrari came to Brazil bolstered by their 1-2 result in the Australian GP which opened the season a fortnight ago, but McLaren have been quick to suggest that the red cars have never been able to match them on anything other than a smooth surface. How well the Ferraris handle the bumps this weekend will be a crucial indicator of just how strong their challenge to McLaren will be this season, and the initial signs have been promising.

Schumacher lost time with a driveshaft problem in the morning, leaving Barrichello to rise to the occasion and set the fastest time. "My car felt perfect today," he said, "and it was a great moment to be fastest in front of my countrymen. This is an important race for me, so it's good to get off to a strong start." But in the afternoon session it was Schumacher who fought hardest with Hakkinen.

Despite playing second fiddle once again to Hakkinen after a 30 minute delay because of a mechanical problem, Coulthard remains optimistic for qualifying this afternoon. "I can see a repeat of Melbourne qualifying, with both Mika and myself on the front row," he said. "We have the potential to be there and to win the race. You can't ask for more than that."