Coulthard survives as Raikkonen escapes

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The Independent Online

At least one question was answered in Hungary yesterday. We now know that David Coulthard has survived for another year at McLaren-Mercedes after the team officially confirmed that the Scot will be kept on for a ninth season in 2004 as partner to the Finnish driver, Kimi Raikkonen. Ironically, the confirmation appeared to relax him as he set the fourth-fastest qualifying time. But, as ever, the question remains whether he can repeat that in the heat of Saturday qualifying, when the grid will be decided.

"I had a nice and tidy lap," Coulthard said. "I was a bit too tentative in the first corner but overall it was a good start."

It is a familiar story, and too often in a troubled 2003 he has failed to deliver when it matters. Highly popular though Coulthard is both as a man and as a driver, it is only contractual considerations between McLaren, Williams-BMW and Juan Pablo Montoya that have prevented the Colombian joining Raikkonen for 2004. But this is likely to happen for 2005 instead. Coulthard has thus been given a year's stay of execution to save his Formula One career. It is a long time since he won the opening race in Australia to lead a world championship fight in which, at that stage, he seemed likely to feature very strongly. Now, to be taken seriously as a front-runner, he needs to build on a strong showing in Germany recently.

"I'm convinced that my experience will continue to provide the team with great benefits and look forward to the last four races," Coulthard added. "I will do everything I can to support the team in their world championship battles."

McLaren's immediate focus, however, is Raikkonen's 2003 campaign, which seemed to be in jeopardy for a time yesterday. The Finn lies third on 62 points to Michael Schumacher's 71 and Montoya's 65. But the Hockenheim stewards reconvened in Budapest yesterday to examine fresh evidence - in the form of onboard telemetry from the cars' accident data recorders - from the accident at the start of the recent German Grand Prix involving Raikkonen, Rubens Barrichello and Ralf Schumacher. The latter's penalty of 10 grid places for his part in the incident was changed to a $50,000 fine (£31,000) in Paris earlier this week, but Raikkonen was thought to face a grid-place penalty of his own for his part in the incident. But, after deliberating for two and a half hours, the stewards finally decided to take no further action against Raikkonen or Barrichello.

In qualifying yesterday all four leading contenders in the world championship - Michael and Ralf Schumacher, Montoya and Raikkonen - believed that they were at a disadvantage in having to start the afternoon's session first under the rule that mandates that the running order on Friday must reflect the championship points table.

The track conditions were initially very dusty and dirty, so Montoya, Michael Schumacher and Raikkonen found themselves only eighth, ninth and 12th when the music stopped. Jarno Trulli trumped them all for Renault, slicing beneath Ralf Schumacher's fastest time, and Mark Webber also pushed up to third place to give Jaguar something to smile about.

"The surface very clearly was dirty and this affected the first three or four drivers," said McLaren chief, Ron Dennis. "You can see that from the lap times. But we had a trouble-free session, so we can look forward to tomorrow [Saturday] when it really counts."

Qualifying will be critical then. "On this circuit the running order is probably more crucial than anywhere else, even Monte Carlo," said Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn.