Coulthard undone by cracks in McLaren

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The Independent Online

Derek Warwick maintained he was always the right driver in the right team at the wrong time. David Coulthard probably knows what he meant.

After three years as the supporting act to Mika Hakkinen at McLaren-Mercedes, Coulthard has emerged as the team's only challenger to Michael Schumacher as Formula One's top of the bill. Alas for Coulthard, his threat to the German's status has become increasingly impotent in recent races, and nothing short of victory in the British Grand Prix, at Silverstone on Sunday, will serve to resuscitate his aspirations.

Schumacher, already heading the championship table by 31 points, will be virtually assured a fourth title if he equals Alain Prost's record of 51 F1 wins at the Northamptonshire circuit. The frustration for Coulthard is that, in his season of supremacy over Hakkinen, McLaren's car and teamwork have not been good enough to sustain the pressure on Schumacher and Ferrari. And, to compound Coulthard's angst, Williams-BMW are shaping up as the team most likely to, despite Ferrari's pre-eminence.

"I can do only what I can do,'' has become Coulthard's mantra. The implied dissatisfaction with McLaren is mild and understated, yet unmistakeable none the less. The relative capabilities of Coulthard and Schumacher have been the subject of Eddie Irvine's candid, and perhaps mischievous, public consideration of late.

The Ulsterman contends Coulthard never had a hope of winning the championship without the better car. Irvine argues that Coulthard has become McLaren's leading contender because of Hakkinen's demise rather than his own improvement. The Finn, champion in 1998 and 1999, has been ravaged by misfortune this year and his body language reinforces the suspicion that he will retire at the end of the season.

Coulthard had more than his share of breakdowns and glitches in previous seasons and has taken the opportunity to generate momentum this time. To his dismay, McLaren have failed to keep pace. Ron Dennis, the team principal, has talked of "distractions'' upsetting McLaren's much-vaunted harmony and efficiency. The grubby squabble to keep their technical director, Adrian Newey, from Jaguar's clutches, apparently had a destabilising effect. Coulthard expressed surprised that Dennis should have made such an ambition.

John Watson, one of the McLaren drivers when Dennis took charge of the team, 20 years ago, believes the downward spiral of this season has taken its toll on his former boss. "I am a fully paid-up member of the Ron Dennis way of running a team, but the frustration has been getting to him," Watson said. "He prides himself on being able to cope with anything. He always goes out of his way to stand by his team, but this year there have been too many mistakes.''

Dennis confessed to an embarrassing error when he blamed Coulthard for stalling on the grid at the Spanish Grand Prix. The actual culprit was the computer software governing the car's launch-control system. Coulthard acknowledges that a third consecutive win in his home Grand Prix is essential to retain any readable thoughts of the championship, but stoically rejects the notion that he will not have other opportunities. He is due to confirm a new contract with McLaren and declares his faith in the team. However, the underlying concerns continually resurface.

"I still don't see it as my season over and I certainly don't see it as my last chance of the championship,'' the 30-year-old driver said. "That's what everyone was billing it as, but I know there is more to come from me. The future has still got to be good at McLaren and I am part of that.

"I expect to be setting the pace, quickest in all the sessions and winning the grands prix. That's not something I expected in the past. I wanted to be, but then if I'm not, why not? Who's not performing? I feel I am, so what's letting the side down.

"Winning the British Grand Prix would be no consolation for not winning the championship. The title is what it's all about. I've won grands prix. I don't need to prove to myself or to anyone else that on my day I can beat anyone. I think I've shown that.

"What I've been trying to do is raise my game, my performance level, to show I can do that on a consistent level and challenge for the championship. I believe I have raised my game but we have, as a team, not performed at the same level as our main competition. So therefore you don't deserve the points. The upshot of that is that I don't get the points I think I deserve.''

Coulthard was long perceived as the sleeping partner to the team's favoured son, Hakkinen, but his influence and input have increased with his growing stature within the team. "I do feel comfortable to be able to talk to the key people in the team and in the shortest possible way express where I think I might not have performed on that day,'' he said. "I'm not shy of admitting when I've made mistakes, but also where I feel they ought to be doing a better job.

"Whether that's taken longer to come because of Mika having such a great run, or whether it's taken longer to come because of my personality, of not being pushy and what have you, I don't know. "On the track, I think I've shown through my racing career that no-one's really got the better of me in a wheel to wheel battle. But may be you don't get listened to unless you are a pain in the bum, one of those who stamp their feet.

"You kind of deal with situations because you just want to get the pain over with. I'm not at that stage yet, but I feel I'm developing that way.''