Coulthard's quick progress

Struggling Scot believes all he needs is a lift in confidence to threaten the top drivers
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The Independent Online

David Coulthard will go out on to the Silverstone circuit tomorrow seeking the minute refinements to his driving that could bridge the gap to world championship contention.

The 29-year-old Scot arrived at the British Grand Prix still lagging tantalisingly behind his McLaren-Mercedes team-mate and world champion of the past two seasons, Mika Hakkinen.

In today's qualifying, and tomorrow's race, Coulthard will pursue his ongoing quest for the near-perfection required to capitalise on what he acknowledges as the best car in Formula One and fend off more speculation about his future.

McLaren and Mercedes have repeatedly voiced public support for Coulthard, yet are known to have made inquiries about the availability of a number drivers, including Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, in recent seasons. If they fail to contain Schumacher this year they may well make another and more determined approach for the Canadian, currently with BAR.

Coulthard, in his fifth season at McLaren, knows the onus is on him to restate his case for that coveted drive and he contends he is gathering pace every race, despite Hakkinen's three consecutive pole positions this year. "I am definitely getting closer to Mika, and often it's down to a tenth of a second," Coulthard says. "He's not massively quicker than I am. I don't think he's getting worse, I'm improving.

"I don't what his secret is because it's a secret! I do know that if I can get on pole it would make my job easier.

"I study the data to see where Mikka makes the difference. But it's not a tenth of a second at a given point, it's just a tiny fraction here and there. The difference at the moment is probably only down to confidence."

In the championship the gap between them is a mere three points after Hakkinen got second to Coulthard's third at the St Marino Grand Prix, a fortnight ago. The problem for both McLaren drivers is that Schumacher has maximum points from the three races so far and a lead of 24 points over the Finn.

Schumacher claims he beat the McLarens "in a straight fight" at Imola. McLaren disagree, arguing Hakkinen had problems which yielded the race to the German, but either way Coulthard recognises his team cannot accommodate further setbacks.

"Ferrari have had the perfect start but I still believe we have the quickest car in the field and we should again be in good shape for this race," Coulthard says. "But we can only have these problems for so long before we get too far back.

"It's certainly not impossible for us. Ferrari chipped away at our lead in the last two seasons and we can do likewise. The problem is they've got good reliability. We're probably closer to the edge. I don't think Ferrari have a better team, they are just making the most of what they have and we're not. It's gone for Michael so far. He's been pretty fortunate in the whole of his career, apart from when he broke his leg last year. He's always there and able to get the most out of his car. The guy's a great driver. But we've got the potential to beat him. He's not beaten us in a straight fight."

Coulthard's satisfaction in victory at Silverstone last year was diluted by Schumacher's accident, the retirement of Hakkinen and a pit-stop mistake which cost Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari, important seconds. "I've always maintained a proper race victory is when you beat all your main rivals," Coulthard says. "I haven't had many lucky wins but Silverstone last year was one of them. If I can get my first win of the season here it will be the business."

Right now, Coulthard - and Hakkinen for that matter - would take any sort of win. If Schumacher makes it four from four tomorrow, McLaren will be faced with a near insurmountable task, even with 13 rounds of the championship remaining.