Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, September 9, 2000

At Monza, Don't Count Coulthard Out

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
THE CONVERSATION with David Coulthard, Scotland's greatest hope for another Formula One drivers' title, was interrupted by a visit from Jackie Stewart, Scotland's last world champion.

In a thicker Scottish brogue than usual, Coulthard said, ''Thaink ye for your kaind wairds'' to Stewart, who had told the British press that Coulthard was likely to win the driver's title this year.

But that was just before the Belgian Grand Prix two weeks ago, which Mika Hakkinen, Coulthard's teammate, won while Coulthard placed fourth.

At the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on Sunday, Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher, who are first and second in the driver's championship race with 74 and 68 points, respectively, will claim most of the attention. But the Scot, with 61 points, is still a contender.

''And if you are a gambling man,'' Stewart said, ''you would say that there's a better chance for David to win than for Mika.''

Drivers get 10 points for a victory, six for second place and four for third.

The way Stewart sees it, Hakkinen's effort to win a third title in a row, which no one but Juan Manuel Fangio has ever done -- and that was in the 1950s -- puts the odds in Coulthard's favor. And Stewart thinks Schumacher's Ferrari is not good enough.

Coulthard, for his part, is philosophical. Of course he wants to win. But if he does not, at 29, he is still confident about his future. ''I'm happy with the development of my career, my driving, and feel that my best is still to come,'' he said.

It is difficult to disagree with him about his career. With three victories this season, it is already his best year. Coulthard started in Formula One with the Williams team in 1994, replacing Ayrton Senna after the Brazilian died in a crash in the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. He won his first race the following year, at the Portuguese Grand Prix.

But in 1996 he joined McLaren, leaving Williams for a team that had been in the doldrums since Senna left it in 1993. ''In hindsight, it would have been better to have stayed with Williams,'' Coulthard said. ''I may have won a title had I stayed. But I took a decision very early on to go with an option with McLaren on the basis that it may be a setback in the short term, but in the long term it would be good.''

At the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in 1997, Coulthard won, giving McLaren its first victory since 1993. He won again at Monza that year. While the Scot was getting into the groove, Hakkinen, who had been racing since 1991 with no victories, was struggling.

So in the last race of 1997, at the European Grand Prix at Jerez, the team asked Coulthard to let Hakkinen pass him to win the race, which he did. In the first race of the following season, the Australian Grand Prix, Coulthard was again asked to pull aside to let Hakkinen win. According to a pre-race team agreement, the driver who got through the first corner first was to be allowed to win the race.

But the victory was all the Finn needed for a mentally liberating start to what would become his first of two consecutive titles. ''I wonder if he'll ever give those back?'' Coulthard said sharply. ''It would be nice if I had 11 wins instead of nine.'' But he said he was not bitter about Hakkinen's success.

''He was at the right point in his career in terms of experience and knowledge and support of the team to have himself in a psychological position to give himself an edge,'' he said. '' I've been working to get myself in that same position.''

Two months ago it seemed he was there. After Coulthard won the French Grand Prix in July, he had three victories and 44 points and would have had 50 points if not for a disqualification on a technical infringement at the Brazilian Grand Prix. Hakkinen had won only one race and had 38 points.

At the Austrian Grand Prix, Hakkinen's car, too, was involved in a rules infraction, but he kept his 10 points for the victory. Coulthard is aware that had he kept his points from Brazil and Hakkinen lost his, he would be ahead.

''I'm realistic in that it's not a world championship of 20 drivers,'' Coulthard said, ''it's a world championship of four drivers. And your performance, the team's performance, your reliability, all those factors play their part.''

Fate also plays a part. Only days before the Spanish Grand Prix in May, Coulthard, his American fiancˇe and his trainer survived a crash of the private jet in which they were flying. The pilot and copilot died. But Coulthard raced in Spain with cracked ribs, finished second and then won the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix two races later. He has said that focusing on his passion for racing helped him overcome the trauma of the crash.

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