Candor and self-criticism from McLaren over Coulthard fiasco

A "fundamentally idiotic human error" was blamed yesterday by McLaren's managing director for the sequence of events which left David Coulthard struggling with an ill-handling car in Sunday's Canadian grand prix after a large nut fell out of its front suspension just before the start of the race.

Martin Whitmarsh said that he was waiting keenly to talk to the key personnel when they arrived back from Montreal this morning, but put the failure down to an unfortunate lapse and said he believed those responsible would realize their error without needing to be admonished by the management.

Coulthard was left wrestling with unpredictable handling as a result of this mistake and eventually retired when his car's engine failed, his championship points deficit stretching to 18 points behind Michael Schumacher whose Ferrari finished second behind his brother Ralf's Williams-BMW.

"We are on our back foot at the moment," said Whitmarsh. "We underperformed as a team didn't get the result we were hoping for, but our deficit to Ferrari in the world championship has by no means widened to the point where we have given up."

However, Whitmarsh denied speculation that McLaren had lost the plot this year, rejecting the notion that their poor showings recently had anything to do with the looming legal battle with Jaguar over the future of Adrian Newey, McLaren's highly regarded technical director.

"It would be a seriously flawed argument to make that link," he said. "The two things are just not connected."

Nevertheless, F1 insiders are concerned that the McLarens, while potentially the quickest cars on the circuit, are mechanically brittle to the point where Coulthard's title hopes could be seriously undermined.

Whitmarsh admitted to huge admiration for Coulthard racing in such circumstances. "Apart from the physical aspects of driving an impaired car, to tackle the race with such a high level of commitment was simply heroic when you might be concerned about a possible problem with a fundamental part of your suspension," he said.

Meanwhile, as McLaren picked over the debris of another disappointing race, their lawyers will be preparing for an appearance in the High Court this morning to challenge an injunction, obtained by the rival Jaguar team, preventing them from signing an extension to the contract with their technical director Adrian Newey beyond August 2002.

Jaguar is determined to press home its claim on Newey's services, despite the fact that he apparently changed his mind and decided to stay with McLaren just 48 hours after signing a binding agreement with Jaguar racing.

There is also a third area of concern for McLaren, namely the poor form displayed by their long-serving driver Mika Hakkinen, world champion in 1988 and 99. Hakkinen has not won a race since last year's Belgian grand prix and while he has unquestionably suffered more than his fair share of technical setbacks, in some races he has definitely lacked his former sparkle.

This is not the first time that Hakkinen has suffered such a mid-season wobble. Last year it ended when he won the Austrian grand prix and reinvigorated his challenge for the world championship which he eventually lost narrowly to Michael Schumacher.

McLaren is pinning its hopes on history repeating as far as the Finn's driving is concerned. In the case of the missing nut, they will be hoping this is a one-off. In the very literal sense.

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