MAY 3, 2001

Coulthard; the best may be still to come

THERE is an unspoken lexicon of F1-speak which seasoned insiders can read like a book.

THERE is an unspoken lexicon of F1-speak which seasoned insiders can read like a book. Just because people open their mouths and produce a given sequence of words doesn't necessarily mean that this is what they intended to say. Nor that it is really what they think. It is necessary to build a correction factor into many of these statement, the strength of which depends very much on the person concerned.

When Ron Dennis told the ITV television network that David Coulthard was guilty of "brain fade" after stalling his McLaren-Mercedes on the grid prior to the parade lap at the Spanish Grand Prix, he was - on the face of it - reacting to the situation as he understood it at the time. Yet when Coulthard boldly responded that Dennis must also be suffering from brain fade if he made such a response, he was banking on the fact that the interviewer was interpreting his employer's initial reaction correctly.

Strip aside the superficial effect of those statements and you receive a subliminal message about the state of the McLaren team's relations with its drivers. From an operational standpoint, there is absolute parity of equipment and professional treatment. From a purely personal standpoint, there is no doubt that Mika Hakkinen has a very personal and strong bond with Ron Dennis which Coulthard can never hope to match.

Stating this implies no criticism whatsoever. It is simply a fact. And it should surprise nobody. Hakkinen was recruited in 1993 as the baby of the team, the test driver who was eventually promoted to the Big Time after Michael Andretti found his services dispensed with and returned to the USA. Hakkinen was also the fresh-faced lad who outqualified Ayrton Senna at Estoril '93 and the man on whose shoulders the responsibility for leading McLaren fell after Ayrton switched to Williams for that tragically brief partnership in 1994.

Hakkinen also survived that dreadful accident during practice at Adelaide in 1995. That kaleidoscope of experiences lays down a thick veneer of mutual loyalty and commitment within any partnership. Hakkinen is also arguably a more compliant individual. Whereas Coulthard seems minded to stand his ground in any sort of dispute with the McLaren management, Hakkinen can be cajoled into taking a gentler view of things, even when he is perceived to be in the wrong. Put simply, he and his management know which of Dennis's buttons they can press. And which they cannot.

If you need any proof of the foregoing, just remember that Hakkinen stalled on the grid at Interlagos. That was a pretty daft thing to do, but it didn't attract a word of censure from the McLaren management. Despite this, McLaren's maturity and seasoned approach to the business of winning World Championships will never be compromised by emotion or personal feelings.

Some people may feel this is a weakness. As far as David Coulthard is concerned, it might be the key strength on which his title hopes eventually rest.