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Highlander’s last stand.

By Nicholas Frankl Contributing Editor.

David Coulthard is unlikely to have a better chance to snatch the championship from the grips of Schumacher and the dominant Ferrari Team than in 2002.

Nicholas Frankl caught up with the dashing Scotsman before he left for the Melbourne Grand Prix and talked about ’01 and the what’s to come.

Pre season build-ups in F1 have followed the same routine for the last few years. Every year we heard Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo announce this was the year that the scarlet cars would win the championship. After 5 years of pronouncements, he finally predicted correctly. The other stories mostly focused on the resurgence of Williams and the continued dominance of McLaren and Ferrari. But all the way through this endless media and public speculation was the aspect of personal rivalry; Schumacher versus Hakkinen versus Coulthard. In 2002, with Mika on “sabbatical”, the weight has now been fixed firmly on the Scotsman’s experienced shoulders. Can one of Formula One's most likable “nearly men” seize his chance and move, from behind the shadows of what has largely been seen as Hakkinen’s McLaren Team, into a serious title winning position?

Thirty-year-old Coulthard has been winning races in Formula One since 1995. His big break came with the Williams Team in ’94, moving from test driver into racer when Senna was killed at Imola. Since then he has had the benefit of driving for two of the best teams in F1, both during times of championship winning seasons, but never to the benefit of the Scot. Admittedly, as Damon Hill’s teammate, Coulthard shone under pressure and delivered what was expected. But for three of the last six seasons he has had the fastest and most reliable car on the grid, and has been out-qualified and out-driven by his flying Finn Team mate. Many thought last year would be his turn. Hakkinen was clearly unmotivated from the start of the season; he had a new baby, was double world champion and was stuck with a car that was hugely inferior to the Ferraris, both in terms of out-and-out horsepower and aerodynamic performance. “I knew Mika wasn’t going to push as soon as he learnt the car was going to require a lot more hours of testing to improve it, and just get it to a competitive level” said Coulthard to SCI in March.

2001 was going to be his year, he believed, but just as the initial aerodynamic problems were cured, and Schumacher began to wonder if his performances mid-season would be enough to open up a championship gap, the McLaren stranded it’s lead contender on the grid on three occasions. If one can dissect a 17-race championship, down to a few key moments, then May 27th was the day McLaren and Coulthard lost the championship. Coulthard on pole position at the Monaco Grand Prix, and with every chance of dominating the race, stalled the car on the warm up lap – thanks in no small part to the electronic gismos introduced just a few races before, to level the playing field and allow traction control. Schumacher and Barrichello went onto a glorious Ferrari one, two and the gap opened up to 12 points between the two championship rivals. “It was probably the most disappointing race of the season. It certainly affected me and the team, and then the story broke about Adrian (Newey) leaving us and that shocked us all as well”. McLaren went into a mid-season dive – from which they never recovered.

But, armed with a new three-year contract and Ron Dennis finally paying him more than the least he could previously get away with, (worth over $6m a year compared to his derisory $2.5m for the last few seasons) and with the team now firmly behind their new physiological No1 (Mclaren, unlike Ferrari, refuse to grant a driver any preferential treatment until mathematically only one can win the championship) Coulthard can finally demonstrate whether or not he has the ability to take the fight to Ferrari, and increasingly BMW Williams too, and win the title. If he cannot mount a very serious challenge this year, he may not get the chance in a top-tier team again.

“I know this year is key to my whole career. Last year we didn’t finish enough races because of reliability problems. It was a quick car, but a bit too peaky, especially at the start of the season where we were forced to contest three races without the right aerodynamic package. There were races where we performed very well but, looking at Suzuka, we were over a second off the pole position time. It's been a while since we were so off the pace. I think if the car is at least equal to our nearest competitor, and I think that has still got to be Ferrari, although I know the BMW engine will give us some headaches too, then race victories are going to come from that. That's what Championships are made of. If that's not the case, then we might get a few wins, but someone else will get the title. On paper, all the changes have been made to address last year's problems."

During testing, the McLaren has been competitive, with both Raikkonen and Coulthard posting fastest laps and long durability stints. But the word from engine partner Mercedes is that the new FO110M V10 has fallen short of it’s projected power target. "We are not where we want to be" said team principle Ron Dennis last week, "but we have been very open about this and there is still time to develop the unit to where we will be comfortable."

Coulthard concurred. “Clearly if you look at the times from last season, BMW and Ferrari both had very powerful engines. It was most noticeable at fast tracks like Hockenheim. If we are going to beat them, head to head, we are going to need to close that gap and I’m confident Mercedes has the ability to do this. I think we’ll also gain some advantage from the swap to Michelin tires from Bridgestone. The only reason we moved to Michelin was because we believe it’s a big step forward in performance. Obviously we are keen to close the gap to Ferrari, and we believe that Michelin can help us do that.

The only fly in Coulthard's Silver Arrows ointment could be the arrival of a new, feisty, Finnish teammate in the shape of Ex-Sauber rookie Kimi Raikkonen. Coulthard must be wondering what he did to deserve another Scandinavian, whose temperament has been referred to as 'fiery' and character as “rather full of himself”.

“Kimi and I have been working together now, for a few months, on the final development of the car. He’s obviously very capable, but lacking in terms of race and testing experience.

“When I joined McLaren I'd only done 25 Grand Prix, which is only 8 more than Kimi. You can't buy experience, but if you have the speed, that is the basis to develop everything else”.

But does Coulthard expect to give his junior teammate a quick lesson and put him firmly in his place for the year?

“In a dream world you'd love to thrash any team mate. But the reality is he is a quick racing driver. There are similarities for him, with the position I was in, when I joined Williams for my first full season in 95. Damon (Hill) had the experience, but we were evenly matched in terms of speed, so there were times when I was in front of him. Over the course of the year, he was able to use his experience and he finished 10 points ahead of me at the end of the year. Kimi will be quick at every grand prix this year, as he was quick at every grand prix last year. But I also will be quick.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but when I’m asked 'can I win the championship?', I’d like to think so. If the car is not quick enough, then even Michael Schumacher is not good enough to win the championship in an uncompetitive car. You need a quick car, a reliable car and all the breaks to come your way, which they certainly haven’t in the past. If all those elements come together then it could be a good year."

While 2001 may have been a disaster on the track, Coulthard’s passion for life became ever more evident. Since the horrific private-plane crash that he was lucky to survive, and which claimed the life of the two pilots, Coulthard’s life has seen changes. He split with fiancée Heidi Wichlinski at the start of 2001 (but unlike with his previous girlfriend he didn’t have to change the locks on his Monaco apartment to keep her out!) and began a series of high profile relationships. At one point it was suggested that he and legendary F1 playboy Eddie Irvive were running a separate world championship! But Coulthard, who also opened his first Hotel last year in Monaco, has now settled down with Simone Adbelnour, a Brazilian model that friend, ex-F1 driver and Monaco neighbor, Pedro Diniz, introduced him to. “I am very happy right now. My life seems to be heading in the right direction on all sides; I have my health, some cash in the bank and new a 35-meter yacht on the way. Now I just have to focus on the championship and bring home the title.”