Timothy Collings' Spanish GP Preview
Thursday May 4th, 2000
By Timothy Collings
Briton David Coulthard will be the centre of intense attention when he returns to Formula One action in this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix less than 72 hours after surviving a plane crash in which the pilot and co-pilot were killed.
As the winner of the previous race, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone only 11 days ago, he will be hoping also to deliver another winning performance to maintain both his own and his McLaren Mercedes-Benz team's bids for world championship honours.
But first he is expected to have to prove to his team and the sport's medical authorities that he is mentally and physically fit to drive and race without endangering himself or his fellow drivers.
Coulthard, according to his business manager Iain Cunningham, is confident he will achieve this and take part in a race he and his team need to win to prevent championship leader Michael Schumacher and the German's Ferrari team pulling further clear in the title race.
Schumacher, winner of three of the first four races of the season, is looking forward to the race at the Circuit de Catalunya where he tested impressively with the Ferrari team last week as the teams returned to reasonably dry and warm conditions following the rain and mud of Silverstone.
"We have achieved a lot in the last test and I am really looking forward to this race," Schumacher said. "We will certainly be a lot closer to the McLarens than we were last year."
Last year the McLaren pair of Finn Mika Hakkinen and Coulthard dominated the race with ease, finishing first and second at the head of a processional field, with Schumacher third.
The race was so dull and uneventful that it provoked a storm of controversy, with many experts putting forward ideas to enliven the sport.
Coulthard will undoubtedly hope it is just as straightforward again for the McLaren team, except with him in front, providing he proves his fitness after recovering from the shock and bruising he sustained when he helped his American fiancee Heidi Wichlinksi and personal fitness trainer Andy Matthews from the crashed Lear jet at Lyon airport.
The British pilot and co-pilot were both killed by the impact.
Like all drivers, however, Coulthard will put all thoughts of the incident out of his mind as he concentrates on the task of beating Schumacher and the German's Ferrari team mate Rubens Barrichello of Brazil, who is still seeking his first win with the Italian team.
Schumacher recorded his first Ferrari win at Barcelona in 1996, adding that triumph to a victory with Benetton in 1995. A third Spanish win would enlarge his 20-point advantage over second-placed Coulthard.
But Schumacher knows it will be a tight and tactical race between the two top teams and expects strategy to play a key part again.
"When the racing is very close you have to be able to take advantage of any small opportunites that may arise in the race to gain an advantage," he said.
"You must keep the flexibility to make a pit-stop earlier or later than planned or even to change the whole strategy itself. It's that which can make the big difference."
Hakkinen, seeking his first win of the year, is likely to be Schumacher's strongest rival, particularly if Coulthard's dreadful experience on Tuesday has any effect on his performance.
The BMW-Williams team of Ralf Schumacher and Briton Jenson Button are also expected to feature strongly in the 65-lap race on the 4.730-km circuit set in the industrial hinterland of Catalonia's capital.