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Formula One: A decade, a decline; COULTHARD CAN'T HALT SLIDE.

Byline: Ted MacAULEY

DAVID Coulthard's Formula One career is just days away from turning full circle.

It is 10 years - a decade of crazy ups and downs - since his nervous debut at the Spanish Grand Prix.

This weekend he is back in Barcelona - but now it is as a faded force rather than the wonderkid mooted to take over Nigel Mansell's mantle as a British world champion.

As he sits on the terrace of his five star Columbus hotel in Monte Carlo, the familiar square jaw is set firm and the eyes that have guided him to Grand Prix glory unblinking.

But his face betrays a concern that seems totally out of place in the buzz of the bubbly-sipping jet-setters around him.

In 1994 he was dramatically promoted in the Williams team to replace the legendary Ayrton Senna, who was tragically killed at Imola in the San Marino Grand Prix.

All his hard work, his sacrifice, his winning ways in the junior classes and his raw speed hallmarked him a golden boy in the making. Ten years on, a few grey hairs later, a dreadful air crash survived and with pounds 30million in the bank, DC is as hungry as ever for success.

But he looks to have scant hope of adding this year to his 13 wins from 160 races, most of them with McLaren. The last one is a distant memory - Australia's opener in 2003.

Four McLaren retirements in four races - Kimi Raikkonen was lapped in Imola and has finished only one race - make prospects bleak. It is the team's most humiliating start for 23 years.

That's the underlying reason for the frowns that trouble the 33-year-old Scot, but the letdown is the team and not the man.

His ambitions still blaze with a fury that has been doused by frustration at the awfully performing McLaren - a jalopy in Grand Prix terms.

He aims to expand his hotel interests into a chain of plush stopovers across Europe and puts as much time into the business and investment world as his F1 schedule allows. But the pounds 3.5m-a-year driver is not yet ready to make it a full-time input.

Coulthard, who will be offloaded by McLaren at the end of this year, his ninth with the team, said: "I still feel I can do the job. I'm fit and fast enough - and I've got all the experience that's necessary and crucial at this level.

"But if the car isn't up for it there's not a lot I can do.

"I still want to be racing in F1 next season but that is something out of my hands.

"Sure, I want to be world champion before I quit and given the package I have enough confidence in my own ability to do it. I've beaten Michael Schumacher and the rest of the front- runners and I can do it again.

"I can hardly believe where the last 10 years has gone. They've flown by - but it's not all over for me just yet."

He has trusted his manager, ITV pundit Martin Brundle, to find him a seat that will give him a fighting chance. He may be eyeing a return to his Williams roots for an F1 final flourish, but he isn't saying.

Neither will he speculate publicly about switching to Toyota in what could be his biggest ever pay day with the best-funded team on the grid.

"We will have to wait and see what happens, and be patient.

"I made all the sacrifices possible when I was a wee lad. I reckoned that giving up chasing the lassies and not wasting my time in discos and pubs and devoting every minute I could to racing would be worth it.

"I still think that way. Anyway, I've since made up for all the time I lost as a youth," he added, with a sideways smile at his stunning Brazilian girlfriend.


HITTING THE SKIDS: Coulthard goes off the track as debris flies off his car at last month's San Marino Grand Prix in Imola; ROOKIE: Coulthard with Damon HIll in 1994; WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG? The strain is beginning to show on Coulthard
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 5, 2004
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