Byline: KATE BATTERSBY
IF David Coulthard is in search of a heartening mantra, he could do worse than to adopt the old adage that form temporary, whereas class is permanent.
Half a dozen races ago the talk was of his genuine title challenge. Now there is a wretched threat that he might not hang on second place in the championship. A humiliating fourth is even a possibility especially on current form.
The ugly statistics tell their own story. In the last five races he has scored just seven points. By comparison Ralf Schumacher has gathered 29 points, and Rubens Barrichello 16 points. Schumacher's Williams is the most exciting car of the year in terms of improved performance and reliability.
Meantime, the season of Brazilian Barrichello has been particularly consistent, thanks in part to the Ferrari being the grid's most reliable car.
In 12 races it has failed Michael Schumacher just twice and Barrichello only once (he has had two accidents). Both drivers have taken full advantage.
The three-time champion has been first or second every time he has reached the chequered flag and Barrichello has made the podium eight times.
These are figures that Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen can only dream of. Ten times in 24 starts the McLaren has failed to go race distance, in addition to which computer failure when Coulthard was on pole in Monaco clearly cost him victory.
For a while this season there was a black joke going around about which of them would next be allowed the car that works, but that came to an end three weeks ago at Hockenheim when both cars expired little more than halfway through the race. Now Ralf Schumacher and Barrichello are just six and seven points respectively behind Coulthard, while the Scot is a hopeless 37 points adrift of Michael Schumacher.
If the latter wins in Hungary on Sunday, he will have his fourth title.
With five races remaining it is mathematically improbable that both Coulthard's rivals will overtake him in the final reckoning. Michael Schumacher should account for too many remaining points for that, but it is a possibility if the McLaren continues its calamitous plunge into habitual unreliability.
It is difficult not to look back on the Monaco failure as a pivotal moment.
Coulthard arrived in the Principality with 38 points from the five previous races, a mere four points shy of Michael Schumacher. He needed only to maintain his position off the
grid to be certain of 10 points on the narrow street circuit, giving him the joint lead in the championship. But that computer failure at the start of the parade lap relegated him to the back of the grid, and figuratively speaking he has remained there ever since.
The joyless struggle is clearly taking its toll. Coulthard has admitted to mental weariness, and could be forgiven for feeling thoroughly depressed.
The five races left must seem like a lot to get through before there is any relief - they do amount to almost a third of the season, after all. But almost more important than staying ahead of Ralf Schumacher and Barrichello in the individual race is fending off Williams' attempt to beat McLaren to second place in the overall constructors' championship. Sponsors, who pay the bills, give particular weight to that title.
The omens for Hungary this weekend are not especially promising. Coulthard has been second three times but has never won in the stifling midsummer heat just outside Budapest. His one comfort is that Ralf Schumacher has never been better than fifth, while Barrichello's best career result there was last year's fourth. The twists of the Hungaroring are unlikely to suit the Williams, but Barrichello has reason to hope for his fourth straight podium.
Coulthard's best hope is Ralf Schumacher will be busy fending off his own team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya. The German may have won three weeks ago in Hockenheim, but he was being roundly beaten by the Colombian until engine failure forced his retirement halfway through the race. Still in his first season in Formula One, Montoya is, nonetheless, clearly overdue a race win.
If Coulthard cannot notch up his own maiden win in Hungary, he would gladly settle for the Colombian doing the same.