Formula One: Button's star sticks to upward track

A fire-defying winner and a breathtaking scrap for second place: small wonder that most of the attention at the A1-Ring was focused on the podium-fillers. But while the top three in the Austrian Grand Prix headed for the Champagne ceremony, the fourth and fifth-placed drivers walked into their motorhomes well satisfied.

Jenson Button of Great Britain and BAR with David Coulthard of Scotland and McLaren. Button's fourth place equalled his best Grand Prix finish, while Coulthard's dogged drive from a lowly 14th grid spot kept him well in the crowded race for the title. — Pic. MARK THOMPSON/GETTY IMAGES-

Jenson Button and David Coulthard might have missed out on the Mumm, but their results were not without significance. Button's fourth place equalled his best Grand Prix finish, while Coulthard's dogged drive from a lowly 14th grid spot kept him well in the crowded race for the title.

This was the fourth race in which Button had finished fourth, and he must be wondering what he has to do to earn a place on the podium. He was hoping for a little help in that direction from his fellow drivers. "I was really hoping that Barrichello and Raikkonen were going to take each other out," he admitted after the race.

But he could take some comfort from the fact that he had not been done any favours. "I got the result through speed. Not through other people falling off." What is more, he thoroughly enjoyed himself, even during the race's chaotic opening laps, marred by false starts, the safety car and sporadic rain.

"It was fun," he said. "The restarts were nerve-racking, sure, and the rain made things interesting, but it was all very enjoyable. The mechanics were fantastic in my pit-stops, and this result is going to be a great boost for the team. Everyone has been working very hard, and they need the lift."

Button's confidence will have been further boosted; that of his illustrious team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, further dented. Before the season started, there was speculation that the Canadian, who has "broken" more than one team-mate before now, would finish off the Englishman. But the driving boot is on the other foot. Button has outqualified Villeneuve four times this season, and outraced him long before the former world champion had a problem with his second pit-stop. Villeneuve has publicly declared his lack of confidence in his machinery, which has not endeared him to his mechanics. One driver is in the ascendant at BAR, and it is not the man around whom the team was built.

Coulthard was hardly jubilant to finish fifth but considered it a useful salvage exercise after a weekend battling a disobedient car. "It was good to get some points," he said. "A lot can still happen and there is all to play for." The Scot refused to be dismayed by the scale of Michael Schumacher's dominance. "That's their new car," he pointed out. "Our new car is on the way."

Great things are expected of the new McLaren, said by those who have seen it to be every bit as beautiful and purposeful as Schumacher's `red shark.' But Coulthard's expectations are practical. "What do I want from the new car? A fast lap time and the confidence that will allow me to attack."

The car will not be employed in Monaco, no matter how rapid it appears to be in forthcoming testing. Reliability is all in the high-speed traffic jam in the Principality, and McLaren's old work-horse is a solid performer.

Ron Dennis, the team principal, seems in no hurry to deploy his new challenger. "You win world championships from the sum of all the races," he said. "And there are still a lot of races to go."Dennis intends to reach the Canadian Grand Prix — the expected debut for the new car, in a month's time — ahead of, or at any rate, within a handful of points of Ferrari. Then, he and Coulthard are confident, the dynamics of the championship battle will change in their favour.

Ralph Firman, of Jordan, and Justin Wilson, of Minardi, ensured a full complement of Britons in the race results with 11th and 13th positions respectively.

Firman diced confidently with his eminent team-mate, Giancarlo Fisichella, throughout the race, and finished just 15 seconds behind the last point-scorer, while Wilson trundled around in the solid but desperately slow Minardi and kept out of everyone else's way.

Now Firman and Wilson head with the other drivers to Monte Carlo, the `home' race for more than half of the Formula One field. Not so for the two young Britons: as Grand Prix racing's most poorly paid drivers, they have — as yet — no need to become tax exiles.