Belgium, Aug 30 - David Coulthard's victory in Sunday's Belgian
Grand Prix could have a crucial impact on one of the closest and most dramatic
championship battles seen for years in Formula One.
The Briton revived his own outside hopes of the title at Spa while lifting the spirits of Ferrari rival Eddie Irvine and complicating matters for McLaren team mate and defending champion Mika Hakkinen of Finland.
As the fight moves towards its climax with the final four rounds at Monza, Nuerburgring, Kuala Lumpur and Suzuka, Coulthard's form could play a decisive role unless McLaren change their current policy and introduce team orders.
His win ahead of Hakkinen left him 14 points behind the Finn, who regained the overall leadership with 60 points one ahead of Briton Irvine who finished fourth.
Another Coulthard victory in Italy in 13 days time, would narrow the gap between the McLaren drivers to 10 points or less and also give Irvine a chance to take advantage of their internal duel.
"They've done me a favour by racing each other and I am glad,'' said Irvine on Sunday.
The Ferrari driver could not compete with the pace of the McLarens or that of third-placed German Heinz-Harald Frentzen in a Jordan and said he had expected to be four or five points behind Hakkinen after Spa.
Irvine's hopes will be boosted this week by the expected confirmation of double world champion Michael Schumacher's return to partner him for Ferrari at Monza.
The German, who broke a leg at Silverstone on July 11, is scheduled to test with the team from Wednesday to Friday and to replace Finn Mika Salo in the race if given the go-ahead. He will then take a supporting role to Irvine.
"I would much prefer it if Michael Schumacher took a longer break to recover,'' said Coulthard.
"Ferrari have lost out from not having his direction and drive in the team. In no way will we under-estimate the effect that Michael can have on Ferrari.''
Coulthard did not expect McLaren team boss Ron Dennis to ask him to support Hakkinen's title challenge since the team saw the constructors' title as the primary prize.
He also believed he had done enough for Hakkinen in the past to be allowed his opportunity now to race for himself and the team without being held back.
"I've helped Mika more than could be reasonably expected from any team-mate,'' said Coulthard.
"I will continue racing this way now until I am told by the team that I am not able to do so. I won't like it, if it happens, but I will accept it.''
Dennis, mindful of the criticism McLaren suffered for issuing team orders at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in 1998, when Coulthard slowed down and allowed Hakkinen through to win, has a dilemma.
Other dominant teams in the past allowed drivers to fight for the title and let it slip away in the process.
In 1986, the Williams team lost out when Briton Nigel Mansell and Brazilian Nelson Piquet took points off each other for the title only to see Frenchman Alain Prost win the last race in Australia to take the championship.
Ironically, Prost was driving for McLaren.
This year's championship could be settled in similar circumstances, as Williams' technical director Patrick Head pointed out when he criticised Ferrari for their 'cynical' tactical approach at Spa.
"I have to say that I very much appreciate the more sporting approach of McLaren in running a two-car team,'' he said, after Salo held up Williams' Ralf Schumacher to protect team leader Irvine's fourth place.