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Wednesday, March 18, 1998 Published at 18:37 GMT

Sport: Formula 1

Gentleman's agreement or breach of conduct?
image: [ Hakkinen goes into the first bend  - in first place ]
Hakkinen goes into the first bend - in first place

BBC Motorsport Correspondent Jonathan Legard - our man in Melbourne - looks at the background to Formula 1's first controversy of the season.

McLaren claim David Coulthard behaved with honour and integrity by enabling Mika Hakkinen to secure the victory that had looked inevitable from the moment he charged through the first corner at the head of the field.

By contrast, Formula 1 insiders believe the team has brought the sport into disrepute, making a mockery of the basic principles of Grand Prix racing. May the best man win through driving ability, not contrived team planning. One source argued that the next race in Brazil, in three weeks time, will be a foregone conclusion if McLaren repeat their Australian domination.

Ron Dennis, McLaren's managing director, has already stated that he intends to adopt the same approach: first to the first corner should be first to the chequered flag.

Team orders are nothing new in Formula One. They become a crucial ingredient in a championship battle reaching a climax at the end of the season. But in the first race with fifteen still to come?

[ image: Hakkinen victorious]
Hakkinen victorious
Pitstop blunder

Paddock puzzlement in Melbourne has also focussed on Hakkinen's pitstop blunder. Until it happened, the Finn had looked a sure-fire winner, regardless of team orders. Thereafter, even though the mistake hadn't been his and a worthy win appeared lost, a McLaren one-two finish was still assured. Why the pressing need to stick to the pre-race plan when nothing except Hakkinen's good humour was at stake?

When McLaren pulled off a similar manoeuvre at Jerez last year, David Coulthard was visibly angry at being deprived of what he believed was his rightful moment of glory. This time he seemed genuinely unconcerned at the turn of events. "I'm a man of honour", he said afterwards.

But he now feels his team-mate is in his debt. "I expect to be repaid. I'm not giving away four points; I expect to be given them back." The clear implication is that, even if Coulthard doesn't reach the first corner in Brazil in front of Hakkinen, he expects to have Melbourne's favour returned if the opportunity presents itself. Most believe it will, such was McLaren's awesome form around Albert Park.

As Coulthard admits, he's put his trust in Hakkinen and the team. There's no reason to think he'll be disappointed by their response. But Formula One's world championship doesn't run on goodwill. Technical prowess, reliability and so often luck are far more decisive factors.

Coulthard's gallantry in 1998's opening race could prove costly to his title ambitions, if team orders don't work in his favour.

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