THE lunchers were in danger of choking on their pasta as they tried to chew and gawp at the same time at the lean young man striding along the Monaco paddock. Some probably could have saved themselves a gastronomic accident and simply looked out for David Coulthard wandering around a supermarket or standing at the bar of his local down on the harbour of the Fontvieille district over the past fortnight.
But Coulthard, the driver with McLaren Mercedes, is an attraction in Formula One and familiarity has bred onlyaffection and admiration among Monaco residents normally blase about the colony of rich and famous tax exiles who have taken refuge in the tiny Principality.
The Monaco Grand Prix is almost as much a home grand prix for Coulthard as is Silverstone, for he is a resident, one of the cluster of 13 grand prix drivers who have chosen apartments that rise from the side of the steep rockface that forms Monaco's natural border.
Monaco not only represents his home away from home, but could provide him with a victory that would surpass all his achievements so far. Astonishingly, no British driver has won the Monaco Grand Prix since 1973, when Jackie Stewart became one of the masters of this notoriously difficult and exhausting circuit.
Coulthard, 29, has seen Stewart in his pomp only on grainy videos, but was not very old before he, too, was captivated by the glamour of this grand prix and the size of the task of overcoming its tight bends and slippery streets.
He remains the best hope of a British driver bridging the gap since Stewart's domination of Monaco and a win tomorrow would give the Scot a glorious grand slam of grand prix victories. He has won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the Belgian on the epic Spa-Francorchamps circuit and now Britain twice. Monaco would complete the list of the grands prix that stand as legends in their own right.
"This is the only grand prix that would top the three big races I have already won at Spa and in Britain and Italy," Coulthard said. "It is at the top of the list because of its history and all that goes with it.
This is the ultimate test for the driver. You have margins of only millimetres here; you can kiss the barriers but anything more than that and your race is over. "Just getting it right is a fantastic feeling, although it is so demanding because it will be hot and there is so much work to do to get the car around," Coulthard said. "It is more driver than car, so everybody knows you have done a good job if you win Monaco.
"I would love to get my world championship challenge going again here with a win, because this is one of the big races. If you come into Formula One for a challenge, you find it at Monaco."
Monaco victors seem to go on to be serial winners: since 1984, only five drivers have climbed the victor's rostrum.
One of those, Michael Schumacher, has won four times, leading a one-two with Eddie Irvine last season. Even the German thinks of himself as favourite on this circuit, where the barriers catch out the unwary and end their challenge in an instant.
He hopped on to a helicopter early yesterday to fly to Ferrari's test track at Fiorano for nine laps of testing. Officially, he was putting a fourth car, which will serve as Rubens Barrichello's spare, through a final shakedown, but Schumacher's meticulous preparation no doubt will have included a few extra minutes to be sure that nothing is left to chance before qualifying today.
Coulthard, though, is relaxed, fit and fully recovered from the three cracked ribs that he sustained in the air crash six weeks ago that found an eerie echo in the accident involving Frankie Dettori on Thursday. He has spent the past two weeks at home in Monaco, training and resting so that he is in the best condition to take on Schumacher.
"It has been great and I feel really well prepared for this race," he said. "It is great just to be able to get home and live normally, rather than being in hotels, and I have been able to go training every day here in the warm weather, which is something I could not have done in Britain.
"It is going to be back and forward between us and Ferrari all year. The difference between us, though, is that Michael has a car that has finished all the races and he has an 18-point advantage that he picked up because we couldn't finish every race. That advantage comes from reliability rather than pure performance, but we believe we are getting both those things together, although the cars are very close this season."
If Schumacher fails to exert his dominance, Mika Hakkinen is the next biggest obstacle between Coulthard and his small piece of British driving history and, as a winner in 1998, the Finn wants to join the list of multiple victors.
In the long run, too, the battle between the twin McLarens could have a huge impact on the championship, perhaps even allowing Schumacher to glide by to the title. Coulthard and Hakkinen have a win apiece this season, but Schumacher has been virtually unchallenged by Barrichello in the Ferrari team as he has taken his tally of four victories.
Another Monaco victory would give Schumacher five, level on Monaco's all-time list with Graham Hill, but, more than that, it would present Coulthard and Hakkinen with a mountain as high as Monaco's cliffs to climb to the title.
Copyright (C) The Times, 2000