Tomorrow's Belgian Grand Prix is ''a pretty important race''

concedes David Coulthard. In short, Scotland's standard-bearing

Formula One driver must win at the Spa Francorchamps track to prevent the protective mechanism of McLaren-Mercedes team orders clanking into motion.

Coulthard, refreshed and tanned after a Mediterranean cruising holiday, denies that the subject of him riding shotgun for reigning champion Mika Hakkinen has been on the team's agenda. But if the Finn emerges from the Belgian race with his current 18-point lead over his team-mate extended, then the greater good of McLaren will become paramount.

Winning another world constructors' title may be of intense symbolic importance within the sport, but in the wider world having the world champion driver on board your car is what counts at the end of a 16-race campaign.

In Hungary, McLaren, Hakkinen and Coulthard regained a collective momentum scoring their second 1-2 result of the season and relishing Eddie Irvine's self-inflicted stumble down to third place.

Plainly irked by incessant sniping by the vocal Ulsterman, Coulthard admits: ''There is a constant question about Eddie which most British drivers have not experienced before. It hinges on his personality, his lack of conformity. But it implies that the rest of us have nil personality. If it was just knockabout entertainment a lot of people would clamour to be in the audience to watch him.

''That is why it was satisfying to watch him trip up and fall on his face. No-one ultimately likes a smart ass. That is why I try to resist responding to taunts like Eddie saying he can thrash DC any day of the week. Sunday is the day that counts. Actions ultimately speak louder than words.''

As the Grand Prix tribe sets

up camp in the rolling Ardennes forest, Irvine holds a two-point advantage over Hakkinen while Ferrari have four points more than McLaren in the car-builders league.

Unlike the artificial confines of the Hungaroring, the spectacular Spa track, all 4.329 miles of it, fully justifies its majestic tag and Coulthard is quick to enthuse about the driving challenge it throws down.

''While professionals are not supposed to have favourite tracks, Spa ranks at the top of my personal list. It is somewhere a driver can express himself, take deep breaths, test the limits and get on the edge for longer. And if the balance is right you can come away feeling invigorated and satisfied with a job well done,'' Coulthard elaborates.

Central to putting together that fast and elusive lap is the daunting Eau Rouge downhill 160mph plunge into a left and right sequence of curves, arcing uphill at a gathering velocity of 190mph in time to blip down from sixth to third gear and the right-left flick through Les Combes and Malmedy at a mere respective 85mph and 100mph.

Coulthard describes Eau Rouge as ''one hell of a sequence of

corners in one hell of a track''. He says: ''As you plunge down the hill it is a daunting prospect and you think 'here we go again.' In fact, at that speed it is not such a long

corner but it grabs your undivided attention on the way down, in and through. It is like jumping off a high board. It is not the actual dive, but the first step and making that commitment.''

Lying in the confined, bath-like cockpit of a modern Grand Prix car with limited horizontal vision an added frisson is provided by the climbing right-hand crest towards Hemmel being blind.

''When you are climbing you cannot see what is over the brow and you just have to trust the marshals are doing their job with the warning flags if someone is stuck in the middle. It is totally blind. You don't see the exit apex of the corner until you are on it,'' he explains.

Last year he played a prominent part in a spectacular demolition derby of a race ricocheting off the barrier into the pursuing pack and generating more chassis rebuilding labour hours than that from the rest of the season put together.

If he thought a duff day could not get worse, then 23 laps after the restart a dominant Michael Schumacher clattered into the back of Coulthard's McLaren in blinding spray as he lapped him.

The German, three wheels on his Ferrari, splashed back to the pits and ranted and raved at the hapless Scot, who had the sense to keep his helmet on.

Optimistic claims that the injured Schumacher would return this weekend were unfounded. This is despite maintaining a rapid recovery from the Silverstone injuries, and an impressive

Mugello test last week.

Ironically, Coulthard suffered his only racing injury at Spa in 1990 with a minor leg break in a Formula Vauxhall race.

With the pendulum having swung back in favour of the McLaren team, it is up to Irvine and Finnish stand-in Mika Salo to defend Ferrari's corner.

While Irvine was slipping and sliding in Hungary, Salo was stumbling around in twelfth place trapped downfield by a poor qualifying run.

Last year Salo dismantled his Arrows against the barriers at Eau Rouge during qualifying. The stakes and the speeds are higher in a Ferrari, as he has discovered.

Spa rewards the smoothest, most committed and arguably the bravest drivers which is why Germany's Heinz-Harald Frentzen, sharing third place in the championship with Coulthard, cannot be ruled out, particularly if the often fickle Ardennes weather rains on the anticipated McLaren/Ferrari parade tomorrow afternoon.

I try to resist responding to taunts. Actions speak louder than words David coulthard