West McLaren Mercedes driver David Coulthard believes that the battle for the F1 title could really close up this year.

"There is definitely a feeling in the team that we could challenge Ferrari next season," said DC, speaking to British newspaper The Sunday Mirror.

"I was a bit nervous when I heard we wouldn't be racing the new car until the fourth race, but the situation now looks very encouraging...

"We've tried one or two new things and we've seen the difference. I tend not to say too much about winter testing but I believe these times are significant. There is a distinct improvement to the package and the indications are that our new car will be another big step forward. I can't imagine Ferrari will be able to maintain their rate of improvement next year, so the championship really could close up.

"If that is the case then I'll be in as good a position as anybody to take on Michael [Schumacher]. I beat him at Monaco last season, on a circuit where he was said to be virtually unstoppable, and I've beaten him on other occasions as well."

"I'll be 32 early in the 2003 season so I believe I'm just running into my prime," added the Scot. "I have a new trainer, a guy with a military background, so he's working me hard. My fitness level will be as high if not higher than ever."

He concluded: "Our first goal is to take over from Williams as the most likely threat to Ferrari. We managed to get in front of Williams at the last couple of races and now we've had the chance to try some of the developments that have been in the pipeline and they've proved very positive.

"I think stability and continuity are important, and I have always had faith in this team. We haven't achieved the standards we expect recently but I have no doubts we shall be challenging for the championship again.

"No one stays on top forever and it's our intention to be the team that takes over from Ferrari."