INTERVIEW

The luck of the Irish: Eddie Irvine

Eddie Irvine always thought he could win a Grand Prix - but in the Formula 1 paddock he was in the minority. When he joined Ferrari at the start of 1996 his job description was very clear. He was to be Michael Schumacher's lackey. If the Ferrari number one needed help Irvine would do whatever was necessary. For the last three seasons he has been doing exactly that. He has sacrificed the few chances he has had to help Michael win races. It is a well paid job but not one that created much respect in the F1 paddock. Alessandro Zanardi - who was offered Eddie's job at Ferrari this year - turned down the opportunity because he refused to accept that he should move over for Schumacher.

But this never seems to worry Eddie.

He says he doesn't care what people think of him and rather than making friends with the press corps as most drivers do, he has often chosen to antagonize reporters, berating them for having not knowing what they were talking about.

Whether he as right or wrong is not the issue, it was simply not a very logical approach if one wants to win friends and influence people. But that is one of Eddie's trademarks.

Such attitudes have hindered and, at the same time, helped his career. Another F1 rebel James Hunt was a big Irvine fan and used his influence with Marlboro to help Irvine up the ladder in the junior formulae.

At the same time some racing folk wanted nothing to do with him. He was quick but he opened his mouth too much and was always getting into trouble.

After a moderately successful career in European Formula 3000 Eddie found himself with no work. He went to Japan to race in Formula 3000 and in the early 1990s was in exile there. If it hadn't been for Eddie Jordan, Irvine would probably still be there. At the time the Irish team owner was struggling to find a good number two driver for his team. He had tried Ivan Capelli, Thierry Boutsen, Emanuele Naspetti and Marco Apicella but for the Japanese GP he thought he would take a risk. Irvine was from the island of Ireland - although being from Northern Ireland he is always listed as being a British driver - and he had specific knowledge of the Suzuka circuit. Jordan had nothing to lose.

Irvine finished sixth although he upset Ayrton Senna by blocking the McLaren star. Senna went to talk to him after the race and Irvine reacted. The result was that Senna hit him.

"You're going to have problems not only with me, but with lots of other guys and also the FIA," Senna raved. The Brazilian went to Paris and received a two-race ban from the FIA for clocking Eddie, but the punishment was suspended because the World Council decided that there had been "a high degree of provocation" from Irvine.

The word from Paris was that Irvine had annoyed the FIA men at the hearing. The following year Eddie was back in Paris after being involved in a huge crash in Brazil. This time he was banned for three races. The penalty was not suspended.

After that Irvine got down to racing and did well enough in 1994 and 1995 to be noticed by Ferrari boss Jean Todt.

Irvine's contract stipulated that if Michael Schumacher is behind him, Eddie has to let him through and he has stuck to that, hoping that one day when Michael was out of the running he would be in a position to win. But it did not happen.

Playing second fiddle was frustrating not just in the races but also in testing. In pre-season testing this year, for example, Schumacher completed four or five times as much running as Eddie was allowed. After his victory in Melbourne Eddie did not miss the irony of the situation

"I came here with very little testing in the F399," he laughed. "It is good Michael did so much testing and made the car reliable for me. He sweats and I get the glory! Thanks

Michael."

In fact, Eddie says that he arrived in Australia with a feeling that he might win the race.

"Last week a friend of mine from Japan rang me and said: "I had a dream that you are going to win in Australia" and then the same week an old girlfriend called and she said the same thing."

Once in Melbourne Irvine kept his head down.

"All week my engineer and I did our own thing, despite what

anyone thought. We were convinced about the way we wanted the car to be and what tyres we wanted to run. I kept saying to the team "the car feels good, the car feels good". I thought it was the best car I'd ever driven. I'm glad I stuck to my guns."

Qualifying was not a great success.

"My qualifying lap was crap," he admitted. He was in sixth place, 1.8secs slower than Mika Hakkinen's McLaren but only half a second down on Schumacher.

You can call it the luck of the Irish if you like but on Sunday two of the five cars ahead of him on the grid disappeared before the start: Rubens Barrichello's Stewart catching fire and Schumacher's Ferrari being sent to the back of the grid for failing to keep station on the parade lap. At the start Eddie got the drop on Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Jordan and was third and when the two McLarens dropped out he took the lead. It was lucky but it does not matter. In Formula 1 a victory is a victory.

Eddie was aware of his good fortune.

"I was a bit lucky today," he admitted. "The McLarens

had problems; they're not always going to have a problem. At

least when they did I was there. If they don't have problems McLaren are going to beat us in Brazil, but this time the tortoise beat the hare. Let's hope it happens again."

"It is fantastic to win like this with Ferrari and after waiting such a long time for my first Grand Prix win I want to thank everyone who has helped me since the start of my career. They know who they are. If I was to start telling you all their names - and I've needed a lot of help - then we'd be here for hours! All my critics will have to start thinking of something else to write about...

"At the end I saw a lot of Ferrari flags and if there weren't Ferrari flags then there were Irish flags. There must be a lot of Paddies in town."

Irvine's unexpected victory makes life difficult for Ferrari. Irvine has a 10-point advantage in the World Championship over the man he is supposed to be helping to the title.

"If I get lucky and Michael gets unlucky a few more times and I end up with 30 or 40 points and Michael has got hardly any I would not like to be in Jean Todt's shoes. I think I had better have a word with him and see if it changes things."

After the race McLaren boss Ron Dennis - who has been one of Irvine's leading critics in the paddock - sent McLaren's stores of champagne down to Ferrari for Eddie and his crew. It was a nice gesture.

Over the years Eddie has often been criticized for having fun, something which modern F1 drivers are not supposed to do, and after the race Eddie was in the mood to party

"I'll have one beer," he said, "naturally

that leads to another and then it's a chain reaction.

"It's great. Everyone slags me off because I go out and

have fun and stuff like that but this will show the young drivers coming up that you can win in Formula 1 and still have a good time!"

The Irish pubs of Melbourne did swift trade on Sunday night...<\#026>

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