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Irvine to Ferrari!

FERRARI took the F1 world by complete surprise last week when it signed Eddie Irvine to be its second driver for 1996. The Ulsterman - who is believed to have options to continue with Ferrari in 1997 and 1998 - had been confirmed as a Total Jordan Peugeot driver only six days before the Ferrari announcement.

The transfer came about because Irvine had a clause in his Jordan contract allowing for its cancellation if the team received a payment of $5million in compensation - a healthy boost for the team's finances.

Ferrari had been expected to nominate its test driver Nicola Larini as Schumacher's team-mate but we hear that Ferrari bosses felt that they needed a driver who would be able to stand up against the psychological battering and be able to inject some humor into the team. In addition, Schumacher did not want an Italian team mate because he was worried that the national link would result in the Italian driver getting better treatment.

Before the Italian GP, Irvine's name had been mentioned as a possible Ferrari driver but it was thought that the $5 million buyout was too expensive for any team to consider. With Ferrari splashing out $25m on Schumacher it was expected that Ferrari would economize on its second driver. Irvine, however, is believed to have a contract worth about $3 million a year in addition to the $5m release, which may well have been paid by Marlboro - thus killing two birds with one stone as Eddie Jordan has been chasing Marlboro to increase his budget for some time .

The Irvine transfer bears all the hallmarks of having been engineered by F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone - although all those involved deny Bernie's involvement. Until the Italian GP, Irvine was being managed by Mike Greasley - who also looks after the interests of Mika Salo and Martin Brundle. When Greasley suffered a stroke and was hospitalized he handed over his drivers for Ecclestone to look after.

There is little doubt that Ferrari's dream team was Schumacher-Coulthard, but the Scot was contracted to McLaren and did not want to move. The possibility that Alain Prost might drive for McLaren gave Ecclestone the possibility of switching Coulthard to Ferrari. When Prost announced that he was not returning to the cockpit, Coulthard's position at McLaren was no longer threatened and so Irvine came into the picture.

The deal is good for Ecclestone because he wanted a strong character alongside Schumacher to spice up the F1 show. Ecclestone thinks that Irvine is one of the few F1 drivers with real charisma and as Schumacher and Damon Hill may both be good drivers but are not the larger-than-life characters like Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell or Nelson Piquet.

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