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The Silly Season kicks off...

THE Formula 1 Silly Season is up and running following the announcement in Germany that Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard are to stay as McLaren team mates for a fifth consecutive season. The announcement puts paid to suggestions in the paddock that Ford was bidding for the services of one or the other of the McLaren stars - and for the team's technical director Adrian Newey.

While there was nothing wrong with a little ambition, Ford seems to have been aiming rather high with regard to hiring star drivers - with rumors in the paddock that the company has drawn up a short list of just four names: Michael Schumacher, Hakkinen, Coulthard and Eddie Irvine. Schumacher is not available and with Hakkinen and Coulthard re-signing for McLaren, Ford will now probably end up going with Irvine. Our spies in Detroit suggest that the deal is virtually done. Eddie appears to have made little headway with his negotiations at Ferrari as the team shows no sign of agreeing to let him have equal status to Michael Schumacher.

There are, however, factions within the Stewart-Ford organization which are opposed to the hiring of Irvine as they consider that Eddie is not a company man and would be a loose cannon from a public relations point of view. There are also questions marks over whether Eddie is really fast enough to lead the Ford team as he has only rarely been able to challenge Michael Schumacher and has been quickly matched at Ferrari by Mika Salo. There may be specific reasons why that happened at Hockenheim and the Ford men may be interested to see what will happen in Hungary and Belgium.

Irvine's supporters argue that Eddie will develop more if he is given number one status in the team, but his detractors argue that it is much better to keep the current driver line-up if it is at all possible. Stability is important when a team is trying to grow and there is a good relationship between Rubens Barrichello and Johnny Herbert. Bringing in a new driver - particularly an outspoken one such as Irvine - could be a disruptive influence.

Barrichello, however, seems to be very keen to go to Ferrari - although the deal does not yet seem to be done. There does not seem to be much logic in the move but Barrichello seems to think that he is ready to go up against Schumacher and that he is tough enough to take the pressure at Ferrari.

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