JULY 26, 1999

Irvine en route to Stewart?

EDDIE IRVINE might have won a fine victory over McLaren in Austria but the Ulsterman's future with the Italian team seems to be coming to an end.

EDDIE IRVINE might have won a fine victory over McLaren in Austria but the Ulsterman's future with the Italian team seems to be coming to an end. Ferrari bosses are not expected to announce anything until later in the year but we hear that talks have come to a halt because Irvine wants equal number one status with Michael Schumacher next year. Irvine has not helped his cause by making public statements pointing out that it would be ridiculous if he were to win the World Championship and then have to play the number two role to Schumacher next season. Irvine's comments seem to have been a rather clumsy attempt to shame Ferrari into agreeing to his terms. Jean Todt is showing no sign of backing down and responded by saying that it is not up to drivers to decide the team's strategies. He added that nothing will be decided until it becomes clear what is happening with the injured Schumacher although it is widely rumored that Ferrari is close to a deal with Rubens Barrichello.

Todt's reaction to Irvine's victory was remarkable. There was barely hint of a smile and he left engineer Ross Brawn to go onto the podium to collect the trophy to the Winning Constructor. He later commented that "we have seen the right response from Eddie and the team to the situation in which we find ourselves at the moment."

This would seem to suggest that Todt was not expecting Irvine to do as well as he did which would be very convenient for the team as Eddie could be used as a scapegoat. If Irvine wins the World title, however, Todt has a problem because he does not want to give Irvine number one status and if he does not agree to do so, Irvine will leave, taking the number one tag with him. When Irvine did not appear to have any real choice of team for 2000 Todt was relatively safe but Eddie has received a large offer from Stewart. Irvine and representatives from the Ford-owned team met in secret on the Saturday at the BritishÊGrandÊPrix to discuss terms of a deal and we believe that these were agreed in principle. A final decision will not be taken until the German Grand Prix when Ford's chairman Jac Nasser will take a look at the question. He may decide to wait and see what happens as signing Irvine as World Champion would be attractive. The problem is that Irvine is not really a man who fits into the image of what will probably be a Jaguar team next year. Irvine's tendency to say thing without thinking them through could torpedo a Ford deal because the company is in F1 to sell cars and there are questions marks over whether Eddie is sufficiently diplomatic for the job. We believe that there is a strong lobby within the Stewart team to hire David Coulthard instead. David fits the Jaguar image perfectly and has shown that he understands how a manufacturer expects a driver to behave. He would also probably gain a lot of confidence if he was free from the pressure of constantly being measured against Mika Hakkinen. His situation at McLaren was not very comfortable before the Austrian GP and since the first lap accident with Hakkinen his stock within the team has taken a plunge. McLaren will have no problem for a replacement as Ricardo Zonta is under option to leave BAR if McLaren has a drive available for him. We understand that McLaren must take up its option with the Brazilian within the next few days.

Johnny Herbert's situation at Stewart is fairly clear. He has a contract for next year and this is not dependent on any performance clauses. His performances are improving as he learns more about the team and although there is probably a buyout clause if Ford wants to get rid of him, Johnny has long been a Ford favorite and his continued presence within the team would provide stability at a time when the other driver is likely to change.

There are some within the team who hope that Rubens Barrichello will stay on but the Brazilian seems intent on moving to Ferrari. This is a very strange move, even if Ferrari is willing to agree to give Barrichello equal number one status. If Todt will not give Irvine such a deal there is no reason to suggest that Barrichello will get one. Barrichello is three years younger than Schumacher but there is no reason to suggest that Michael is planning to move elsewhere in the next few years - a move which would allow Rubens to become the team number one. He would be paid well, of course, but there are many who doubt that Barrichello is psychologically tough enough to survive in the political climate at Ferrari. In the past Rubens has not always done well when under pressure from a team-mate. He may have grown out of that but he is going to need to be very tough to go up against Schumacher.

Barrichello does however have a dream to drive for Ferrari and his decision may be based more on emotion than on logic - which is not always a good idea.

Another possibility for Ferrari is Mika Salo. If he does well in the next few races - matching or even beating Irvine - Ferrari could decide that the best thing to do is to hire the Finn. He knows that his job would be to support Michael Schumacher and is willing to accept that. He would also do the job with rather less comment than is the case with Irvine. This would suit Ferrari very well.