JULY 19, 1999

Irvine is Ferrari number 1

EDDIE IRVINE will head Ferrari's challenge for the Formula 1 World Championship following Michael Schumacher's accident at Silverstone.

EDDIE IRVINE will head Ferrari's challenge for the Formula 1 World Championship following Michael Schumacher's accident at Silverstone. The German star will be out of action for around two months which means that he is unlikely to return before the Italian Grand Prix in September. By then his chances of winning the World Championship will be minimal. Even if he makes an extraordinarily quick recovery he is still going to miss at least three races and with Mika Hakkinen already eight points ahead in the title race, it will be virtually impossible for Michael to catch up. As Irvine has the same number of points as Schumacher it is logical that Ferrari now throw all its efforts behind the Ulsterman. "My message to Eddie is - just go for it!," said Schumacher from hospital in Northampton.

Schumacher underwent a 90-minute operation after his crash on Sunday afternoon at Silverstone, during which surgeon Dr. Bill Ribbans inserted a 12-inch metal plate in his lower right leg to help the broken tibia and fibula bones to heal quickly. Even with this, however, a normal period of recovery would be between 12 and 16 weeks. There were no complications and on Tuesday morning Schumacher left Northampton General Hospital by ambulance. He was then flown to Geneva, Switzerland, aboard a Swiss Air Rescue REGA Challenger air ambulance jet and from there was driven to a clinic not far from his home in Vufflens-le-Chateau, near Lausanne.

Michael's manager Willi Weber later told reporters that it was "realistic" that Michael be out of racing for three months. Weber said that Schumacher was aiming to be 100% fit for the 2000 season and was not planning to rush back into action. "We don't want to take any risks and the doctors have advised him not to," Weber said. "He doesn't want to come back too early and risk long-term sequels."

Schumacher also seems to have accepted the situation. "I know I'm going to be out of action for two to three months," he said. "I have absolutely no chance of the championship this year but I'm confident I'll be back driving a Ferrari in F1 before the end of the season.

Despite these comments there have been a variety of reports in German newspapers suggesting that Ferrari could make changes to the Ferrari to enable Schumacher to return to racing before his leg is fully healed. These suggest that he could drive the car with a hand-operated throttle. This is possible but it is highly unlikely to happen as Michael would not be able to pass the FIA test which demands that a driver be able to get out of the cockpit of his car within five seconds.

Irvine began his stint as Ferrari number one by suggesting that the disappearance of Schumacher may help the Ferrari team achieve better results. "Michael can be very demanding to work for," said Irvine. "There is a certain level of pressure which people can take, but after that it is maybe too much. We need to knuckle down now and make fewer mistakes, but that might happen because Michael is not there so there is less pressure on the guys.

"Ferrari's whole strategy was to win the World Championship with Michael. It normally works very good. If I had not moved over for him five times last year he would not have gone into the last race still in the championship. This year it might have backfired on us because I gave away points to Michael in France and that might cost us the championship."

Irvine reckons that he has a "50-50 chance" of beating Mika Hakkinen to the World title and is relishing the challenge. "I have done a three-and-a-half year apprenticeship at Ferrari and this is the opportunity I have been waiting for," he said. "I just hope I can deliver the goods. If I can win the World Championship it would just be unreal but it is not going to be easy. If I win the title for Ferrari it would be the ultimate but then I'd want to go and win it with someone else." Irvine said that it would be "ridiculous" if he did win the title this year and then have to play second fiddle to Schumacher.

There are many in the F1 paddock who doubt that Irvine has what it takes to be the World Champion but if he can prove everyone wrong, it is quite likely that as World Champion he would have to move to another team.