Ready, Eddie, Go!
An Irish Champion?
Article is written by and copyright (c) 1999 Peter Mooney.
by Peter Mooney
Being Irish, Eddie Irvine will appreciate the following comment, which comes from Davey Fitzgerald, the goalkeeper of the Clare hurling team. In the last minute of a recent championship game, he made a brilliant save, and then moments later scored a penalty goal up the other end of the field, earning a replay for his team: "Sure, that's hurling. This weekend I'm the hero, but next weekend I could be the bollix." The comment is very apt for Irvine, who, after races in Austria and Germany where he displayed a metaphorical two fingers to his detractors and showed just how good he can be, now has a glorious chance to take the 1999 F1 drivers' championship.
The circumstances Irvine found himself in at Austria and Germany would have made many a man give up and run for cover. However, he showed himself equal to the savage combination pressure of his team and the press, and also pressure he put on himself by his comments after Michael Schumacher's crash at Silverstone. He lives by his own comments, but never accepts the opinions of the press, the majority of whom he considers "morons who don't know what they're talking about." He could do without the negative pressure from within Ferrari after Schumacher's demise, personified in the shape of Jean Todt the team manager.
Irvine's own comments are irritating, entertaining and thought provoking in variable measures. Many people just cannot seem to get to grips with his simple 'say what you mean' Irish mentality and take him too seriously, trying to deal with him in a pompous fashion, which in turn indulges Irvine's other Irish expertise in biting sarcasm. Likewise, other drivers have been subjected to the head games he loves to play, with variable results. You either see him as a refreshing breath of fresh air in comparison to the stuffy, unintelligible PR-spin rubbish that most of the other drivers come out with, or you see him as an arrogant prat who should shut up and do what he's paid to do. Irvine has always been a magnet for the press given the lifestyle he loves so much, and some of my Italian friends are convinced that the reason he was taken on by Ferrari was as a counterpoint to the rather boring family-man brilliance of Schumacher, which is an interesting answer to "what he's paid to do".
And then we have the team, accused of being "Team Schumacher" to the detriment of anything else - fine as long as it works, but disastrous if it doesn't - and it hasn't, in absolute terms. The team that has more politics and money than sense, that represents the national pride for many Italians. Irvine joined with eyes wide open, aware he was there on Schumacher's forbearance, tied under a restrictive contract and given a very specific job to do - a number 2 role in Team Schumacher. But Eddie was smart enough to figure the compensations far outweighed the negative aspects and played the game dutifully, lucky enough to have a preference for the car's handling that was close to Schumacher's. And he did a bloody good job, getting better as the seasons went on, and closer to Schumacher in terms of results. Still second fiddle, still expected to move over. And then came Melbourne.
The first race of '99 lit the fuse that marks a dangerous uprising for the Ulsterman within the team. In Melbourne, Irvine had the courage of his own convictions, stuck to his own set up and chose soft tyres, which had the bonus of other teams misreading his race strategy. The Two McLarens and Schumacher disappeared, leaving Irvine to take a deserving victory. And then Eddie discovered that Ferrari couldn't give a toss about his first win, instead clucking over Schumacher who had finished eighth and last, leaving Irvine to go to fellow Irishmen in the Jordan garage to express anger at his treatment.
But Eddie lead the championship. And Schumacher. And hay was to be made in the 5 weeks to Brazil, but as Eddie gooned around doing interviews and flying with the Red Arrows, the hounds were gathering. At the Ferrari road car launch in Geneva, Schumacher, presumably with fingers firmly crossed and speaking through gritted teeth, says that he would help Irvine if it were in the best interests of the team. Irvine allegedly has a contract clause if he is over 40 points by Spain and Schumacher's total is less, Schumi would be the number 2 driver. Then Jody Scheckter chips in: "Eddie is often half a second adrift and that's no good. Michael would benefit from having someone who is really aggressive alongside him." He also said that Coulthard had contributed more to Hakkinen's success in 1998 than Irvine had helped Schumacher. Then Gerhard Berger adds fuel to the fire: "Eddie Irvine is talking too much. I as a director would fire him."
Then Brazil. Sixth on the grid again, the race goes well - an Irvine special, easy run to third place - but.... Eddie has an unscheduled pitstop to remove debris from his radiators - why hadn't they done this 13 laps earlier when he refuelled? Back out in fifth behind Ralf Schumacher - if it isn't one, it's the bloody other. Fifth and two points. Ah well, still leading the championship - and double Schumacher's points. Roll on Europe and Imola, 3 weeks later. He can't resist having a 5 grand punt on still leading the championship after Imola.
Then Imola. Fourth on the grid - not bad. Hakkinen loses it on lap 16, driver error, Coulthard now first, Schumacher second - the 5 grand's looking good - but… Schumi buries Coulthard in the pitstops to win, and Eddie's engine seizes on lap 47. Still second in the championship, but 4 points behind Schumacher. Hey, Monaco's next, and he's always done well there - hope springs eternal.
Before Monaco, though, the Italian newspapers either get wind of or make up a story about Irvine having signed an option to drive with Jordan next season. Irvine doesn't deny it, but Ian Phillips of Jordan does. And Schumacher has allegedly called Irvine an "idiot" over the weekend for comments Eddie made on driver briefings, the tensions are being multiplied by the press. Luca di Montezemolo says it is a little bit early to talk about Irvine's future.
A fortnight later, Monaco. Posing territory, and back in the saddle with a good second place. A great start, early pitstop, Hakkinen's car slips on Takagi's oil and loses time, and a splash and dash at the end ensures second place for Eddie, strategy the master. A good result as usual on this circuit, but Schumacher wins and now leads Eddie in the championship by 8 points.
Then Spain - the nearly man, just missed pole, but a priceless blow to Schumacher by beating him on the grid for second place. But, totally unusual, Eddie makes a dog's dinner of the race start, not only losing second but boxing Schumacher, allowing Villeneuve to nip past and make an impression of a mobile chicane until the pitstop. The two McLarens finish for the first time, Schumacher third and Irvine fourth. Promise unfulfilled, and without the 40 points, the contract clause shelved. Now third in the championship.
And then more shenanigans. Serious rumours abound of Barrichello doing a swap with Eddie for next year, Pedro Diniz and Jean Alesi are also rumoured replacements. But Schumacher says he wants Eddie to stay, and that "any talk of problems between us is rubbish." And Irvine strikes back; "McLaren have an excellent car - Ferrari haven't said yet whether they want to keep me or get rid of me." He says Ferrari needs him, he slags off Hakkinen as weak, Alesi as a non-starter for Ferrari, says he's better than Coulthard, and even Schumacher has "a great many weak points."
Fortunately, another race intervenes, - Canada. Eddie is first on Friday, but difficult qualifying, third place splits the McLarens with Schumacher on pole. Third off the grid, too, but under pressure from Coulthard early in the race. Then Ricardo Zonta and Damon Hill hit the wall. Schumacher hits the wall, too, on lap 30, making his "one mistake a year," and leaving Irvine to uphold the Ferrari honour. At the restart behind the safety car, the handbags are out between Irvine and Coulthard - Coulthard makes a move, Eddie shuts the door, and both lose places. Eddie is now seventh, but the car feels great. Banzai! - he passes Diniz, Herbert, and then Ralf Schumacher to take third place, with Frentzen crashing out. His spirited driving and passing while many others lost their heads earn him huge kudos in Italy, the tifosi love it. Eddie is still third in the championship. Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo praises Eddie, but refuses to be drawn on next year.
Then France. The pain in the rain. Eddie dominates a 3 day test before the race, but in practice the Ferraris struggled. On Saturday, the rain comes down in sheets - Barrichello, Alesi and Panis guess right and inhabit the front row for the race, Irvine is sixteenth, Hakkinen fourteenth, and Schumacher a creditable sixth. The race starts dry, Eddie starts in neutral, but gets into ninth place before the rain comes down. Sensing an advantage as he's near the pits, Eddie screams "box" into the headset and tears into the pits, not expecting the team to be fully ready, but not expecting them to be comatose, either. Reacting in neutral, they stagger out and give him slicks - Keystone Cops time. Eddie, finally sorted, comes back out in eleventh, a glorious opportunity wasted. Cars just slide off the track, even with the safety car out. On the last safety car lap, Irvine slides off but recovers, now he's twelfth and dead last. He overtakes both Arrows, Zonta, Fisichella, then Hakkinen who has spun, then Trulli for sixth place. Irvine pits again, and they get it right this time. Michael Schumacher pits with electrical problems, Irvine is now eighth after another off track excursion. Zonta pits, Irvine takes Panis for sixth, now chasing both Schumachers, first Ralf and then Michael just ahead again, still with electrical problems. Eddie gets ahead of Ralf, then loses two places as Ralf passes him and Michael. Eddie can't pass Michael, and has to let Ralf go, to finish finally in sixth with a single point. All that effort for one point, and more nightmares about Schumachers!
After France, more strong rumours about Barrichello and Ferrari. Ferrari are extremely upset with Irvine at comments he made to the Italian press on aspects of his contract that Ferrari don't want made public. Irvine is verbally assaulted for making what many consider to be over the top comments about Damon Hill's decision to do one more Grand Prix at Silverstone. Eddie Jordan says in the Times that Irvine would be better off not coming back to Jordan, and that it would be better for Jordan if he didn't return, probably correctly figuring that Irvine would upset the delicate Frentzen, a la Barrichello, if he came back. David Coulthard says that Irvine is the "classic case of the male inadequacy syndrome." Ron Denis implies that Irvine would be the last driver on the planet he would have in his cars, Irvine retorts that Ron would put Billy Connolly in the car if he thought he'd beat Schumacher. Eddie muses on how great it would be if Schumacher did him a favour and retired. Luca di Montezemolo denies that Ferrari have talked or made offers to Barrichello, and says there is no final decision for next season.
On to Silverstone. Fourth on the grid again, the race itself is red flagged after the start as two cars have stalled. While this is going on, Schumacher, who had a bad start, passes Irvine on the inside to Stowe corner, but incredibly ploughs straight through the corner, narrowly missing Irvine, skips over the gravel traps and straight into a tyre wall. Game over - Schumacher has a broken leg, out for several races and his championship hopes in tatters. The grid reforms while Schumacher's accident is cleared, Irvine sits in his similar car chatting and laughing with his mechanics - has he no fear, or have Ferrari told him nothing? The race restarts, a procession with Irvine second, and then Hakkinen pulls off with only three wheels on his wagon - a glorious chance for Irvine to take his first British GP. But… the pit stop from hell, Irvine overshoots his pit markings and loses time, coming out just behind Coulthard and it stays that way.
The king is dead - long live the clown prince. But many don't see it that way, including Jean Todt. No matter that there is a large whiff of suspicion that Schumacher has made his second, and fatal, mistake in a year - Schumi cannot do wrong, given he is paid a kings ransom and the team is designed around him. Todt is not amused at Eddie's slow pitstop, but Irvine counters along the lines of "well, how would you know, you were in the hospital holding Schumacher's hand at the time." But the championship is still a possibility, with Irvine now only 8 points adrift of Hakkinen. Eddie knows he hasn't a snowball's chance in hell of winning unless the team feel he can win, so they will put the necessary resources in to develop the car as if Schumacher was still in the running. In truth, this may still not be enough, as for the last few years.
Most people in Irvine's position would have laid low and hoped for the best, but not Eddie - he keeps on talking and winding people up, despite getting into serious negotiations about next year with Ferrari at the same time. The initial few days of sensible "giving it all for the championship" are replaced by more controversy, and the general feeling is that he is setting himself up for a fall. Tired of the endless merda di vacca in the press over when Schumacher will return, Eddie claims the Ferrari team will be far more relaxed with Schumi gone, slags off Coulthard again, and theorises how it would be impossible for him to be number 2 to Schumacher next year if he wins the championship. He claims no interest in being the number 1 British driver, "It carries no weight at all, does it? I might sell a few more hats, but that's not what I'm in F1 to do." The hounds gather again, people who have never liked him lining up to have a go. Gerhard Berger, again: "Irvine does not have the capacity to do it. He and David Coulthard are in a lower league." He bemoans the fact that Schumacher is gone, and describes Michael as the pepper in the F1 soup. Ron Dennis, tired of Eddie's sniping, tells Eddie to shut up and drive. The best Jean Todt can say is, "I hope he makes the most of it," and that "Eddie has to show us what he can do." Todt also says that Eddie has never been the second driver, and claims it is not up to the drivers to decide the strategy, that the team will decide strategy on Schumacher's return. This is priceless drivel from a man trying to justify himself - Todt knows full well that, if tomorrow morning, he decided Schumacher should leave and Schumacher decided Todt should leave, Todt's feet wouldn't touch the ground on the way out the Maranello gates.
And then, Austria, all the words hidden by the blare of F1 engines, as it should be. Qualifying for Eddie is a disaster, a full second behind both the McLarens. A clean start, but, on the second corner, Coulthard, pumped up after his Silverstone win, suffers from his brain-fade of old and makes a suicide lunge up the inside, collecting Hakkinen and spinning his car around (a Formula One Frequently Asked Question: Why is it necessary to have team orders? Answer: because if you don't, your team-mates could take each other off. Doh!) Irvine is held up behind the mess, which allows Barrichello to take advantage. Coulthard disappears in the distance, but then the gap stabilises. Then everyone pits, except Eddie. He has nursed the car and brakes, conserved fuel, and on lap 39, as Coulthard pits, he puts pedal to the metal. On lap 44 he pits and comes out ahead of Barrichello and Coulthard - perfect. Coulthard, now 2 seconds behind him, looms in his mirrors. Meanwhile, Hakkinen has driven magnificently after his mishap and is now in third place, but too far behind to challenge. Coulthard is close enough to have a real go at passing for the lead, and the last 10 laps give Irvine's fans ulcers as Coulthard hovers in the background. But Irvine holds off to win a superb race, the way he wanted by beating both McLarens on the track. Not only this, but a blow to Coulthard, and in turn to Hakkinen, as Coulthard took Hakkinen off and then could not overtake Eddie to cut the points gap, so now Eddie is only two points behind Mika in the championship. OK, a little bit lucky, but Eddie's driving on the day was superb, and reminded people of… of… God, forbid, Schumacher himself. All Todt can say is "as usual, actions speak louder than words," and, for the second time, he does not appear on the podium with Eddie, allowing Ross Brawn to share in the glory. Schumacher, from his bed, praises Irvine, and then makes a revealing whine about how it would have been an important race for him as well.
Irvine rounds on his detractors - he says to the Irish Times, "I've always had my critics, when I first started racing in Formula Ford there was a guy who said 'that Irvine will never make a racing driver as long as he's got a hole in his arse' and I proved him wrong. I've done the same today," winding himself up for the bigger job to come. The Italian press come in for some particular abuse, but, as is their nature, the next week's papers are full of Irvine, this, Ferrari that. But there's little time to bask in the glory as Hockenheim is the following weekend. There is time, however, for more words, as three days after Austria, Irvine wonders aloud if Schumacher will be back at all in 1999. He slags off Coulthard again, saying "but I think we could have beaten DC any day of the week - that's half of the McLaren stable beaten." Divide and conquer, and there is much speculation from outside and official comment from McLaren and Mercedes on the McLaren incident in Austria. Irvine allegedly meets Ron Dennis for talks about next year. The press is full of rubbish about how Schumacher is going to be back next week. Jean Todt denies that there are any problems to be resolved with Eddie, the press are making it up. And then says that Eddie is just doing his job in winning races, that it's worth 10 points no matter who does it. Eddie claims a points finish in Hockenheim would do nicely, and is totally evasive on his future, claiming he's leaving it up to his manager to sort out. Then, the real news, and what Irvine wants to hear - Luca di Montezemolo says that Austria proves that Ferrari can win without Schumacher even though some have denied this for years. Eddie can fight for the championship, and that it will be a very hard feat to pull off but that Ferrari will support him enthusiastically.
And so, Hockenheim. It was expected to be a bad track for Ferrari, and it started that way. Qualifying is a disaster, behind the two McLarens, an unwelcome Frentzen in the Jordan, and even Mika Salo, his new team mate. An off road excursion, bad traffic and wrong setup choice did the damage, but Irvine tries to salvage something, claims he's on the right side of the track and all is not as bad as it seems. At the race start, Frentzen holds Irvine up, letting Barrichello past, Irvine sixth with Salo second after a demon start - but don't panic yet. Barrichello goes out yet again, this time hydraulic failure. Then Coulthard mounts a kerb, loses control and a front wing in trying to get past Salo, and is demoted. Frentzen pits early, having flat-spotted a tyre, and Irvine is past in third place. Coulthard, sixth, gets a 10 second stop-go penalty for a rash challenge on Panis. Then Hakkinen stops, has huge problems with his fuel rig, and rejoins in fourth place, a Ferrari 1-2. The crowd goes wild. Hakkinen forces his way past Frentzen, and then his back tyre explodes at high speed, spinning him into the tyre wall. While this is going on, team orders are issued from the pits, and Salo lets Irvine by when everyone's attention is elsewhere. The rest of the race is processional, Irvine takes his second win in a row and now he's in the championship lead again by 8 points. This time, Todt lets Nigel Stepney, the Ferrari chief mechanic, up on the podium with Irvine. Is it fate that the McLarens have two high speed punctures and a fuel rig problem in the one weekend? Irvine couldn't care less, he has done what he's brilliant at and takes full advantage of the situation. And, boy, what irony - team orders in his favour? Eddie gives credit where it's due, and the trophy, to Salo. Salo can't complain, what would you prefer - no racing at all, two races as a stand-in in the poor BAR, or team orders and full credit in a Ferrari?
Hungary next, and Irvine put his car on the front row - shocking Hakkinen on pole, who expected to line up alongside Coulthard. The race itself was processional, with Coulthard making up for a poor start to pass Frentzen and Fisichella to pressure Irvine in the closing stages for second place. Irvine struggles with a differential problem right from the start, which stops him matching Hakkinen's pace and challenging for the lead, before an uncharacteristic mistake staving off Coulthard sees him run wide, and be passed. Only third from this race, but still leading the Championship by two points over Hakkinen, who had a perfect weekend.
So Hakkinen and Coulthard have re-signed for McLaren. And Schumacher might be back for Monza. And Irvine may have signed a deal with Ford for next year. So what? Belgium's next and Eddie often does well there, and if the championship goes down to the wire in Japan in October, watch him fly on the circuit he loves. The here and now is that Edmund Irvine, from Conlig, Northern Ireland, may be able to achieve what Schumacher hasn't done for Ferrari to date, having followed team orders for half a season, in an inferior car to the McLarens, and lift the 1999 world title. The sniggers after Australia that history wouldn't repeat itself this year with the winner of the first race taking the championship again could be stuffed and mounted permanently. And if he wins the championship, it won't be because he's the best driver in the best car, it'll be because he's a bloody good driver in a bloody good car, and because he's smart enough and mentally tough enough to put up with what he has for the past few years, then take his one chance, despite the obscene pressure that exists as a Ferrari driver and a Championship leader. And speak his mind, irritate and entertain as he goes. But that's Eddie for you - pure theatre. Will the road rise up with him for the last races, or will it slap him in the face? Do not adjust your set. Eddie Irvine may not be the pepper in the F1 soup, but he makes a great fly in the ointment, and possibly a worthy World Champion.
Go for it, Eddie.
Views expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the views of the F1 Rumors Team.