Flight of the high-roller

Andrew Baker talks to the Ulsterman who has signed up to spend next year in the shadow of Schumacher at Ferrari
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The Independent Online
"FAST" Eddie Irvine has had a high-speed week. He flew back from the Portuguese Grand Prix on Sunday night with his boss Eddie Jordan on a light aircraft belonging to one of the team sponsors. The next day Jordan and Irvine commandeered the same plane to fly them to Switzerland to negotiate with Ferrari's lawyer Henry Peter. On Tuesday Irvine's appointment as Michael Schumacher's team-mate was announced. On Wednesday he touched down for a brief pit-stop at the Jordan HQ at Silverstone before flying off again, this time to Germany for today's European Grand Prix. "Yup," he said, in a spare moment on Wednesday, "it has all happened pretty fast."

Irvine's appointment was that rarest of things: an unexpected move in the Formula One driver market. The haggling in this peculiar bazaar is normally conducted in public, by way of hints, denials and half-truths, the stuff of paddock gossip. Five days before joining Ferrari, Irvine signed a contract with the Jordan team. "I am happy at Jordan," he said. "It's a young and ambitious team that is going places, and I don't want to move."

But a fistful of Marlboro dollars - 5 million, some say - was waved at Eddie Jordan, and suddenly it was the young and ambitious man who was going places. "Every driver dreams of Ferrari," Irvine said.

Irvine's fellow Ulsterman John Watson, who was second in the 1982 world championship and now commentates for Eurosport, thinks that the move has come at just the right time for his compatriot. "It's great for Eddie," Watson said. "He has come into Formula One and learned some of the skills, and now he's going to learn the rest." But Watson warned that the transition from the cosy little Jordan factory to Maranello may not be easy. "He's been with a team which is like a family and now he's going to be with a team which is the most industrially structured in the sport."

Irvine, who is now 29, announced his talent to the motor racing world in 1987, when he won the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. Among those watching at the Kent circuit was Dick Bennetts, who four years previously had discovered and developed the talents of Ayrton Senna. Bennetts liked what he saw in Irvine, and signed him up to drive for his West Surrey Racing Formula Three team in 1988.

"We knew he was good," Bennetts recalled last week. "On occasions he really flew in the car. He was very laid back, very relaxed, very confident within himself." If the young Irvine had a fault, it was that he was too laid back. "Back then, he liked the social life, you know," Bennetts remembered. "He was also skint." Irvine got around this problem by following his father, "Big Ed", into the second-hand car trade. "He showed up late for a race one day," Bennetts laughed, "and I asked him where he'd been. It turned out he'd taken time out to sell a car on the way to the race. I had to be a bit strict with him about that. I said: 'You've got to decide whether you want to be a second-hand car dealer or a racing driver.' And Eddie just shrugged and said: 'Ah well, I wasn't that late anyway.'"

Irvine matured as a driver in Japan, where he was forced by a lack of funding to take a paid place in the Japanese Formula 3000 championship. He joined an expatriate community of talented young European drivers, well-paid but largely forgotten by the Grand Prix teams. Adam Cooper of the magazine Autosport spent a few years covering the Japanese racing scene, and became close to many of the drivers, including Irvine. "Japanese motor racing was highly professional," Cooper said. "And Eddie realised that if he didn't concentrate on doing a good job, the money he was getting this year would go to someone else next year."

Off the track Irvine lived out of a suitcase, knocked around with Mika Salo, Jacques Villeneuve and the late Roland Ratzenberger, and tried not to get bored. It was not easy. Cooper recalls one evening before a race spent sitting in a bare room with Irvine, staring at an adjacent car park for entertainment.

Another pastime for Irvine was playing the stock market with his substantial earnings. And the sums thus accrued came in useful when the grand prix circuit came to Japan in 1993. Irvine was able to afford a place in the Jordan team and finished sixth. His impetuosity and speed on the track provoked Ayrton Senna into a post-race punch-up which established Irvine, as he put it at the time, "as the best- known British driver after Nigel Mansell. You know what they say, any publicity is good publicity."

Irvine's results since that remarkable debut have suffered as the Jordan team have encountered reliability problems. But he stood on a grand prix podium for the first time in Canada this year, having finished third behind his team-mate Rubens Barrichello and Jean Alesi, the man whose place he will take at Ferrari.

"It's quite a move upwards for him to be Michael Schumacher's team-mate," John Watson admits. "But I think Eddie's ability, and his nature and personality, are such that he will be able to deal with that." Other observers are more sceptical. Pino Allievi of the Gazzetta Dello Sport is one of them. "The Italian people have not heard of Irvine," Allievi explained. "They pay not so much attention to the other teams in Formula One so they do not know that he has been racing." But there is hope. "We know he has the heart," Allievi said, "and that is good. Now he must demonstrate the speed. And then he must give the tifosi something special. If he is a second a lap slower than Schumacher, they will say: 'Why did Ferrari not hire an Italian driver?' "

Irvine welcomes the attention of the Ferrari fans: "At least they are all willing me to win, and that's something." But won't they put him under a great deal of pressure? He sighed. "Listen, you put the pressure on yourself, to be honest." And Irvine is unfazed by the speed of his new team-mate, which in the past has ended the careers of drivers of the calibre of Nelson Piquet and Riccardo Patrese. "The guy is the best there is," he said. "And if you're going to be beaten, you might as well be beaten by the best."

Irvine is starting Italian lessons this week - "I've just finished learning English"- and Pino Allievi says that fluency in the language will be vital to his success. "All the Italians' favourite foreigners spoke the language," he said. "Regazzoni, Villeneuve, Alesi. It's very important."

Irvine's first encounter with Italian culture, in 1988, was not a success. "I sent him to Italy to meet the people who looked after the Alfa Romeo engines for us," Dick Bennetts recalled. "I told him to smarten himself up, take my new car and go and forge a good relationship with these people. Unbelievable! First of all he crashes my car, then he comes on the phone moaning: 'Oh shit, Dick, it's awful, I can't understand it, they don't even speak English. And the food is terrible.' " Buon appetito, Eddie.