Italian wounds soothed by Irvine

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The Independent Online
The weekend turned brighter for Italians, even if they had an Englishman, an Ulsterman and a German to thank for it, and a British team displaced them in the record books. No matter, Ferrari have helped assuage a nation distraught in the aftermath of events at their Olympic Stadium.

Ross Brawn, Ferrari's technical director, set out the strategy, Eddie Irvine played the hare brilliantly, and Michael Schumacher ultimately assumed command to give himself an even chance of beating Jacques Villeneuve in the winner-takes-all final race of the world championship at Jerez, Spain, on Sunday week. How the Azzurri craved such flair and ingenuity.

The only flaw in Ferrari's Japanese Grand Prix was Irvine's inability to stay ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen as the Williams-Renault driver came out of the pits after his second stop. Those six points for Frentzen secured Williams the outright record of nine constructors' titles, one more than Ferrari, and few would begrudge the Oxfordshire camp that distinction.

Just as few would begrudge Schumacher a third championship. He continues to demonstrate his superiority in every facet of racing, a capacity to compensate for inferior equipment and capitalise on every opportunity.

Villeneuve, racing under appeal, had an air of desperation about him from the start and there has been a general feeling that justice would prevail if Schumacher and Williams emerged as the season's winners. The Italians would certainly settle for a first Ferrari champion driver in 18 years.

They might also now settle for Irvine as their No 2. Influenced by the Italian media, they have been irritated by the 31-year-old's inconsistency and still more by his "arrogant nature". They accuse him of giving less than his all once he had signed a contract for next year.

Irvine fuelled rumours of his possible sacking by ridiculing his car after the Luxembourg Grand Prix, as "slow as a brick". His unamused bosses were thought to have put him on probation.

His position within the team after this race, however, appears to have changed as dramatically as Schumacher's in the championship.

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