Motor Racing: Eddie Irvine - Home drivers on the home straight

While Damon Hill has been the centre of local attention in the build-up to the British Grand Prix, Sunday's race at Silverstone will also be important for three other home drivers. Derick Allsop talked to them; `I want to put myself in title contention'

THE INSOUCIANT demeanour and the unguarded comments were always bound to make the hackles rise in the more stuffy corners of Formula One, but Eddie Irvine is unrepentant.

In fact, he contends the irreverent image is winning him more admirers than enemies - more than his team-mate, Michael Schumacher, he suggests with mischievous relish - and helping him produce the best season of his life.

The 33-year-old Ferrari driver registered his maiden victory on the opening day of the championship and, going into Sunday's British Grand Prix at Silverstone, he is third in the title standings behind the McLaren-Mercedes' defending champion, Mika Hakkinen, and Schumacher.

However, results alone do not convey the impact of the man from Northern Ireland, who was hired as Schumacher's No 2 but has contributed the bonus of a dashing driving style and complimentary colourful lifestyle.

"My image has never been a hindrance at all," Irvine said. "A lot of people actually like my image. The sponsors do. I'm more popular than Michael in Italy, and that's hacking them off. The fans tell me they buy Michael Schumacher caps but love me."

Damon Hill's imminent abdication as the UK's favourite driver leaves a vacancy and Irvine is currently the best placed of the home contingent to fill it. He will not be applying. "I don't like being a hero," he said. "I just like getting on and doing my own thing and people not bothering me. That's not what sponsors want and not what you should do in this job, not if you're a star. You're supposed to accept all that. But I don't like it.

"I love walking into restaurants and getting a table, I love walking into nightclubs and not paying, I love pulling the most beautiful girls because of my job. But I hate people bothering me for autographs when I'm talking to someone and all that sort of thing. Italy's the worst place. I get really hassled there. I walk down the street and every two minutes someone shouts: `Eddie, Eddie'. I think it's an invasion of your privacy.

"In Dublin [where he lives] they're a bit cooler. It would be seen as uncool. England is halfway between the two. People come up to me in pubs, or knock on the window, that sort of thing. I've been surprised. It's getting on the podium regularly, getting your face known.

"But I'm having more fun this year than I've ever had away from the circuit, and I'm getting better results than I've ever had on the circuit, so the two must go hand in hand.

"OK, you can't be out there partying every night of the week, not the week before a race, but the week after a race I have fun. If you're not having fun, you've got to feel bad about yourself and you're not going to perform well. You've seen that with Damon."

Despite Irvine's argument to the contrary, it does appear his reputation might have eliminated him from any short list of candidates Ron Dennis is compiling at McLaren, the only team capable of beating Ferrari in normal circumstances. Dennis did not take kindly to Irvine's claim he would do a better job than David Coulthard.

Irvine said: "At the end of the day Ron wants somebody to beat Michael so he'd be happy with Billy Connolly in the car if he could do the job. Ron is a different guy away from the circuit.

"I do think I would be a better proposition for him than Coulthard. He's having a bit of a tough time and his stock is going down. What's the big deal in that? No ground-breaking stuff there. DC and Mika Hakkinen may think they are better than me. Fine. I have no problem with that.

"I am what I am, and if that stops me going some place then OK. I don't want to live a lie. I don't want to be asked a question and say: `Sorry, I can't answer that'. I'm not much different from Jacques Villeneuve. He pretty much says what he wants, does what he wants. It's the only way to be."

On the track, Irvine is answering most of the questions. The biggest, however, concerns his future and whether he will continue to be subservient to Schumacher or be his own man elsewhere. He has been linked with Jordan- Mugen and Stewart-Ford, who would probably be prepared to almost double his pounds 2.5 million a year retainer.

"At the moment I would say I'm seen in the top four drivers in the world - along with Michael, Mika and Jacques. That's the way I see it. This is what I wanted to achieve. I deliberately stayed at Ferrari for a fourth year because I wanted to get a win, I wanted to run at the front. Now I've got a big decision to make. There's no point going somewhere just for the money. I could have done that already. Don't get me wrong, I like money, but I want to get myself in a position to win the world championship in the next two or three years.

"It has to be what's best for Eddie Irvine. Always was. I haven't stayed at Ferrari because I wanted to help Michael Schumacher win the world championship. I'm here because of me. And Michael's not at Ferrari because he likes Ferrari. He's here because it's the best place for him. Look after No 1."

Significantly, Irvine no longer eulogises about his team-mate. He acknowledges Schumacher is the best, but not infallible. Irvine said: "He's always made mistakes, always gone off, but 99 times out of a hundred he gets away with it. I don't know if I'm getting to him in the head but I'm definitely getting closer to him on the circuit.

"For sure, though, you always learn from Michael, especially on a circuit like Silverstone, the way he pushes through the fast corners. You know it's there to be done so you have to put your heart in your mouth and go for it." Even if Irvine is fast enough to overtake Schumacher he accepts he's not allowed to, so all he can hope for is second best. Unless...

"You never know, it could be first. Michael might slip on a banana skin tomorrow. You don't wish bad luck on anyone, but I'm out there for me. If he has a problem, I have to take advantage."

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