Motor racing: Irvine insists on priority at Ferrari

THE SPECTRE of Michael Schumacher is ever more apparent and Eddie Irvine, conscious that the man is close to re-appearing in person, was at pains here yesterday to stress the merits of his own claims, over the Ferrari No 1, for official recognition as the team's championship contender.

Irvine takes a two-point lead over McLaren-Mercedes' Mika Hakkinen into Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix. Schumacher, soon to return in Italy, in a fortnight, is 24 points adrift.

The Ulsterman couched his appeal diplomatically, but it amounted to a simple message: give me your support and discount Schumacher's prospects. Irvine pointed out he had been informed of reports in the Italian media, quoting the Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemolo, as saying Schumacher would be required to support the Ulsterman's cause.

However, Irvine contends he has yet to be given first-hand confirmation of such a commitment and is anxious for the matter to be clarified before Schumacher, recovering from a broken leg, returns. Irvine said: "I've not been told anything by Ferrari and it's not for me to ask. But I assume I'm the one going for the championship. I am leading and Ferrari want to win the championship, so they should want to help me.

"At the start of the season Michael was their best chance for the championship but since his accident we've taken 30 points. Now I guess it's logical I've got the best chance. But it's not my decision. It's up to the team. I just go out and try to beat the McLarens anyway."

Behind this plea is an unease brought about by some of Irvine's more caustic comments and his negations with Stewart-Ford, or Jaguar, as the team is expected to be renamed.

Schumacher is unlikely to relish the role of supporting act and the team would be irked to see Irvine carry off the coveted world champion's No 1 sticker and slap it on the side of another car. Since Irvine presents the logical argument, he ought to accept that Hakkinen is the favourite for the championship after he and his team-mate, David Coulthard, were first and second in Hungary 12 days ago.

Irvine defiantly maintained: "We had a problem with the car in Budapest but you can't judge us on that. We're getting better and we have a chance here. People keep saying this is a really important race but they're all important. There are always 10 points for the win. I don't mind if I get zero points here as long as I'm ahead after the last race."

Hakkinen, like Irvine, is seeking his first win here, a circuit that has been Schumacher's domain, and the Finn is similarly bullish. He said: "It's not a problem that I've never won here. I'm here to get maximum points this time. The programme has not really gone to plan this year because I wanted to be leading the championship at this stage. But our testing has been great and I don't see why we shouldn't perform well in this race."

If this is to be Mika Salo's last race for Ferrari he can comfort himself in the knowledge he has a drive for the next two years. The Finn will replace Jean Alesi at Sauber. Jordan-Mugen confirmed yesterday that the Italian, Jarno Trulli, currently with Prost-Peugeot, will replace Damon Hill.

Trulli, who has a two-year contract, said: "This is a fantastic opportunity for me. Jordan have shown they're now a truly top team."

Team owner Eddie Jordan, said: "In Jarno I see one of the most exciting young drivers I have come across and I am certain he will develop with Jordan into a winning driver."

n The Belgian government has threatened legal action against anyone displaying tobacco logos, in accordance with a ban in place since January. Maximum punishment is a fine of up to BFr20m (pounds 320,000) or a year in prison.

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