Motor Racing: Irvine knows realism is not Ferrari fans' forte

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SPRINGTIME IN Emilia Romagna; a time for gentle sunshine and celebration of Ferrari's rejuvenation. Except that the skies were grey here yesterday and so was the mood of the world championship leader.

Eddie Irvine goes into Sunday's San Marino Grand Prix at the head of the title standings yet professing himself "disheartened" by the performance of his Ferrari. The Ulsterman is not renowned for reverence yet this is a sentiment which may prove particularly distressing in these parts, the Ferrari heartland. It is usual to bow the knee and ring the bells at the shrine of the Prancing Horse.

However, Irvine merely confronts the reality of this early season. He may be two points ahead of the world champion, Mika Hakkinen, courtesy of a maiden Formula One win in Australia and two points in Brazil, but his car remains no match for the performance of the McLaren-Mercedes.

Reliability problems forced Finland's Hakkinen and his team-mate, David Coulthard, out of the race in Melbourne, while the Scotsman also failed to complete the distance at Interlagos. The McLarens were distinctly quicker at both venues and recent testing has done little to suggest a dramatic change.

Although Irvine is contracted as No 2 to Michael Schumacher at Ferrari and accepts he must eventually support the German's cause, he hoped he would be able to challenge McLaren on a more-or-less level playing field.

The opening round of the European tour is generally acknowledged as the start of the season proper so Irvine seeks evidence of genuine optimism in the Italian camp. But he admits he is resigned to a predatory role here, hovering to pick up the pieces should the McLarens and Schumacher again become the victims of circumstance.

"The reason I stayed at Ferrari was to be able to fight McLaren and we're not doing that. We can't do that at the moment and it hacks me off. It's very disheartening. We have to find how to be quicker and close the gap. I want to leave here leading the championship and if the first three guys have problems I could even have another win. I'm hoping for a good result this weekend and have finished on the podium here for the last two years.

"McLaren are getting more reliable but are still not 100 per cent. If the percentage goes against them then there is a chance for us. I think we can get closer because their car is on the limit in many places and we can still improve. But to be honest, it's going to be tough to close the gap."

Hakkinen put Ferrari's task into perspective when he said: "I'm optimistic about the race and the championship. I have good reasons for being optimistic while I can hardly understand Schumacher's optimism."

Irvine knows the majority of the crowd here will be exhorting Ferrari, but especially Schumacher. He fears disappointment all round. He said: "I love the atmosphere here, with all the Ferrari fans, but if we are spanked by McLaren we're not going to be very popular. Michael is the man Ferrari want to win, and if he can't then they'll take me. It's not ideal for Ferrari if Michael has a problem but that always lets me step in. I'm never going to be sad about winning.

"If I leave here still leading the championship I'll certainly feel I've achieved something. Realistically, I just hope for a good result this weekend."

This is also home for Alessandro Zanardi. The man from Bologna, who returned to Formula One after twice winning the American Cart Series, has still to register a finish with Williams. Here would be as good a place as any for a change of fortune. "I'm confident my bad luck won't last forever," he said. "I'm hungry for a good race, I'm not happy with my results so far, and I know everybody in the team is working hard."