Motor Racing: Irvine limitations leave Ferrari in despair

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The Independent Online
THE VERY public rift between the McLaren-Mercedes drivers at the Belgian Grand Prix served to deflect some of the attention from Ferrari's despair, but it was merely a temporary reprieve.

Italian disenchantment will become witheringly apparent when Ferrari go to work at Monza over the next three days, in preparation for the Italian Grand Prix, at the same circuit, on Sunday week.

The test assumes even greater significance than usual because it will help determine whether Michael Schumacher makes his return in the race. If ever there was any doubt about the calibre and influence of the German, it has surely been dispelled by the last two races. McLaren have claimed consecutive one-two successes, and Eddie Irvine has been emphatically defeated.

Irvine trails Mika Hakkinen by a point in the world championship, and David Coulthard, winner in Sunday's race at Spa-Francorchamps, is only 13 points further back. Ferrari appear in such disarray that Coulthard is justified in believing he, rather than Irvine, could be the more serious challenger to the Finn.

Irvine and Coulthard have had differences of opinion on a number of matters, notably their relative talent, but they are agreed that only Schumacher may be capable of salvaging Ferrari's disintegrating campaign.

Northern Ireland's Irvine, grateful to finish two places behind Hakkinen, said: "I can't think of anyone better to wreak havoc among the McLarens than Michael Schumacher. We should be stronger at Monza, but then McLaren will also be stronger there. We have to improve and we'll keep going to the end."

Coulthard, who resisted Hakkinen's attack at the first corner and won the approval of the team principal, Ron Dennis, contends Ferrari have veered off course in the absence of Schumacher's guidance. The Scotsman said: "It would be better for us if Michael took an extra-long break. Ferrari are lost without his input. Eddie is a good driver and has a good team, but we have the better package and I consider myself a better driver than Eddie.

"No disrespect to Eddie, but Michael's technical and driving ability command more respect and bring more effort at Ferrari. That's why they will step up a gear when he returns."

Schumacher's very presence will lift the camp, but his galvanising qualities will have to border on the miraculous to defy McLaren now.

First, he must negotiate the Monza test to his and his doctor's satisfaction. He is too sensible to subject his healing leg to unnecessary risk and too proud to jeopardise his reputation. He will have to convince himself he can complete a grand prix distance at competitive speed.

Hakkinen still regards Irvine as his main challenger, although his dismissive comment on Coulthard's advance perhaps reflected his ill feeling as much as objectivity. "He's not my biggest threat at the moment," the reigning champion said sternly.

That situation could change in a race. A win for Coulthard and a mistake or car failure on Hakkinen's part at Monza, and the long awaited domestic dual will be on. Coulthard has been the consummate team player and now he senses the opportunity to assert himself on the remaining playing fields: Monza, Nurburgring, Malaysia and Suzuka.

He said: "I had such a bad start to the season but two wins and consistent results through the summer have put me very much in the championship. I'll continue to do my best. The championship is very open. Ferrari are usually good at the Nurburgring but we should be strong at every circuit. We are entitled to be confident."

Recent events have probably put into context Irvine's ability. He won back-to-back races in Austria and Germany yet that was mainly because of a bizarre set of circumstances which sabotaged McLaren's cause. The British team recovered and the Italians buckled in roughly equal measure at Budapest and in Belgium, and Irvine has been powerless to halt the decline.

That must raise questions about his impending leadership of Stewart-Ford, who will run as Jaguar next season, when Irvine is due to swap places with Rubens Barrichello.

If Jaguar are to emerge as a major force in Formula One they will need a driver who is not only quick and combative on the track but also astute and inspirational behind the scenes. His technical and motivational contribution will be crucial.

The indications are that Jaguar will have an all-UK line-up. Johnny Herbert, whose place was under threat for much of the season, has seemingly weathered the storm with assurances that the second year of his contract will be honoured.