Motor Racing: Irvine spearheads Jaguar's grand prix return

JAGUAR, THE most evocative name in British motor racing, formally joined the Formula One fold yesterday and confirmed an appropriately all- UK driver line-up in Eddie Irvine and Johnny Herbert.

Stewart-Ford will become Jaguar Racing at the end of the season and the fabled Big Cat, perhaps the only challenger to the emotional status of Ferrari's Prancing Horse, will be unleashed on grand prix racing in Australia next March.

Jackie Stewart, who sold his team to Ford, parent company of Jaguar, for a reported pounds 60m, will stay on as chairman and his son, Paul, will continue as chief operating officer. The announcement at the Frankfurt motor show marks the end and the beginning of eras. Ford are the most successful engine makers in Formula One history, with 174 grand prix wins and 13 world drivers' championships, and it is a momentous decision to withdraw the blue oval from motor-racing's premier category.

However, the prospect of embarking on the new millennium in the British racing green of Jaguar proved irresistible. Seven times winners of the Le Mans 24-hour classic and twice world sports car champions, the Coventry marque now takes on the likes of McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari for motor racing's ultimate prize.

Irvine, still embroiled in the championship contest as a Ferrari driver, is considered the forceful leader required for this bold venture. He, in turn, relishes the release from serving as No 2 to Michael Schumacher after four seasons at Maranello. The Ulsterman, who has a three-year contract understood to be worth at least pounds 15m, said: "I'm overjoyed. I've been waiting for this opportunity for the past two years. I'm lucky to be involved in such a fantastic project. Through my experience in the rebuilding of Ferrari, I believe I can make a significant contribution to Jaguar Racing."

That is no less than his new employers expect. Dr Wolfgang Reitzle, chairman of Jaguar, said: "In signing Eddie we have secured services of a dynamic driver for Jaguar's exciting new Formula One programme. Eddie has proven with Ferrari this year that he is a winner and we are delighted to have a driver of his calibre. Eddie and Johnny will be a formidable combination."

Clearly Ford and Jaguar are intent on a serious commitment to a formula that is attracting an ever lengthening list of heavyweight manufacturers. Next season sees also the return of BMW, in tandem with Williams. Mercedes, partners of McLaren, provides the benchmark.

Stewart, associated with Ford for more than 30 years, said of Irvine: "He has come of age. He has matured this season and has driven some exceptional races. Eddie is very adept at setting up a car. He will be a valuable asset to the team."

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