Motor racing: Irvine takes his chance at last

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The Independent Online
IT WAS the day when Formula One bordered perilously on farce, when the favourites were left by the roadside, and when Eddie Irvine finally came of age as a grand prix driver.

Taking the lead on the 18th lap, when Mika Hakkinen's dominant McLaren succumbed to mechanical failure, Irvine kept his head under persistent pressure from Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Jordan-Honda, and swept home to the first triumph for an Irishman since John Watson at Long Beach 16 years ago.

"To do this, with Ferrari, is amazing," Irvine said. "All weekend my engineer and I have been working away at our own thing. We made different choices from what other people were doing, and we were convinced that we were going the right way."

Alone among the front- runners, Irvine chose the softer compound Bridgestone tyres, and where vaunted team-mate Michael Schumacher yet again faced a start from the back row of the grid after problems selecting first gear on the grid, Irvine made a swift getaway to slot in behind the McLarens of Hakkinen and David Coulthard which had monopolised the front row.

After a dozen laps the McLarens, circulating one second apart, were more than 17 ahead of Irvine, who had Frentzen and Ralf Schumacher in the Williams dogging his wheeltracks. But then Coulthard swung dramatically into the pit garage, to retire.

"It was all going swimmingly," he said. "Obviously we were disappearing at a hell of a rate of knots. I was just sitting there comfortably, waiting for the pit stops to try and put a bit of pressure on Mika. But then something in the hydraulics, which control the throttle and the gearbox, stopped working and jammed me in sixth gear. Game over. Park it and get a suntan."

McLaren had their fingers metaphorically crossed, after persistent gearbox problems in practice, and what was to become a dark day had already got off shakily when, shortly before the grid formed, Hakkinen had driven out of his garage with diagnostic leads still plugged into his car, pulling the elaborate overhead lighting gantry down on to team chief Ron Dennis' head. The Finn had switched to the spare McLaren after his intended race car developed a misfire, but despite Coulthard's misfortune the world champion seemed comfortable nursing his lead. Then the complexion of the race changed on the 14th lap as Jacques Villeneuve's new BAR-Supertec lost its rear wing at top speed on the straight. The car slammed into the wall, and as the former champion climbed out, the safety car was deployed while the wreckage could be removed.

When racing resumed three laps later, however, Hakkinen suddenly slowed and Irvine surged into the lead he would hold to the finish. The throttle linkage had malfunctioned, and Hakkinen was through.

This incident heaped misfortune on the Stewart team, whose practice promise had threatened to evaporate in an embarrassing cloud of smoke as both Johnny Herbert and Rubens Barrichello's engines set fire to their bodywork as the field waited for the starting lights. That first start was aborted as the smoking machines were wheeled away. Herbert's day was over, but Barrichello had started the spare Stewart-Ford from the pit lane and was in cracking form as he scythed back into contention. But as Hakkinen slowed the Brazilian was unsighted and unintentionally breached the regulations by overtaking Michael Schumacher before the start/ finish line. Before long he had to serve a 10-second stop-and-go penalty, which killed his chances.

"When I saw the safety car I thought, `Oh, the group will be all together so I have a good chance again,' Barrichello said. "Mika had his problem and slowed. I was about the eighth car and I didn't have the vision to know what was going on. All of a sudden I saw cars everywhere trying to avoid something and I braked as hard as I could because I knew if I overtook somebody before the line I would have a penalty. But then Schumacher braked even more than I did and I just couldn't avoid overtaking him."

On a day when the Stewart team might otherwise have won their first race, Barrichello had to be content with fifth place, after serving his penalty on the 32nd lap. "I'm upset because of what we could have achieved," Barrichello said afterwards. "For the first time I had a car that allowed me to race and overtake. It was one of the best races of my career."

Michael Schumacher, too, was out of luck. After moving up the field he was delayed by a tyre problem on the 27th lap, and then the need to switch steering wheels as his gear selectors played up. On a day when Damon Hill, in his 100th grand prix, was pushed off on the first lap, Schumacher counted himself fortunate to survive for eighth place.

The day, instead, belonged to the man who has so often sacrificed his own aspirations for the good of Ferrari, and frequently been labelled a minion for his pains. Frentzen couldn't get full throttle in the closing stages, and Ralf Schumacher lacked the sheer pace to challenge, leaving Irvine a clear and deserving winner.

"Apart from the two McLarens, which were so fast, we proved that we were doing the right thing," he said. "After such a long time this is fantastic. There were a lot of things we had to improvise today, but I managed to remember them all and everything went well."

AUSTRALIAN F1 GRAND PRIX (Melbourne): 1 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1hr 35min 01.659 sec (av speed 114.511mph); 2 H H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan 1.027sec behind; 3 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams 7.012; 4 G Fisichella (It) Benetton 33.418; 5 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart 54.698; 6 P De La Rosa (Sp) Arrows 1min 24.317; 7 T Takagi (Jpn) Arrows 1min 26.288; 8 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1 lap.

Did not finish: R Zonta (Bra) British American Racing 9 laps, L Badoer (It) Minardi 15 laps, A Wurz (Aut) Benetton 29 laps, P Diniz (Bra) Sauber 30 laps, M Gene (Sp) Minardi 32 laps, J Trulli (It) Prost 32 laps, O Panis (Fr) Prost 34 laps, M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 36 laps, A Zanardi (It) Williams 37 laps, D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 44 laps, J Villeneuve (Can) British American Racing 44 laps, D Hill (GB) Jordan 57 laps, J Alesi (Fr) Sauber 57 laps.

Did not start: J Herbert (GB) Stewart.

Fastest lap: M Schumacher 1min 32.112sec (av speed 124.353mph).

Drivers standings: 1 Irvine 10pts, 2 Frentzen 6, 3 R Schumacher 4, 4 Fisichella 3, 5 Barrichello 2, 6 De La Rosa 1.

Constructors standings: 1 Ferrari 10, 2 Jordan 6, 3 Williams 4, 4 Benetton 3, 5 Stewart 2, 6 Arrows 1.