Motor racing: Irvine the maverick lands big knockout

David Tremayne on the Irishman who let his driving do the talking with his first F1 win in Melbourne
HE WAS the enfant terrible of Formula One. The man whose debut, at Suzuka in 1993, passed into legend afterwards following a punch-up with the late Ayrton Senna. Two races later, at the start of the troubled 1994 season, he was banned for three races after triggering a four-car accident in the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos.

But on Sunday Edmund Irvine, the 33-year-old from Bangor, earned the respect of his peers with a commanding and polished first grand prix victory.

Ever since he joined Ferrari at the start of the 1996 season, as partner to Michael Schumacher, Irvine has played the pragmatist. He knows that he lacks his illustrious partner's sheer pace and panache, and he has made no bones about being prepared to ride shotgun for him whenever the occasion has demanded. Many of his fellow drivers, some of them doubtless jealous of his Ferrari drive and the significant remuneration it commands, have written him off as a journeyman who lacks ambition, and it has pleased Irvine to let them think what they want. Insouciance, after all, has long been his trademark.

It was what got him into hot water with Senna in that Japanese Grand Prix six years ago and thrust him into the spotlight. In difficult conditions, Irvine was fighting for fifth place with Damon Hill when Senna came up to lap him. But when Irvine felt Senna was holding him up, he had no qualms about re-passing him.

Eventually Senna overtook for good, but he was well stoked up as he strode down to the Jordan office afterwards. Senna demanded to know how Irvine dared to race when he was being lapped, and what he thought he was doing, whereupon Irvine lit his fuse by informing him that he had re-passed him because he, Senna, wasn't driving fast enough.

Irvine was sitting on the table at the time, drawling in a manner that made his disrespect for Senna all too evident, and the deliberate provocation proved too much for the Brazilian, who swung a punch. As Senna was hustled away, the Ulsterman lost no time communicating to the world that he couldn't care less. "It wasn't even a good punch," he said.

When he was summoned to Paris in the aftermath of the Brazilian incident which sent Jos Verstappen's Benetton barrel-rolling over his Jordan, the same take-it-or-leave-it attitude helped Irvine to a three-race ban instead of the one-race exclusion that had initially been levied, but secretly Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One impresario, liked the maverick's style.

It is what has made Irvine so frequently misunderstood. He lives life on his own terms, and does not care if others cannot cope with it. In an era of political correctness, he has a commendable penchant for straight talking. Shortly before he joined Ferrari, he told a press conference in front of an Italian press famed for making life hell for Ferrari drivers that he wasn't bothered what any journalist wrote about him, because he had never met a journalist who knew anything about motor racing. Those same writers who had instantly begun sharpening their pens that day were among the first to offer congratulations on Sunday.

Eighty-two races into the Formula One career which his father Ed's love of cars had initially inspired, Irvine kept things in the family as he was embraced in parc ferme by his sister Sonia, who also works for Ferrari.

"Right from Friday I was saying how good the car felt, although I couldn't understand why it was slow," Irvine said. "On Saturday, again it felt good even though we weren't quick, and today it felt good, just a little bit unstable, the way it changed direction being a bit sharp. But actually the fundamental balance was fantastic. This is the best car I have ever driven, to be sure."

Like its driver, good enough to pick up the pieces for Ferrari just as McLaren seemed poised to deliver a hammer blow to the Italian team's hopes of a good start to its world championship campaign. Even if he never wins another race Irvine will savour this one. And so will Ed Snr and his wife, Kathleen, who so often follow their outspoken son around the world but this time watched with pride from their home near Bangor as he finally delivered the goods in style.