Irvine held up the McLaren-Mercedes of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard in the early stages, then resisted intense pressure from the Finn through the closing laps to secure Ferrari's first one-two finish in eight years.
Hakkinen's frustration, however, was as nothing compared with that endured by Coulthard, whose championship aspirations have been battered in three consecutive races. This time a problem with the fuel hose mechanism sabotaged his plans and ultimately he was thankful to salvage a point for sixth place.
All this after the McLaren pair made a perfect start, only to be called back to the grid because Jos Verstappen had stalled on his debut for Stewart- Ford. At the second attempt to start the race, Schumacher catapulted into the front and Irvine somehow manoeuvred himself past the two McLarens.
The cost of another calamitous day for McLaren is apparent in the championship standings as the show heads for Silverstone and the British Grand Prix on Sunday week. Hakkinen leads Schumacher by only six points, with Coulthard a further 14 points adrift.
Schumacher and Irvine climbed from their cars at the end and embraced in mutual admiration and joy. The German had been given the luxury of a routine win, and his gesture acknowledged the contribution of his loyal partner.
"I kept my fingers crossed for Eddie and he made it," Schumacher said. "It is amazing the way the team has made improvements over the past couple of months. This is a fantastic situation for us, to have a one-two after all those years. But it is reward for all the efforts of everybody at the team, for working through nights, flat out, to take us forward."
Irvine, dismissed in the past as mad, crazy, and wild, said of his own performance: "I had a very good second start, having learned my lesson from the first, and didn't push too hard once I'd managed to get into second place. I was just driving steadily."
Hakkinen made a lunge at Irvine on the final corner of lap 20 only to spin and unwittingly hand the responsibility of chasing the Ferrari to Coulthard. The Scotsman relished the prospect of picking up some points on Hakkinen until he pulled into the pits for his first scheduled stop.
His crew had difficulties pumping in fuel and Coulthard drove away with less than his planned allocation. Worse was to follow. At the next stop the mechanism refused to cooperate and he was sent off for another lap. The third stop achieved its objective, but by then time and hope had gone.
Coulthard scrambled a point by overtaking Jean Alesi's Sauber on the last lap and and was relieved that at least that Hakkinen failed in his desperate final corner assault on Irvine and pick up second-place points. The Ferrari and McLaren twitched, slid, and crossed the line like rally cars, but Irvine had made it by 0.172sec.
Coulthard said: "I passed Eddie and he was fair but then it all went wrong in the pits. The poor guy on the rig is distraught but it's not his fault. These things happen. The team apologised but we know it's not good enough."
Coulthard had no complaints about Irvine's aggressive second start, forcing him to take avoiding action, but Hakkinen did, question the necessity of aborting the start. The Finn said: "I thought there must have been a big accident. When I saw the car being pushed away I thought is that it? It's definitely safer, but I think that that was a bit too much."
Ron Dennis, the McLaren team principal, said: "Any chance of winning the race was effectively removed by the aborted first start. Our true pace was masked by our inability to pass Irvine's Ferrari."
Jacques Villeneuve, the defending champion, led the rest with fourth place in the Williams. Alexander Wurz was fifth for Benetton. Johnny Herbert laboured to bring home with Sauber in eighth place.
Damon Hill harboured ambitions of registering his first point for Jordan- Mugen until a hydraulic pressure problem finally forced him out after 19 laps.
FRENCH GRAND PRIX (Magny-Cours): 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 71 laps in 1hr 34min 45.026sec; 2 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari +t 19.575sec; 3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +19.747; 4 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Mecachrome +1min 06.965sec; 5 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Mecachrome +1 lap; 6 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +1 lap; 7 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas +1 lap; 8 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas +1 lap; 9 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Mecachrome +1 lap; 10 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford +2 laps; 11 O Panis (Fr) Prost- Peugeot +2 laps; 12 J Verstappen (Neth) Stewart-Ford +2 laps; 13 M Salo (Fin) Arrows +2 laps; 14 P Diniz (Bra) Arrows +2 laps; 15 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Mecachrome +3 laps; 16 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Mugen Honda +3 laps; 17 S Nakano (Japan) Minardi-Ford +6 laps. Did not finish: 18 T Takagi ( Japan) Tyrrell-Ford, 60 laps; 19 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 55; 20 E Tuero (Arg) Minardi-Ford 41 laps; 21 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen Honda 19 laps; 22 R Rosset (Bra) Tyrrell-Ford 16 laps. Constructors' Championship: 1 McLaren-Mercedes 80pts; 2 Ferrari 69; 3 Benetton-Mecachrome 27; 4 Williams-Mecachrome 19; 5 Stewart-Ford 5; 6 Sauber-Petronas and Arrows 4.Reuse content