Motor racing: The enigma's final variation

David Tremayne says Formula One's wild child, Eddie Irvine, is maturing at last
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The Independent Online
"He seems to want to show other drivers that he is a lunatic and they should keep out of his way, like they did with Senna. When you have the arrogance of a guy coming in blaming you, it makes you annoyed and frustrated, and you lose your respect for the guy - not that there was much before," Jacques Villeneuve said.

"What's the point of talking to him? He's an idiot, he's not going to take any notice," Johnny Herbert echoed.

"He did a good job for us today. He's a good driver, he has some good ideas, and he contributes a lot to the team," said Ferrari's Jean Todt.

Different days, different sentiments, same man. Eddie Irvine - Formula One's enfant terrible who made good last week in Argentina. Instead of turfing Villeneuve and Herbert off the track as at the first corner of the first race of the season, he first kept the Englishman in fourth place and then launched a blistering challenge to the Canadian which saw them finish less than a second apart.

It looked a timely performance from the 31-year-old, although some think it might already be too late to save his Ferrari career. The Italian press is notoriously fickle and impatient with Ferrari, and when Irvine signed with the team late in 1995 he did little to endear himself by saying: "I've never met a journalist who knows anything about F1, anyway." The intervening months have been the usual rollercoaster one associates with the man whose arrival at in the sport at Suzuka in 1993, was marked by the sock on the jaw Ayrton Senna felt moved to land in the face of post- race arrogance. A race later another big accident, involving Jos Verstappen, Martin Brundle and Eric Bernard, saw Irvine summoned to the Paris headquarters of FIA, the sport's governing body, which clearly left him underawed but sitting out three events.

Controversy dogs Irvine the way he dogged Villeneuve in Argentina. At times he seems to go out of his way to court dislike. Yet at others he exudes the Irish charm of his father, Ed, or his mother Kathleen, who often accompany him to the races, or his sister Sonia, who is his physiotherapist in the Ferrari camp. He is the sport's enigma. Does he care, somewhere deep behind the mask of insouciance, or is he just so laid back that he really couldn't give a damn?

After weekends like the last, where he drove the best race of a turbulent career, it's almost academic. Irvine is frequently likened to the late James Hunt, who was brattish in extremis in his racing heyday but matured gradually. But with his shotgun approach Irvine has a way to go before he gains the charm of Hunt's later years.

Last Sunday it was the other Ferrari, driven by Michael Schumacher, which triggered a first-corner pile-up, where in the past two events it had been Irvine's. It then became his turn to take centre stage with a sparkling performance. He was fast, smart and restrained, and Ferrari's tifosi will love him again in Imola next weekend. But with rumours that the speedy Finn, Mika Salo, has already agreed terms with Ferrari for 1998, it may be too late.

Many drivers would fret, but Irvine's apparent imperviousness to pressure has stood him in good stead with Schumacher, and no doubt will see him through. When you've made your first million, got your classic Ferrari 288GTO, a nice place in Dublin and a flat in Bologna, not to mention a drive with the most charismatic team in the business, it's not hard to see why he seems so carefree, almost as if he's still the boy from Newtonards laughing at his good fortune.

Irvine's penchant for speaking his mind is what makes people nervous about him. But beneath that veneer there's a fellow who doesn't take offence, who is always willing to talk, and who hasn't done a bad job at all against Schumacher given his relative lack of test-track time. A guy who got his act together very nicely a week ago and who may finally be finding his feet in a difficult team and against a team leader with a reputation for destroying his partners.