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Motor Racing

Ferrari faithful see red as Irvine struggles

THE OLD arena was eerily quiet, as if in homage to the ghosts of a glorious past. Instead the faithful sat in stunned dismay at the prospect of another season of unfulfilled promise.

THE OLD arena was eerily quiet, as if in homage to the ghosts of a glorious past. Instead the faithful sat in stunned dismay at the prospect of another season of unfulfilled promise.

In the Formula One paddock, too, the silence was significantly deafening. Eddie Irvine scurried between motor-homes, muttering: "I don't know what's going on."

Irvine needs desperately to cling to the coat-tails of McLaren-Mercedes in tomorrow's Italian Grand Prix here if he is to sustain any realistic chance of becoming Ferrari's first champion in 20 years. Even given that Friday's unofficial practice session is not necessarily a true barometer of form and capability, Ferrari's discomfort was palpable. Irvine had managed only the 16th fastest time. Mika Salo, in the other car, was 17th.

Team officials shuffled in and out of meetings, barely checking their stride. Ross Brawn, the technical director, paused briefly to say: "Let's see what happens tomorrow. We are not too dismayed."

A spokesman expanded, claiming that since the team were only half a second slower than McLaren-Mercedes they were scarcely in crisis. They suspected some of the cars ahead of them had been running on low fuel loads, which would be of scant relevance come the race.

Ralf Schumacher, of Williams, was fastest on the day, followed by Jarno Trulli, in a Prost-Peugeot. Mika Hakkinen, the McLaren driver who leads Irvine by one point at the top of the standings, was sixth, and David Coulthard, his team-mate, and the third party in the championship, was eighth.

Irvine later admitted he was baffled that a car which had proved fastest in testing here last week should become so ineffectual. "We've got to analyse the data and work out what the problems are," he said.

For all Ferrari's endeavours to soften the impact of yesterday's events, the atmosphere and the body language told a different story. They looked like a team losing their way without the injured Michael Schumacher, their weekend's mission seemingly reduced to damage limitation.

Irvine requires more of the freakish circumstances that encouraged his title aspirations during the summer - perhaps more self-inflicted problems at McLaren - possibly the intervention of rain, if he is to haul himself back into contention in the three races that remain after tomorrow.

One man who believes Irvine should not despair is Eddie Jordan, the team owner who introduced him to Formula One in 1993 and then paved his path to Ferrari two years later. Jordan said: "Never underestimate Eddie Irvine. Anyone who does is being a fool to himself. When you least expect him to do anything, when you think he hasn't got a cat in hell's chance, he comes back from the dead.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he did it again. He has acquired a habit of proving everyone wrong too consistently to be written off. He is only one point behind and that's a remarkable achievement when you consider he was Schumacher's No 2 for half a season. And when he got his chance he took it with both hands. Twenty six points from three races was a sensational effort.

"I have a huge regard for Eddie. I saw his championship potential when I first brought him into Formula One but I never believed he would do it at Ferrari because of the circumstances. But now he has his chance and he knows this is his best one, because he is leaving for Jaguar at the end of the season and it will take them time to get it right there.

"I hear stories that Ferrari might not want Irvine to win the championship, but they would be crazy not to give him their full support. McLaren are to be commended for allowing their drivers to race but that policy may come back to haunt them.

"If Eddie can keep the points margin down here he could pull it off in the last three races. It could rain in two of them and if he stays within a fighting chance come the last race at Suzuka he could win it."

Jordan's Damon Hill was 10th fastest and Johnny Herbert, in a Stewart- Ford, was 12th.