Hakkinen is main title threat to Ferrari says Irvine

He had been away for a race and returned intent on making up for lost time. Eddie Irvine, complete with new look of bleached hair and slimline torso, gave his state of the championship address and questioned the credentials of Britain's contender David Coulthard.

He had been away for a race and returned intent on making up for lost time. Eddie Irvine, complete with new look of bleached hair and slimline torso, gave his state of the championship address and questioned the credentials of Britain's contender David Coulthard.

Irvine, having already taken a pop at Michael Schumacher, now suggested that Coulthard had been overtaken by his McLaren-Mercedes team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, as the main challenger to the German.

Schumacher, quickest on the first day of practice for his home Grand Prix here tomorrow, has been unable to finish the last two races and was powerless to prevent his lead in the drivers' championship being cut from 22 points to six. Equally significant, however, was Hakkinen's return to form and comprehensive victory in Austria a fortnight ago, which elevated him to within two points of the Scotsman.

Irvine believes that win, and Coulthard's meek acceptance of second place, indicated a potentially defining shift of power at McLaren and that Hakkinen, champion for the past two years, had reasserted team supremacy. "I would still have to say Michael is favourite for the championship because he is in front," Irvine said. "But you'd want odds on it now because McLaren are looking strong.

"I'd probably say Hakkinen is a bigger threat now than Coulthard and Michael has to be worried. You are only as good as your last race and the last race was a bad one for DC. He just wasn't at the same race at Hakkinen."

Irvine, now with Jaguar, speaks of Hakkinen's resilience with authority. After Schumacher broke his leg last year, the Ulsterman was handed the responsibility of taking Ferrari's fight to Hakkinen, a test that proved beyond him.

"I know what it's like going for the championship," Irvine said. "It destroys you. The rest has helped Mika, just as it did Michael last year. McLaren look as if they have taken a big step forward. Ferrari have concentrated on reliability and maybe fallen behind on development. The same thing happened last year."

Johnny Herbert, Irvine's team-mate, has declared his intention to leave Formula One for the even faster American ovals next year. Irvine questions the 36-year-old Englishman's judgment. "Johnny's a brave boy going over there at his age. He's short enough! When I finish with Formula One that will be it. Formula One is the pinnacle. Why go back?"

Dario Franchitti, the Scotsman currently competing in Cart and Jenson Button, waiting to be told officially that he is leaving Williams- BMW, are among the candidates for the vacancy at Jaguar. Irvine said: "I haven't a clue whose going to get the drive and don't mind."

The logic of Irvine's change of hair colouring remains a moot point. "While I was in hospital having tests I thought that if I was going to die I ought to do something I'd never done before, so I died my hair," said the Ulsterman, who withdrew from the Austrian Grand Prix a fortnight ago complaining of stomach pains. "They still don't know what was wrong but the pains have gone, I'm three kilos lighter and I have been given a clean bill of health."

Jaguar's well-being remains a cause for concern. Last year, as Stewart Racing, they finished fourth in the constructors' championship, but, 10 races into this season, they have three points and are joint eighth in the standings. Irvine, committed to a further two years with the team, concedes: "It's been hell but I have no regrets. There was no way it was going to be easy. We were never in a position to challenge this year. But we are building something and if we turn it around it will be all the more satisfying."

McLaren were relatively subdued and characteristically businesslike yesterday. Hakkinen was third fastest, surpassed in the closing moments by Heinz-Harald Frentzen in a Jordan-Mugen. Rubens Barrichello, in the other Ferrari, was fourth and Coulthard fifth.

Ron Dennis, the McLaren team principal, was untroubled by yesterday's times, revealing Coulthard would probably take a holiday next month and saying his drivers had tilted the balance of the championship.

German Grand Prix practice times (Hockenheim): 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 43.532 sec, 2 HH Frentzen (Ger) Jordan 1:43.575, 3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 1:44.120, 4 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 1:44.128, 5 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 1:44.379, 6 J Trulli (It) Jordan 1:44.521, 7 R Zonta (Bra) BAR 1:44.906, 8 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR 1:44.985, 9 G Fisichella (It) Benetton 1:45.048, 10 M Salo (Fin) Sauber 1:45.094, 11 N Heidfeld (Ger) Prost 1:45.229, 12 P De la Rosa (Sp) Arrows 1:45.433, 13 J Alesi (Fr) Prost 1:45.520, 14 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams 1:45.542, 15 J Herbert (GB) Jaguar 1:45.664, 16 J Button (GB) Williams 1:45.791, 17 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber 1:45.884, 18 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar 1:45.901, 19 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton 1:46.573, 20 M Gene (Sp) Minardi 1:46.995, 21 J Verstappen (Neth) Arrows 1:47.000, 22 G Mazzacane (Arg) Minardi 1:48.062.

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