Irvine believes British public will back Jaguar

Ulsterman revelling in new role as team look to earn first points of season at Silverstone
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The Independent Online

Jaguar's appeal to the hearts as much as the minds of the nation will be gauged effectively for the first time in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on Sunday.

Ford's decision to brand the former Stewart team with the fabled Big Cat was calculated to woo patriotic fervour and create Formula One's nearest equivalent to the Ferrari phenomenon.

Easier plotted than done, of course. For all Jaguar's success and mass followings at past Le Mans sports car races, they are mere novices and pretenders in the arena of grand prix racing.

The cause has scarcely been helped by Jaguar's results this season. After three races and a variety of mishaps they are still without a point to their evocative name. They share that dubious distinction with only three other teams: Prost, Minardi and Arrows.

Doom and gloom in the camp? Hardly. It helps when you have drivers with the personalities of Eddie Irvine and Johnny Herbert, but they contend there is sufficient evidence to reinforce their pre-season conviction that they can usurp Jordan-Mugen-Honda as the third-best team in the championship, behind Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes.

"I'm sure we can do that," maintained an indignant Irvine, who left Michael Schumacher's shadow at Ferrari to be his own (highly paid) man at Jaguar. "I know we haven't got the points on the board yet but I don't think we've fallen behind in terms of performance. We're ahead of Jordan as far as performance goes. We are quicker than they are and they were the team to beat last year apart from the big boys. Jordan had a good season last year because the competition wasn't there."

Irvine stressed from the day he signed his £6m a year contract that it would take time - perhaps three years - to establish Jaguar as a championship-challenging force. Already, however, he is as sure of the wisdom of his move as he is the potential of the team as a national institution.

"The budget and the desire are there, and I'm sure the British public will want to get behind the team, but we still have to put all the foundations in place," he said. "You need the people, the wind tunnel, all the things the top two teams have had in place for some time. We need to take the next step forward."

If this begins to sound like a man trying to convince himself he was right to leave Maranello, he swiftly dispels the notion. "Four years at Ferrari made me a better driver and I didn't realise how much until I got here," says Irvine. Yet he insists that he has found contentment and the genuine prospect of fulfilment in his new working environment.

"What I miss least," he says, "is being beaten all the time by Michael Schumacher. I'm getting more fun from my racing here. The team is relying on me. It makes you feel wanted and valued, as opposed to being on board because Ferrari need to run two cars. That's the feeling you get there.

"Here we have to fight for every second to make up another place. It's more satisfying qualifying seventh for Jaguar than fourth for Ferrari. The way Ferrari go about their business is dot to dot. There's much more of a racing spirit in this team than at Ferrari."

Much of Ferrari's success is credited to Schumacher, almost as much to Ross Brawn, the team's English technical director. Irvine offers another slant on Brawn's strategical prowess. "Ross has a plan for the first lap, the second lap, all worked out. That's not romantic, is it? That's racing by committee. The image of Ross as this amazing tactician is right, but it's not flair. A lot of the mystery and spontaneity goes from the sport."

Irvine's spontaneous remarks remain a source of refreshment in a sport too often shackled by formality and fear. On the speculation that Herbert's position could be under threat after the Englishman's uneasy start to the season, Irvine dispenses with platitude.

"If he keeps qualifying 17th and 18th it's not going to do him any good," Irvine says. "He knows that. We've seen that he can go a lot better. We have to understand why he's having a problem and fix it. He does seem to struggle a bit in qualifying. He didn't choose the right tyres at Imola. He made a mistake there, that's for sure."

Herbert has been assured by the team his place is not in jeopardy and he is adamant he will not be hounded out of his job. He finds himself having to endure a re-run of last season, but would settle for another twist in the tale.

He says: "It's just like last year, and just like last year I've had reliability and other problems in the early part of the season. I could have given up last year but I'm not like that, and I'm not going to give up now. Once I got a reliable car it changed for me and people seem to be forgetting it's only six races since I won a grand prix. I've certainly not lost my speed since then. I've been quicker than Eddie in testing and practice, and I'm sure I can be quicker than him again.

"In any case, the teams say all these rumours are no more than that, which is reassuring and the end of the matter as far as I'm concerned. The perfect response from me would be a good result at Silverstone and that could happen.

"Like Eddie, I'm sure the potential is here and I believe we can get third place in the constructors' championship. But we know a lot of things are needed to get it right and enable us to challenge Ferrari and McLaren.

"It's easy to forget that it has taken Ferrari a long time to get back into this position in the championship. Michael has been there more than four years, Ross more than three. It will take us time as well. But I am confident we can get there and I believe the British public will want to see that. I think we are the only team who can create the Ferrari type of atmosphere.

"What we need now is to start scoring some points. Silverstone would be a good place to do that and I think we can."