Irvine has to hope Ferrari will stay on his side

IF THEY awarded the World Championship purely on cool insouciance, Eddie Irvine would already be wearing the crown. Michael Schumacher yesterday bore the look of a man told to get back on his prancing horse and come galloping to Ferrari's rescue, despite his vehement protestations to the contrary, while Mika Hakkinen was his usual taciturn public self - hard to read, unenlightening to hear. But Irvine looked far more relaxed than one might expect of a man facing the greatest challenge of his career.

IF THEY awarded the World Championship purely on cool insouciance, Eddie Irvine would already be wearing the crown. Michael Schumacher yesterday bore the look of a man told to get back on his prancing horse and come galloping to Ferrari's rescue, despite his vehement protestations to the contrary, while Mika Hakkinen was his usual taciturn public self - hard to read, unenlightening to hear. But Irvine looked far more relaxed than one might expect of a man facing the greatest challenge of his career.

The gunslingers gathered in the Sepang corral, and while there was no shortage of pre-shootout badinage, Irvine looked much more at ease than either of the men who have already won the crown. Perhaps it is because he genuinely does not care whether he wins or not; perhaps because, in his heart, he knows it will take a miracle. Whatever else he may be, Irvine is nobody's fool.

"It's very quick, isn't it," he asked yesterday on reacquaintance with the purpose-built track around which he has in the past driven a road-going Ferrari. "In fact, you'd have to say it's a McLaren track. I mean, they're all McLaren tracks if it comes to it, but these long straights here are really going to suit them."

With only two fewer points than Hakkinen, Irvine is far from out of it, but he is a realist and knows that Ferrari desperately needed Schumacher back in the fold. It's why all of Italy firmly believes that the German was instructed to return by the Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemolo. Irvine sneered at suggestions that the team need their star back because of his ability to set up cars (itself a slight on Irvine's own capabilities in this respect), and didn't bother to disguise his own belief that this side of Schumacher's character is overblown.

"But, of course, it's great to have Michael back," he agreed. "We've worked together for three and a half years, and we complement one another. In this team we all contribute ideas on setting up and developing the car. Sometimes something I say works, sometimes it's something Michael says. We all throw ideas in and that's how you make progress. I mean no disrespect to Mika Salo, but he was less experienced and for him everything at Ferrari was great because he had previously only worked with small teams. Now that Michael is back it's a case of two brains being better than one, and sparking ideas off one another. Plus his pure driving ability is always going to be a bonus. So sure, I'm pleased to see him back. Provided he does the job he is here to do."

Therein lies the uncertainty. Di Montezemolo's riot act has got everyone at Ferrari working again at fever pitch, but there remain suggestions that certain factions within the camp would be very happy to see Ferrari win the constructors' championship, and for Irvine to lose the drivers'. What Irvine won't know, until it comes to the test, is just how much he can rely on his team-mate to help.

"People keep asking me what my job here is," Schumacher said. "I tell them, drive fast and don't crash! I expect to qualify as normal, whatever the car allows. But we have to see about the race. My job is to try to do as good as possible and score as many points as possible in the constructors' championship. Giving Eddie a hand is my second job."

Irvine isn't planning to wait and see, and will be working entirely to his own agenda. "We understand better why things went wrong in the last two races, and we hope we now have things covered. But I've always said that what matters is winning the championship in Japan. What happens here doesn't really matter, so long as I win it there."

Schumacher offered him some encouragement when he added: "Eddie is clever and fast enough to do a lot for himself, but I'll do everything I can to help as long as it's fair and within the rules. It doesn't matter if I'm the champion or he is, so long as we score the goal."

But which goal he meant - the drivers' or the constructors' championship - remained unclear.

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