Motoracing: Irvine sits on top of the world

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EDDIE IRVINE reached his equivalent of the moon here yesterday, and probably found it was made of green cheese. This was one fantasy too much for the man from Northern Ireland.

The official results confirm he not only won the German Grand Prix, ahead of his new Ferrari team-mate, Mika Salo, but also became the leader in the Formula One World Championship.

Mika Hakkinen, the defending champion, lost his advantage in the race and the title contest when his McLaren-Mercedes crew encountered a problem with the fuel rig, and then a tyre blow out at 210mph sent the Finn spinning wildly and ultimately head-on into a tyre barrier. Unlike Michael Schumacher, at Silverstone, he was not hurt and still has a chance of retrieving the cause.

However, fate and a series of self-inflicted complications are conspiring against him with such regularity he must wonder if he will ever again be able to harness the superiority of his car and his obvious driving talent.

David Coulthard, in the other McLaren, eliminated himself from the equation by running into Salo and losing a front wing end-plate, then incurring a stop and go penalty for cutting across a chicane.

Irvine, originally hired as No 2 to Schumacher, could scarcely comprehend he had won back-to-back races and gone eight points clear of Hakkinen with six rounds of the season remaining.

"When you are a young boy you want to go to the moon but I'm too much of a realist to think I'm going to win the Championship," he said. "It just keeps coming to us."

On this occasion he had additional assistance to McLaren's malady. It came from Salo, who inherited control of the race after Hakkinen's pit- stop and then dutifully moved over for his senior partner.

They crossed the line a second apart, with Heinz-Harald Frentzen third for Jordan-Mugen, Ralf Schumacher fourth in a Williams, Coulthard fifth and Olivier Panis sixth in a Prost-Peugeot.

Irvine said: "I knew how Mika felt when he was told to let me through. I'm glad I didn't have to do it. This was his race. He was the star of the show, the boy wonder.

"He's getting the winner's trophy. I couldn't look at it on my mantelpiece. I'd be embarrassed. To be honest, I'm in no mood to celebrate. It was 10 points but it was boring from my point of view. McLaren just shot themselves in the foot."

Salo, experiencing for the first time the rarefied atmosphere of the podium, had the audacity to suggest to the team they tell Irvine to get a move on.

"I called them because Eddie was cruising and Heinz was catching up," the Finn said.

Irvine was unperturbed. He knew the race was in the bag. Michael Schumacher had spoken to his home crowd via satellite before the race and expressed his fear Ferrari would have difficulty achieving victory. Whatever happened, he said he would appreciate it if McLaren did not win. He, like all those inside the Hockenheimring, could not have envisaged the bizarre drama about to unfold.

Hakkinen, starting from pole position for the eighth time in 10 grands prix, made a clean start and although Coulthard was trapped behind Salo, the McLaren drivers appeared on course to deliver the perfect result on the day the team announced they had signed new contracts for next season.

Coulthard's seemingly impetuous lunge inside Salo at a chicane triggered the latest catalogue of calamities to afflict McLaren, yet the Scotsman maintained: "It may not have looked the smartest move by me, but it was not an attempt to overtake. This should have been a straightforward one- two and 16 points for us today."

Hakkinen went into the pits at the end of lap 24 and sat in frustration as the team struggled to pump in fuel. He dropped down to fourth and had just overtaken Frentzen when a second tyre failure in 24 hours sabotaged McLaren's efforts. Coulthard lost a tyre tread in qualifying. To general relief, Hakkinen was able to climb from his stricken car. He shook his head in dismay.

"My race was destroyed by the pit stop," he said. "No fuel went in so they had to change to David's fuelling system. I tried my best to get back but in my mirror I saw a big piece of rubber come off the tyre. Going off at that speed, into a chicane, is not very nice. I thought of Michael at Silverstone."

McLaren will be anxious for the results of an investigation into the two tyre problems but they will also need to re-examine their operation and strategy. Once again Ferrari produced reliability and consistency, and did not even have to stretch their fabled tactical acumen to claim an improbable win.

Ferrari lead the constructors' championship by 16 points and that is one title Irvine does dare contemplate. "We thought that was dead but it's there to go for now," he said.

Damon Hill's troubled season continued when he went off at a chicane and came into the pits saying he could not race on because of brake problems. The team, however, said they could find nothing wrong.

The former champion, who is scheduled to retire at the end of the season, glumly marched to the motor home. A smiling cardboard cut-out of Frentzen appeared not to assuage him.

Hill said: "The team did not want me to come in but I'm the driver and I did not feel in control of the car."

Johnny Herbert would have welcomed a rare opportunity to complete a race distance. He was running fifth, less than five laps from the end, when the gearbox of his Stewart-Ford failed him.

Race details, page 8


1 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1hr 21min 58.594sec

2 M Salo (Fin) Ferrari +1.007sec

3 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda +5.195

4 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-Supertec +12.809

5 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +16.823

6 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot +29.879

World championship standings

1 Irvine 52 points

2 Hakkinen 44

3 Frentzen 33

4 M Schumacher 32

5 Coulthard 30

6 R Schumacher 22