Motoracing: The shadow stalking Schumacher

British Grand Prix: Once the supportive team-mate, Irvine is becoming a genuine threat on the track; David Tremayne finds there is more to fast Eddie than a quick quip

"DID YOU see that? This morning I boshed him twice, and I was gonna do it again this afternoon if it hadn't effing rained."

There are no prizes for identifying the speaker in Magny-Cours as Eddie Irvine, Formula One's enfant terrible and, just maybe, the man who has come closest to unsettling the great Michael Schumacher, the subject of his comment.

Fanciful? Perhaps. But the hardest person to outpsych is the guy who doesn't seem to care. Irvine does such a good job of insouciant, couldn't- give-a-toss languor that Ayrton Senna once took a swing at him. Most observers continue to underestimate him. But not, it would seem, Schumacher himself. Of late the German has begun to regard Irvine, the man most likely to don Damon Hill's mantle as the British crowd's favourite, as coming too close for comfort.

Their relationship started in 1996. Schumacher was Ferrari's new star, Irvine his number two, well paid but destined to do whatever he was told. "Irvine is not a grand prix driver," Ron Dennis declared on the strength of this. "No grand prix driver would ever sign a contract agreeing to be number two and not to pass his team-mate."

The accuracy of the comment is less important than its perspective. A lot of people choose not to take Irvine seriously because of his deal, but he could not care less. In the dreary age of political correctness he is the champion of freedom of speech, whether giving or receiving.

Who else, on joining Ferrari and stepping into the Italian media piranha pool would say, "Well, I've never yet met a journalist who knows anything about motor sport." And who else would, against all expectations, have survived so long?

In willingly taking the role of Schumacher's lackey, Irvine has shouldered a lot of criticism and banked a lot of lira. And got faster and faster. Fast enough that after he won the Australian grand prix in Melbourne at the beginning of the season, both Schumacher and Ferrari warned him not to get any smart ideas. Eddie smirked and kept the championship lead until the circus came back to Imola, one of Ferrari's spiritual homes.

This year the relationship with Michael has changed, though Ferrari's sporting director, Jean Todt, denies it. "Eddie's job is the same as it always was," he says. "He is given the same car as Michael and he must try to get the best out of it. This year's car is an improvement. It is easier for Eddie to manage."

That sounds suspiciously like a man being damned by faint praise and, at Magny-Cours, Ferrari instructed Irvine not to "bosh" his troubled team-mate in the race. The word is that Schumacher wants Irvine out, and prefers the idea of Sauber's Pedro Diniz as his team-mate. Irvine is corruscating. "I've heard all this about Diniz, and Jean Alesi. I mean, get real. There's only one logical driver for Ferrari, and that's me."

And if not Ferrari, Ford are ready to stump up pounds 10m to capture him for 2000. Suddenly, Schumacher's minion is hot property and seems bulletproof. "The only way you might hurt him," one team manager remarks, "is if he found there was somebody other than Schumacher quicker than him."

The first win can be relaxing, the justification of self-belief. But Australia meant just what it was for Eddie: the first win, nothing more. "You never really relax with things like that, because they're over after a few days. But it was a euphoric moment for me. I had a couple of days when I just kept thinking, `Hey, that's really cool'.

"I got followed more by photographers, especially in Milan, which was a pain in the arse. Even the paparazzi took to following me. But if that's the price of winning a Grand Prix, I'm prepared to pay it."

So does he really see himself as Michael's lackey? "It's what most of the critics seem to think I am," he admits, but if it troubles him he hides it well. "In Italy they've started to think of me as a driver in my own right at last. It's only taken four years. They've stopped seeing me as Michael's slave. Journalists have even started writing articles on me. I see myself as a team player. If Michael can't win, then that's my job, isn't it?"

Thus far he has admirably resisted the temptation to break ranks, though that may come if Ferrari decide not to keep him later this month. "Look, things swung through 180 degrees for me at the beginning of the year, but I knew it wouldn't last. Michael's the number one, and I'm number two. It's so simple a journalist could understand it. But let me make this clear: I want to win races. Of course I bloody do. Melbourne changed some preconceptions people have of me. It was fantastic. And I tell you this: if there was one car you'd choose to win your first race in, it's a Ferrari."

They say the money soothes any injury Irvine's pride has suffered as a number two, but he fires an instant retort. "Does it bollocks. I'm not going to do this job for nothing, but money is not my top priority. My priority is to stay in a competitive car. What I've done so far is an investment, which others wouldn't have made, being number two to Michael." And therein lies the clue. Better to bring down the citadel from within, than from without.

The trappings of fame certainly help, though. Irvine is building a new house in Dublin, "a five-storey place on a slope. My bedroom will be right at the top, in the trees, and I'll be able to lie in bed and look out at the sea. It's gonna be fabulous."

He wanders away from a paddock gossip, explaining why he won't be doing any further interviews before the British GP. "You see," he says, "I thought I might try and do something useful like test the car, get ready for the race, you know?"

Andy Tilley, an engineer with Sauber and a party to the conversation, offers a similarly wry warning. "You wanna be careful talking like that, Eddie. People might start to think you're a serious racing driver." That wouldn't suit the image at all.

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
newsChester Zoo have revealed their newest members
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
News
The video, titled 'A Message to America', was released a day after Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that has overrun large parts of Iraq, threatened to attack Americans 'in any place'. U.S. officials said they were working to determine the video's authenticity
i100
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux / Redhat / Solaris / Puppet / SAN

£65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

Business Analyst

£250 - £350 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst, Bristol, Banking, Business Obje...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape