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.