Princes of speed chase the crown

BRITISH GRAND PRIX; Damon Hill's move into the wings of Formula One has left the stage clear for another driver to emerge as the main home contender at tomorrow's British Grand Prix and beyond. Derick Allsop talks to the three would- be standard bearers
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EDDIE IRVINE Ferrari

Age 31 GPs 56 Wins 0

When anyone flirts with professional suicide you have to wonder or admire. Those who wondered are now beginning to admire Eddie Irvine.

The 31-year-old Ulsterman paid a heavy price when he indulged the fantasy of most racing drivers and signed for Ferrari. Certainly he was guaranteed generous remuneration and he has never hidden his hedonistic tendencies.

But consider the quid pro quo: his team-mate is Michael Schumacher and his self-appointed judge and jury are the Italian media. On the face of it, a mission impossible bound to end in recrimination and tears. In actuality, the twin burdens appear to cause him not a flicker of anxiety.

He is dismissive, even scornful, of the press and broadcasting pack that pursues Ferrari's every move, and shrugs off persistent speculation about his future in one word: "Boring".

He does, however, articulate at length his desire to extend into a third year his association with the legendary marque, which would mean another season alongside Schumacher, a man he considers capable of things even the beatified Ayrton Senna could not do. The German, he figures, can help him establish his own championship credentials.

Irvine said: "I think my stock market value would be higher if I was still at Jordan and I won't be able to become champion while Michael is my team-mate. But if things go on improving at Ferrari the way they are, and I'm second behind Michael next season, I think that could get me a top drive the following year.

"Sure, I could move now and get a better personal position within a team, because it would be relying on me more than Ferrari are. They rely on Michael and what I bring home is a bonus.

"It's not good for your psyche or your ego, but I bought into that, so you either sink or swim. I've been closer to Michael in terms of lap times than any of his previous team-mates."

Irvine is afloat again after treading water in the early season. He has four podium finishes and fourth place in the drivers' standings, largely due to his combative racing rather than high grid positions. "My qualifying has generally been atrocious and I haven't a clue why," he said.

But then he takes undisguised pride in his contribution to the Schumacher phenomenon. Irvine explained: "Michael has started left-foot braking at Ferrari, which Senna didn't do, and that's a big advantage. If he had done it before it would have given him an even bigger edge, but he's seen me doing it."

Not that Irvine demands comparison with the championship leader. "The only person who is a step above the rest of us is Michael. He's just amazing. After that it's difficult to say where the rest of us stand."

Irvine has consistently said he does not rate Damon Hill as exceptional and he contends: "Coulthard can't do anything I can't." But he applauds the Scot for his advance this season, as he does Johnny Herbert's endeavours with Sauber-Petronas.

"You look at David last year," Irvine said. "Hakkinen gave him a good hiding. This year the team have realised David's the more sensible guy and they're working with him. He's driving the team. He is doing a great job and got on top of Hakkinen.

"Johnny's also done a great job. Now he is Sauber's No 1, the focus of the team is on him and his performances have been fantastic."

Like the other British drivers, Irvine yearns for success at Silverstone. He said: "I used to come to the British Grand Prix as a kid and loved the atmosphere. I'd always climb over a fence or dig a hole to get in. I wish it could be like that now. Instead it's just another race. I've probably got more fans at Imola.

"I loved the old Silverstone but it's been messed about too much. It's too artificial. And besides, I've never had anything but bad luck at Silverstone. It owes me. Maybe this time."

DAVID COULTHARD McLaren

Age 26 GPs 49 Wins 2

A heaving Silverstone testifies this weekend to the stature and appeal of Formula One in this country. Nigel Mansell, star of many an extravaganza here, is long gone; Damon Hill, focus of the recent past, is consigned to a bit part. Britain has no genuine championship contender this season, yet still the show is a sell-out.

There are, however, concerns for the future, suspicions that, as at Wimbledon, the gallery will ultimately be acknowledging the supremacy of foreign performers. The signs are that the supply line of British talent from lower formulae to Grand Prix racing may have been ruptured.

Optimistic talk of promising tiros is not being translated into graduation to the main event. The new names are Ralf Schumacher, Giancarlo Fisichella, Alexander Wurz and Jarna Trulli.

Are those anxieties justified? David Coulthard, at 26 the youngest of the home drivers in the Formula One field, contends not and offers his perspective on the state of the nation.

He said: "We still have some great talent actually in Formula One capable of performing at the highest standard and likely to be around for some time to come.

"The overall picture has been distorted by the fact that Damon has left Williams and gone to Arrows. Put him back in a Williams and he would probably be winning the championship, and you would say that the general situation was very healthy. I think it still is.

"I'm racing closer to the front, I won in Melbourne and really should have won in Canada. Eddie is getting podium finishes on a regular basis with Ferrari and Johnny is having a really good season with Sauber.

"Williams must know that if they kept Damon things would be different for them in the championship, and if they don't win it this year they've got to ask why. Now people are beginning to realise that Damon is a better driver than he is sometimes given credit for."

Coulthard is earning widespread credit for raising the level of his game this year. After an inconsistent first season with McLaren-Mercedes, he has emphatically eclipsed his once much vaunted team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, and the Finn is unlikely to be offered a new contract.

The Scot is hopeful he will be invited to stay on. He delivered the McLaren- Mercedes alliance their maiden success in Australia, on the opening day of the season, and had his clutch not given way in Montreal, last month, he would now be in contention in third place in the championship instead of a vexed seventh.

Coulthard is convinced he has the pace, race- craft and temperament to be Britain's next title challenger and believes he can fashion such a campaign with McLaren.

He said: "I believe I can be the man to take the lead and race at the front. Having been with Damon at Williams, I don't see anything he can do that I can't.

"I feel comfortable with the part I've played in the team effort over the last year and a half. Obviously everybody would like to have Michael Schumacher, but I believe I'm ideally equipped, if we have the right package, to win the championship.

"I am now getting to the stage where I know I can race Michael and beat him. I've beaten him on the road twice this year. I've shown I've got the speed because Mika has always been regarded as very fast and I've been in front of him in qualifying, and scoring the first win gave me a psychological edge.

"Mika has been here for a long while and has done a great job, but it's more of a level playing field this year. It takes time to adapt and I have. I am performing at a high level. I've been stronger in every way, physically and mentally. I came out better prepared for this season, and I'm beginning to reap the benefits."

That mental work involves sessions with a physiologist, who has helped Coulthard see a clearer path to his objective, and even made dreams come true.

"Formula One is not just about driving a car," Coulthard explained. "It's a mental battle. In my earlier career qualifying wasn't my strongest point, and I had to focus to improve my performance in that area.

"Clearing the mind and becoming more focused before qualifying and before a race does make a difference. It's visualisation. We all have good dreams about what we are going to do, and I wouldn't have believed it before, but I do now believe that if you keep your subconscious mind in a positive state you can make those dreams become reality.

"I don't want to get all freaky about it because I'm not that sort of person, but you do, in effect, drift into your inner self. The night before a race I can see in my mind where I am on the grid and try to imagine what the opposition are going to do, and where I'm going to go. You have to have some sort to plan at the back of your mind."

Coulthard concedes he does not envisage a win to share with the home crowd tomorrow afternoon.

He said: "On paper I've got the best chance of the Brits, but it's a difficult circuit for us. I wish I could foresee victory in the British Grand Prix, but unless Williams and Ferrari don't get it together, that's an improbable scenario.

"I need to finish the race and at least score points. We've thrown away 12 points in the last two races and, although I've had a better season in terms of performance, I've actually got fewer points at this stage of the season than I had last year. I believe I've had a better season than Eddie, and he's fourth in the championship.

"There's an increasing pressure on everyone in the team to win another race. Since that win in Melbourne we have been subjected to a higher level of pressure to repeat it. The next grand prix, at Hockenheim, maybe the place to achieve it. Unfortunately, Silverstone may not be."

JOHNNY HERBERT Sauber

Age 33 GPs 103 Wins 2

At the age of 33, Johnny Herbert is enjoying a revival of form and reputation even he may not have considered probable when he was discarded by Benetton and sought refuge at the Swiss outpost of Sauber.

Midway through his second season with the team, he is being regarded as a serious protagonist, an adjective not readily used to describe Herbert.

His playful image has rarely amused employers of potential champions, but Sauber see a side he maintains existed all along.

He said: "I've always had this thing about being the nice guy, easy to talk to and have a laugh and a joke with. People see me as this cheeky chappie. I don't mind that at all and the public seem to like it because I've always had a loyal following.

"You'll probably find nine people out of 10 don't know my car is a Sauber and haven't even heard of Sauber, but they know my name, and when the name of the driver is bigger than the car that can't be bad for the driver.

"Damon is still the main man for the British fans because he's the world champion. David has the benefit of being with McLaren, which is still recognised as a big team and it's a similar thing for Eddie at Ferrari. Whatever I do it's as Johnny Herbert."

He stresses, however, that Sauber have provided him with the environment to resuscitate his career. He left Benetton after the 1995 season with wins at Silverstone and Monza but shattered dreams, and he contemplated quitting Formula One.

Unlike Irvine, he could not come to terms with the limitations imposed as Michael Schumacher's No 2. At Sauber they have welcomed Herbert's infectious sense of fun yet appreciate he has the talent and commitment to do the job, given the equipment and the backing.

He said: "Even though I had those two wins at Benetton the year with Michael harmed me a lot. My reputation definitely took a big knock. But since then I've actually got better. I am more confident and when you are more confident you're driving is better.

"If you haven't got fairness within a team you can't perform to your capabilities, but at Sauber they have treated me well and accept me for the kind of guy I am. I think I've repaid them with my driving.

"I'm fortunate I have not only an understanding team, but also the mental strength that has kept me going. My accident in '88, then losing my drive first time round with Benetton, the lows at Lotus and then Benetton a second time, have all been hard setbacks.

"But they have all made me tougher and enable me to take the pressures, because those pressures get greater all the time. It's a serious business. Yes, I still like to muck about, but at the right time. When I'm working I am very serious about it.

"Ten years ago there was less pressure. You had time to settle into a team and find your form. Now no one gives you any time. You've got to get out there and do it. If you don't you are written off as no good. It's unfair, but its the way the business has gone."

Herbert is the only British driver assured his job for next season but he acknowledges that Sauber are unlikely, in the next 12 months, to build a platform for the championship, so he must eventually move on to pursue his dream.

"We are looking at podium potential here and hopefully things will continue to improve," he said. "But I believe the championship is still a realistic target for me and I think achieving it is possible.

"My age and fitness are certainly no problem. Damon was 36 when he won the championship. Nigel Mansell was 39. What you need is to be in the right place at the right time, as they were.

"Eighteen months ago I was disillusioned and disenchanted. Now things have turned round for me. I could do another good job next year and end up in a Williams."

HOW THEY LINE UP AT SILVERSTONE

Arrows-Yamaha

1 Damon Hill (GB)

Age 36, GPs 75, wins 21, Championships 1.

2 Pedro Diniz (Bra)

Age 27, GPs 41, wins 0.

Williams-Renault

3 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) Age 26, GPs 24, wins 7.

4 Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) Age 30, GPs 56, wins 1.

Ferrari

5 Michael Schumacher (Ger)

Age 28, GPs 92, wins 25, Championships 2.

6 Eddie Irvine (GB)

Age 31, GPs 56, wins 0.

Benetton-Renault

7 Jean Alesi (Fr) Age 33, GPs 126, wins 1.

8 Alexander Wurz (Aut)

Age 23, GPs 2, wins 0.

McLaren-Mercedes

9 Mika Hakkinen (Fin)

Age 28, GPs 87, wins 0.

10 David Coulthard (GB)

Age 26, GPs 49, wins 2.

Jordan-Peugeot

11 Ralf Schumacher (Ger)

Age 22, GPs 8, wins 0.

12 Giancarlo Fisichella (It)

Age 24, GPs 16, wins 0.

Prost-Mugen-Honda

14 Jarno Trulli (It)

Age 23, GPs 8, wins 0.

15 Shinji Nakano (Japan)

Age 26, GPs 8, wins 0.

Sauber-Petronas

16 Johnny Herbert (GB)

Age 33, GPs 103, wins 2.

17 Noberto Fontana (Arg)

Age 22, GPs 1, wins 0.

Tyrrell-Ford

1 Jos Verstappen (Neth)

Age 25, GPs 38, wins 0.

19 Mika Salo (Fin)

Age 30, GPs 43, wins 0.

Minardi-Hart

20 Ukyo Katayama (Japan)

Age 34, GPs 85, wins 0.

21 Tarso Marques (Bra)

Age 21, GPs 3, wins 0.

Stewart-Ford

22 Rubens Barrichello (Bra)

Age 25, GPs 72, wins 0.

23 Jan Magnussen (Den)

Age 23, GPs 8, wins 0.

Drivers' championship

1 Michael Schumacher 47pts

2 Jacques Villeneuve 43

3 Heinz-Harald Frentzen 19

4 Eddie Irvine 18

5= Olivier Panis 15 5= Jean Alesi 15

7 David Coulthard 11

8= Gerhard Berger 10

8= Mika Hakkinen 10

10 Giancarlo Fisichella 8

11 Johnny Herbert 7

12 Rubens Barrichello 6

13 Ralf Schumacher 5

14 Mika Salo 2

15= Nicola Larini 1

15= Shinji Nakano 1

Constructors' championship

1 Ferrari 65pts

2 Williams-Renault 52

3 Benetton-Renault 25

4 McLaren-Mercedes 21

5 Prost-Mugen-Honda 16

6 Jordan-Peugeot 13

7 Sauber-Petronas 8

8 Stewart-Ford 6

9 Tyrrell-Ford 2

RACES TO COME: 27 July: Germany (Hockenheim); 10 Aug: Hungary (Budapest); 24 Aug: Belgium (Spa-Francorchamps); 7 Sept: Italy (Monza); 21 Sept: Austria (Zeltweg); 28 Sept: Luxembourg (Nurburgring); 12 Oct: Japan (Suzuka); 26 Oct: Europe (Jerez). Provisional: 9 Nov: Portugal (Estoril)

TIME TABLE

Today

06.45-08.00: Public coach rides round GP

circuit - limited availability

07.15-08.15: Public pit road walkabout

- limited availability

09.00-09.45: F1 - 3rd practice

10.15-11.00: F1 - 4th practice

11.15-12.00: Track and air displays

13.00-14.00: F1 qualifying

14.30: Race 1 - Formula Opel (15 laps)

15.30: Race 2 - British Formula 3 Champion-

ship (15 laps)

16.10-16.40: Porsche Supercup

- second practice session

16.40: Air display - The Red Arrows

17.00: Race 3 - BRDC 1950's Grand Prix cars

(10 laps)

17.50: Race 4: BRDC 1960's Grand Prix cars

(10 laps)

Tomorrow

06.15-08.45: Public coach rides around GP

circuit - limited availability

09.30-10.00: F1 - warm-up

10.15-10.45: Race 5: Porsche Supercup

(15 laps)

11.10-11.30: F1 drivers' parade

11.45-12.15: Race 6 - Renault Sport Spider

Elf Trophy (14 laps)

12.25-13.30: Track and air displays

13.30: Pit lane opens for F1 cars

14.00: Race 7 - BRITISH GRAND PRIX

(60 laps)

16.15: Race 8: Privilege Insurance GT Cham-

pionship (50 min)

TV: ITV 13.00-16.15: Highlights 23.10

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