Formula One's transfer market produced a genuine surprise yesterday when Ferrari named Northern Ireland's Eddie Irvine as the driver to partner Michael Schumacher next season.
Only last Thursday, Irvine and Rubens Barrichello were "confirmed" as Jordan-Peugeot's pairing for 1996, while Ferrari planned to test four Italian contenders today. McLaren-Mercedes' claim to David Coulthard had put him out of the equation but two other British drivers, Martin Brundle and Johnny Herbert lay in wait.
The Italian team decided, however, to move in for Irvine, the 29-year- old at last shedding his "irresponsible" label and establishing himself as one of the quickest and most respected drivers on the Grand Prix circuit. He has a one-year deal with options for a further one or two years.
Talks began at last weekend's Portuguese Grand Prix and the agreement, including compensation for the remaining two years on his contract with Jordan, was signed at a meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. It is understood the transfer fee is $5m (pounds 3.3m) and that Irvine will earn almost as much next year.
Irvine, who made his Grand Prix debut, with Jordan, less than two years ago, said: "I'm a bit sad to be leaving but every driver dreams of Ferrari. It's an opportunity I didn't want to miss and I'm very grateful to Eddie Jordan for allowing me to take it."
Jordan, the team owner said: "Five days ago we thought our plans for 1996 were finalised. That situation has obviously changed. We're sad to lose Eddie but we would never stand in his way. There is a mechanism in Irvine's contract for situations such as this and he goes to Ferrari with our blessing and best wishes."
Irvine, who already drives a Ferrari road car, is regarded as something of a maverick. His personality, as well as his pace and combative style, doubtless influenced Maranello's decision. The signing of Schumacher received a lukewarm reception among motor racing's biggest and most passionate following, coming as it did at the expense of a much-loved Jean Alesi, who, it is understood, was yesterday fined pounds 132,000 for criticising team chief Jean Todt following the Portuguese Grand Prix.
Irvine, from Newtownards, has a dubious privilege driving alongside the single-minded world champion but he declares himself in awe and fearful of no one. He said: "Michael has proved he's the best driver in the world and he will no doubt be a tough nut to crack, but I'm looking forward to the challenge. The prospect of driving alongside him doesn't scare me. Whether I can beat him will be revealed next season.
"I've already spoken to Michael and the two of us will be working flat out to make Ferrari world champions. I've been assured equal equipment and the pair of us will be allowed to race freely."
Irvine demonstrated his irreverence in his Formula One debut, at the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix. He made life difficult for Ayrton Senna, who subsequently threw a punch at the newcomer.
More controversy awaited Irvine at the opening round of last season's championship. Found guilty of causing an accident, he received a one- race ban which was extended to three on appeal. He claimed he was falsely portrayed as "a nutter".
This year he has repaired his reputation and although his best result is a third place - ironically behind Alesi, in Canada - he has regularly outpaced Barrichello, another of the earlier candidates for the Ferrari job. Herbert, released by Benetton Renault, and Brundle, currently with Ligier Mugen, will now be in contention to replace Irvine at Jordan.
One Italian in demand is Gabriele Tarquini, called up by Tyrrell-Yamaha, for Sunday's Grand Prix of Europe at the Nurburgring. He replaces Japan's Ukyo Katayama, who has been ordered to rest after crashing in Portugal last Sunday.
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