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 Wednesday, October 27
Opportunist Irvine ready to emulate Hill, Hunt
 
By Alan Baldwin
Reuters

  LONDON -- Some drivers, such as Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher, seemed destined for greatness from the moment they arrived in Formula One.

Eddie Irvine
"Fast Eddie" Irvine was a 100-1 shot to win the Formula One title before the season began.

Eddie Irvine was not among them.

Any suggestion that Irvine might one day become Ferrari's first world champion in two decades with the help of Schumacher would have been laughable only a matter of months, let alone years, ago.

"What a start to my career," the Briton said in 1994, assessing his first full season in the sport.

"I get punched by Senna in my first race, crash in my second, destroy four cars in my third and get banned from my fourth."

If Irvine -- variously known as "Irve the Swerve" or "Fast Eddie" -- wins the title in the final race in Japan on Sunday, it would complete a remarkable transformation.

From starting the season as a No. 2 driver contractually obliged to allow teammate Schumacher past him, he has emerged as a potential champion after the German crashed and broke a leg at Silverstone in July.

Hand of fate
Like victorious fellow Britons James Hunt (1976) and Damon Hill (1996) before him, fate has dealt Irvine a potentially winning hand.

Punters -- foolhardy then, prescient now -- could have obtained odds of 100-1 on him becoming world champion before his first win in Australia in March.

Few, if any, of the former greats can have been written off as he was by Lotus chief Peter Collins when Irvine took out compatriot Johnny Herbert on the opening lap of the 1994 Italian Grand Prix:

"His brain has obviously been removed and it is about time that his license is too," Collins said.

Irvine paid little attention and went on to take out Herbert, then with Sauber, again on the first lap of the Australian Grand Prix in 1997.

The northern Irishman made his debut with Jordan in Japan in 1993 and secured immediate fame when he was lapped by Senna and then cheekily passed the Brazilian again.

Senna stormed up to Irvine in the pits afterward and punched him to the ground.

Irvine crashed out of the season finale in Australia and then started 1994 by taking the blame for a four-car pileup in the opening race and being banned for three races.

One-man disaster
"He sometimes seems like a one-man disaster area but when Irv's around, there's always something going on," team owner Eddie Jordan once observed.

Irvine's move to Ferrari in 1995 was a surprise and he was easily dismissed as a mere bag carrier -- albeit a well-paid one -- when he allowed the German past during races.

Even this year, after Schumacher's title ambitions had ended, many pundits thought Ferrari's title hopes were over.

As late as last month's Italian Grand Prix, Ferrari's last champion Jody Scheckter dismissed Irvine's abilities.

"Irvine was never quick enough to give Michael Schumacher that knotted feeling in his stomach which comes when your teammate is faster than you," said the South African.

But, after Ferrari won an appeal Saturday against disqualification from the Malaysian Grand Prix, Irvine leads McLaren's reigning champion Mika Hakkinen by four points with just the race at Suzuka remaining.

While Hakkinen has made rare mistakes to leave the championship open, Irvine has moved up a gear and earned respect from many of those who doubted him.

If he does take the title, he will not be out of keeping with the last three champions, as well as with Hunt and Hill and Hakkinen's manager, Keke Rosberg.

When Hakkinen beat Schumacher to the title at Suzuka last year, many opined that it was more a case of the best car than the best driver winning.

With Schumacher recognized as the best driver of his generation, the same accusations were levelled at Hill and Canadian Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 at Williams.

Irvine knows he would never have had a chance without Schumacher's injury and can literally say he has had a lucky break. He seemed to somehow sense that even before the defining moment of his season.

"I don't know," he said, when asked before Silverstone whether he would stay at Ferrari.

"Michael could end up driving into a wall, God forbid. Look at Damon Hill, what was he? A lackey at Williams until Senna drove into a wall."

Hill's big chance emerged out of tragedy after the death of Williams teammate and former champion Senna at Imola in 1994, and it is hard to believe that he would have been champion had that accident not happened.

Even Nigel Mansell, runaway champion with Williams in 1992 and a big rival to Senna and Alain Prost, was accused in his time of owing his success more to grim determination than natural talent.

But he dominated his championship season, wrapping up the title by August.

In contrast, Hakkinen's mentor and compatriot Keke Rosberg won the title in 1982 with just one win to his name in a championship that lives on as a reminder that titles are not always taken by the man winning most races.

The late James Hunt, a fun-loving driver whose crashes earned him the nickname "Hunt the Shunt," emerged as a contender only after reigning champion Niki Lauda almost died at Nuerburgring in 1976.

Like Irvine, the Briton took the championship down to the wire in Japan and made the most of his chance -- winning the crown at Fuji by just one point after Lauda withdrew.

Irvine has been compared to Hunt throughout his career but the parallel does not bear too close an inspection.

Hunt drove for McLaren, Lauda for Ferrari. And it was the Ferrari man who lost his three-point lead in Japan.
 


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