IRVINE BREATHES FIRE

25 February 2001

Jaguar’s outspoken Irishman is not out to win friends. As Brough Scott reveals, he is as controversial as ever.

There is a yawn beneath the blond thatch and unscrubbed stubble around the dimpled chin. So is this Eddie Irvine starting another unproductive day on a fat fee despite the low expectations of Jaguar? Don’t you believe it. Behind the playboy facade the man, like the team, is deadly earnest.

There was fog at Silverstone when we met. Thick fog which blanketed out the Northamptonshire countryside and meant no testing until the sun burnt through. But there is nothing foggy in Irvine’s thinking even if the left eye shuts a shade disconcertingly when he’s talking. “Getting older means getting rid of all the unnecessary bullshit,” he says uncompromisingly. “You learn new ways of short cutting. Every year you hear Coulthard saying, ‘I’m going to test more than ever’, but it’s all bollocks.”

There we go. If you want to accept the image of a self-centred hedonist trying to do as little as possible for his seven-figure takings, Eddie will happily give you sound bites to make him the man you love to hate.

“Sometimes driving can be boring, big-time,” he says. “And if you are going backwards it can be humiliating. You are in front of 300 million people and you look stupid. But none of the drivers are your mates – my mentality is that they are all tossers, so let’s take the piss out of them and upset them if we can. I don’t want them as friends. I don’t need them as friends.”

To say that the 5ft 10in, 11st, 35-year-old originally from Newtonards (and now from Miami, Oxford, Macau and the Mediterranean gin palace Anaconda) is self-contained is an understatement. He has made his millions, he has his toys and more birds than a mid-size aviary. But he knows what he is doing and is infinitely more focused than this opening bravado might suggest. “You couldn’t do this for money,” he says. “I have plenty of money. I don’t spend 10 per cent of what I earn. I would rather lie around on a beach and have a nice life than drive around in the middle of the race like a wally.”

Which returns you to the truth about him. He is a racing driver. He wants to be a winner but he wants a life too. His father had a garage business in Northern Ireland, and every summer he hired a camper van to go to the British Grand Prix. Funds were short enough for little Edmund (still the name his family uses) and his sister Sonia to be dropped outside to blag their way in. His dad had a Formula Ford and, at 17, let Edmund race it in 1983 to keep him off motorbikes. The die was cast.

The story is fully and excellently told in an autobiography (written with Jane Nottage) called Life in The Fast Lane. He owns up to quite a bit of the hedonistic stuff. Apparently his simplest chat-up line is: “Right, we’re going”. Try it some time.

From Formula Ford, it was Formula Three in 1988 followed by Formula 3000 out in Japan where there was a first grand prix drive from Jordan. The next move was to pair up with Michael Schumacher for four seasons at Ferrari, ending with the 1999 heroics when Eddie took over the No 1 seat after Schumacher’s Silverstone disaster. He lost the Championship by only two points to Mika Hakkinen.

Heady days, a world removed from last year’s much-heralded first Jaguar season which ended with only no-hopers Minardi and Prost behind them. Cynics would suggest that the supposed £6 million salary is what makes slumming with Jaguar worthwhile. Cynics don’t get much truck from Eddie Irvine.

“I have no regrets at all,” he says firmly. “You can’t beat Michael in the same car. You have to accept that. It may sound defeatist but there is no point in standing in front of a man who has a gun and pretending he has got a knife. The only way you can beat him is in a better car.”

Hakkinen has done it. Villeneuve has done it. Damon Hill has done it. Can Jaguar do it? Irvine admits it is “the steepest mountain to climb”.

Being Irvine, there’s no beating about the bush on how, after a successful start, Jackie and Paul Stewart’s enterprise did not measure up. “Last year,” he says, “was about realising it was not going to work like this. This year we are starting to put the house in order. But winning a race may take a while.”

People will tell you that Irvine has a zero attention span, but there’s no doubting the commitment now. “Until I came over,” he says, “I didn’t realise how much Ferrari and McLaren had moved on. They have been building their teams for seven or eight years. And people expect us to challenge them in just one year. Last season it was frustration big-time. But now it is not a problem. We are working to make things happen.”

Specifically, Jaguar have changed personnel. At the very top Niki Lauda has come to play heavyweight politics with Bernie Ecclestone. At car-level, Humphrey Corbett (from Prost) and Gerry Hughes (from Williams) have been brought in to handle Eddie and his co-driver Luciano Burti. Mark Handford has come from Lola to mastermind aerodynamic development. Steve Nicholls (from McLaren) is chief designer. And holding the ring is American former Indycar driver and manager Bobby Rahal, who joined in December.

“When he came in,” said Eddie, “I didn’t see the urgency in him. We still don’t have our own wind-tunnel and are massively understaffed technically. But the way Bobby talks and the way he acts, I see he has a sense of urgency now. And if Mark Handford is as good aerodynamically as we think he is, he can shorten the time we can win by a lot.”

This is team-talk. “If you are a sprinter or a rower,” he says, “you are in control of your own destiny. In grand prix there are a minimum of 10 people who can make or break you. And they have to get not just their own jobs right but to work with other people.

“I learnt so much from my four years with Ferrari. I see a lot of my work in helping to make all this gel. I am very involved. Probably too involved. I can’t wait for it to start happening and I can just be a driver again.”

That driver might surprise you. He may once have driven (sometimes touching the tarmac) from Milan to Monaco in 90 minutes but he would never parachute or do a bungee jump. “I am absolutely not an adrenalin junkie. What I really like,” he says, with his hands held high and expressively, “is the feeling of a bike or a car sliding nice but in control. I don’t see racing as dangerous because it is so calculated. Getting a F1 car into a corner right is the sort of thing that turns me on.”

We are into living now and a man, who will be taking himself to the limit from March 4 to Oct 14, needs to be allowed his take on things. “Living in Italy was fantastic,” he says. “There they say let’s party first and then we will work. In England they want to work all the time. I think the Irish have the right mixture; a bit of wildness but we still get things done. And for me I am enjoying my work more than ever. I think I will get better as I get older.

“Age is not a factor,” he says.

“When I work with other drivers I can see they are not in the same league because of the education I’ve had at Ferrari. You are at your peak when the opportunity arises. Mansell was 39 or something when the chance arose. The physical side is such a small part of it. It’s all in the head.”

And, in case anybody hadn’t noticed, Eddie Irvine’s head is screwed on tighter than it ever was.

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