Oranges and Lemons

Was the arrival of Eddie Irvine in Formula One the onset of anarchy, or a breath of fresh air?

It's hard to recall just when an F1 novice burst so insouciantly on to the scene, and made the sort of impression that Eddie Irvine did in Suzuka.

His qualifying performance was excellent. All year rookie Rubens Barrichello had ruled a comfortable roost at Jordan, easily blowing off the enigmatic Ivan Capelli and the insipid Thierry Boutsen, not to mention Emanuele Naspetti. At Monza there was the slight suggestion that Marco Apicella might have given him a harder time, given better fortune (and indeed the Italian is credited within the team for suggesting the longer wheelbase modification that turned Gary Anderson's 193 into something approaching the sweetness and balance of his excellent 191). But really, the young Brazilian had it made . . . Until Irvine blew him off in all four practice sessions, and stretched him so much in the fourth that Rubens crashed trying to beat his time. This, remember, from a guy who has driven so much within himself all year that he has rarely even spun . . .

I liked the way that Irvine made no attempt to aggrandise himself. What you need to understand about him is that he really doesn't care what people think of him. He never has. He wants to race cars, and the hell with anything else. He was that way in Formula Ford, Formula Three and Formula 3000. Think of Tommy Byrne, with all his unwise candour, multiply that by a factor of, maybe, 10, and you get the picture. Irvine is also honest with himself.

Try this: "When I first drove the car in Estoril it felt awful, the worst thing I'd ever driven. It was bad here, too, for the first few laps. But then we made a small change and it was really very good in qualifying. It's quite an easy car to drive, and the steering is lighter than an F3000's."

Or this: "In the race I was lucky that it rained, because by that time my back had gone. I couldn't use full throttle. The seat was just too uncomfortable. Things were better on the second set of slicks, but then it was the rain that saved me."

There aren't many others I can think of who would have admitted that. Most would have prepared excuses about overtightened seat belts, or minor car problems.

What made Eddie hit the headlines the world over, of course, was the way he had the temerity to race against Ayrton Senna when the Brazilian came up to lap him. It's quite possible at that point that Ayrton didn't fully appreciate that the new boy in the Jordan was actually racing for fourth place with Damon Hill in the Williams, although with his legendary shrewdness Ayrton must have been aware how well he had gone to qualify eighth.

For me the big negative about Irvine's run in Japan was the cynical way that he took Derek Warwick off at the chicane, and the manner in which he subsequently suggested that the Briton had tried to squeeze him off the road just before. He was hauled before the stewards for pushing the Footwork off the road but, as we have come to expect, no further action was taken. Later, however, Senna had launched a diatribe against backmarkers in his victory conference, and you didn't need genius IQ to know to whom he was referring.

What happened in the race was influenced by several factors, for this was the period when parts of the track were drying and parts were still very wet, such as the S Curves behind the pits. Hill had just stopped for slicks, while Senna and Irvine were still on wets. Overall, the equation balanced out over the lap, but having lapped Irvine on the 34th tour, Senna was having trouble getting by Hill. Unusually for him, he appeared to be rather less forceful than we have come to expect. To Irvine the situation was simple: the former World Champion wasn't going fast enough.

"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was getting in my way...

When the opportunity came he repassed the McLaren, and that, one suspects, is what really got Senna mad. A newboy in a Jordan overtaking him!

"Suddenly," he related in the conference, "I got disturbed by another car again. The guy behind me came like a lunatic. If he is a backmarker he should respect someone who is one lap in front. It was dangerous, because those guys were going to hit each other and that could have cost me something."

It was an interesting choice of words, with the selfishness all too evident. "They could have hit each other, and that could have cost me something."

In fact, Hill and Irvine rubbed wheels a couple of times, but Damon had no complaints about his rival's tactics afterwards. Nor did Schumacher, whom Irvine had passed round the outside in the first corner during the start!

Later still, Senna paid his now famous visit to the Jordan office in the paddock. It is said that Gerhard Berger, ever mischievous, had communicated to him the nature of the comments Irvine was making about Ayrton's criticism, and that was sufficient to light the blue touch paper. I was next door at Lotus when the Brazilian and his entourage strode down to Jordan, and watching from the front window was just too good an opportunity to miss.

Initially, Senna didn't even know what Irvine looked like, and at one stage accosted Autosport's Japanese correspondent Adam Cooper, who set him right. Presciently, Adam also switched on his tape recorder. . .

Irvine sat languidly on a table and raised his hand. "Here," he indicated to Senna. Ayrton then began another tirade that lasted a good five minutes, wagging a finger threateningly in Irvine's face. Now Eddie is not the greatest respecter of anything, and earlier on had dismissed Senna's reported ire. Now he had the full benefit of that anger face-to-face, and as Senna's digit worked overtime he sat with a 'have-you-finishedyet?' expression on his face.

Making liberal use of the F-word, the former World Champion made it rather clear that he doesn't care to be overtaken, and that once he has lapped somebody he likes to make it stick. Irvine, predictably, refused to be bowed by any of this bluster.

After the race, he had remarked: "If he was the race leader, I shouldn't have been able to pass him. That's his problem. It doesn't affect me. It's water off a duck's back to me. He thinks he's a smart arse. Well, he did something to me the other day, so I got him back today, good and proper . . .

"I don't see what his problem is. I didn't put him at risk, I didn't touch him."

The one-sided conversation went on in the little office, and even without the soundtrack it was clear things would shortly get out of hand. Senna was getting madder as Irvine drawled sarcastically. Finally, Ayrton threatened him with regard to Adelaide, whereupon Eddie gave the laconic, dismissive response: "See you out there.. .

That remark - and his entire mien - so angered the Brazilian that he lost his cool completely. After pushing Irvine's shoulders with both hands he then punched him at least once, knocking him off balance over the table. He then had to be restrained by McLaren engineer Giorgio Ascanelli, who was present along with the Woking team's Jo Ramirez, Norman Howell and Ayrton's public relations representative Betise Assumpcao. As Irvine said: "That's an insurance claim there . . . " Senna was hustled back and stomped off to McLaren's office further up the pit road, leaving Ascanelli to proffer apology for the assault to Jordan's Ian Phillips as Irvine remained unrepentant.

He, better than anyone, knew that a punch would probably be thrown. "I knew it was coming," he said later as he rubbed a mildly reddened right temple. "When it did, I thought 'Oh aye, here's a few quid coming!'

"I've been hit a lot harder than that." And assuredly he has been. "I wouldn't mind if I'd taken him off. I'd have punched myself! But I wasn't blocking him. I was racing Hill for a place. You know, it's amazed me coming here that people weave all over the road. As far as I'm concerned that's completely wrong. That shouldn't be allowed. I didn't block Senna; I was just going as quickly as I could in the conditions. This is Formula One, and I'm out to screw whatever I can to get a point for the team."

In reality, Irvine did nothing to Senna that Senna wouldn't have done to anyone else during his early days. Motorsport history is littered with all sorts of examples of Ayrton's own insouciance and opportunism at a similar stage of his career, not to mention some far more ruthless tactics. What Irvine did with him was just acceptable, if not particularly sporting. What he did to Warwick wasn't. But then look back to Suzuka 1990, if you want an example of the most infamous piece of cynical, reckless driving the sport has witnessed from a champion. Take that into context, remember that Senna was prepared to pull that kind of stunt to win, and you have the classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

You get the flavour of Irvine's character when you hear what he has to say on other F1 matters. His manner is not contrived. The son of a one-time scrapdealer from Newtownards, he has always been this way. Call it what you will. His own man. Anarchist. Smart arse. Some may not like it, but it's just his nature, and it's real.

About Damon Hill: "I've raced with Damon before, and I've never thought that he was better than me. I figured when I came here that if he can do all right against these guys, I'd have no trouble with them when I got in . . .

"It doesn't mean much to me to score a World Championship point. It's more important to do a good job. One point means nothing when a guy like Damon Hill has got 40 or 50."

No respecter of names and faces. . .

About Senna: "He's paid a lot of money to drive quicker than me."

What foxed a lot of people about Eddie Irvine is that he broke all the preconceptions of an F1 novice. He was not cowed by it, nor all keyed up. He didn't try to strike a high profile, he didn't seek out publicity. He didn't make excuses, didn't attempt to curry any favour. He was just . . . Eddie Irvine.

The great irony is that when he scored his first F3000 victory - in the German GP support race at Hockenheim back in 1990 - scarcely an F1 face showed the remotest interest. Yet in one weekend he went from obscurity to become the most talked about sportsman in the world. As Andy Warhol once said, everyone should be famous for 15 minutes. Suzuka might well have been Irvine's quarter hour, but his showing there indicated that he ought to be in F1. What took so many aback, however, was the fact that whether he stays was a matter of complete indifference to him. And that isn't an act, either. Irvine does not need F1. He doesn't need to be part of the rat race, trying to find the money for a drive. He gets paid a nice little earner for Japanese F3000 - some say as much as $800,000 a year - so why worry?

The other irony concerns his helmet colours. Why the orange and green helmet? "Well . . . it's a bit political, really. I think I'll get shot for this! No, it's Northern Ireland . . . well, Ulster's colour is orange. You know? King Billy and all that history. Well, anyway, I am Protestant, so. . . we like orange. And the green is to keep the IRA from shooting me .

In the light of events at Suzuka it is indeed ironic that he once affected Senna's helmet colours on his own. Some say he changed them on Dick Benetts' advice, others that Senna communicated his displeasure. Whatever, he is not the first man to admire the Brazilian, only to change his mind once he started racing against him in F1. Ask Alesi, or Schumacher. . .

The thing is that the sport needs characters. What he did at Suzuka, in racing Hill and cocking a snook at Senna, was the sort of thing Perry McCarthy or Russell Spence would also have done. I, for one, hope the Ulsterman gets another crack next year. If nothing else, he's great entertainment value.

But was it all so terrible? It was unseemly, yes. But these things happen in life. Had I been Senna, I'd have done what he did. Eddie asked for it. Had I been Irvine, I'd have reacted the way he did. Ayrton was being arrogant.

I'd take a bet as these words are written prior to Adelaide that the FIA will fudge any disciplinary action, or else penalise the wrong man. It would make you think if one former champion can be threatened with licence suspension just for criticising FISA, and another were to be let off scot free for physically assaulting another competitor, wouldn't it? Stranger things have happened, of course, and going by the adage that no news is bad news, the FIA might well take the view that controversy is good for the sport if it elevates it to the front pages of national newspaper. I wonder. . .

Back at Dijon in 1979 the F1 world got itself all irate about the mighty wheelbanging fight for second place between Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Amoux. Afterwards, the voice of reason, Mario Andretti suggested: "Aw, it was just a couple of young lions clawin' themselves."

Whereas Villeneuve and Arnoux embraced as they climbed from their cockpits, there is no respect between Senna and Irvine. That's the difference, but their clash still amounted to something similar.

Suzuka III was more akin to Mansell grabbing Senna by the throat back at Spa in 1987, and was a clash of pride, disrespect and the irreverence of youth. Just as Senna appreciated then that he had to handle the Briton with less aggression than he would Prost, so he has now laid a marker with Irvine. A young lion Ayrton may no longer be himself, but you can bet that the King of the Jungle is now fully aware just who the cheeky cub is, even if the cub itself couldn't care less.