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Oh dear! You can’t help but feel a degree of sympathy for Eddie Irvine, a driver who while keeping his foot in it manages to put his foot in it. If ever a driver attracted trouble in spades, it’s the Ulsterman. In his maiden Grand Prix he ends up on the receiving end of a Schnapps-fuelled punch from Ayrton Senna. In his next he stalls on the grid and prompts a second restart. In his third he triggers a four-car accident. He is banned from his fourth, and when he appeals against that decision the tribunal increases the suspension to three GPs!
Most TV viewers and avid motorsport fans will be familiar with the mechanics of the accident on the 35th lap of that race. Going into lap 34 Martin Brundle was chasing after Karl Wendlinger and Rubens Barrichello for fifth place. Some way behind him. Eddie Irvine was being caught steadily by debutant, Jos Verstappen, in what may 471i$1Z 4:10’1″r‘7): .‘
have been only the latter’s 50th ever car race. It’s salutary to recall that two years ago the Dutchman was driving in Opel Lotus, equally illuminating when you appreciate that none of this showed in his performance up to that point.
On that lap Brundle had caught and lapped Eric Bernard’s Ligier by the time they spilled out on to the back straight. Not so far back now, Irvine and Verstappen had also caught the Ligier, and this is where things began to go wrong. Irvine went for a tow from the French car; Verstappen went for Irvine. Trapping the Jordan behind the Ligier, the Dutchman moved alongside the Sasol car, to its left. Irvine now had nowhere to go. although he did try to move to his left in a belated attempt to escape the box.
At this stage all uld have been well. Irvine had mai.i stappen had
cleverly forced him into it and was making capital. Bernard was minding his own business.
There were other crucial factors at work, however.
Brundle was already struggling with a fault on his McLaren. The right rear damper had gone out of service, and he was fighting a car that wanted to pull sharply to the left. Then, as he came down the straight to the left-hander at the end, his Peugeot VI let go in a big way. We are told that the flywheel actually parted company with the crankshaft and exited through the undertray. Certainly, the MP4/9 bore damage consistent with such catastrophe when we examined it in the garage afterwards.
Thus we had a situation where Brundle was slowing suddenly and dramatically. Bernard was probably the first to appreciate that. Verstappen had his hands full keeping Irvine where he wanted him. Irvine was more interested in avoiding running into the back of the Ligier, which in any case was blocking his view of Brundle.
Bernard, having just been lapped by the McLaren, realised it was slowing, and thus had to ease to his left in order to go around it. As he began to do this Irvine kept coming to his left, pushing Verstappen ever wider. In normal circumstances the road would have been wide enough to accommodate three cars side-by-side, but Brundle’s presence complicated the issue because it obliged Bernard to leave a full cars’s width to his right. Eventually Verstappen was pushed so far to the left that he got his left rear wheel on the grass, and as it lost grip the Benetton slewed to its right, straight across the paths of Irvine and Bernard. The former started a sideways slither that would bring him to a halt alongside Brundle; the latter headed on to the grass to his right, narrowly avoiding a head-on shunt into the wall when the Ligier snapped sideways at the last moment.
Verstappen, meanwhile, tripped over the McLaren and was launched right over the top of it in a frightening replay of the Berger/Andretti collision at the start of the 1993 race. The Benetton did a full roll before crashing back to land on the outside right of the corner.
Who was to blame? Without question Irvine triggered the incident by continuing to move to his left, for it was that move which precipitated Verstappen’s veer on to the grass. Interestingly, the television footage also revealed without doubt that the Ulsterman at no time moved his head to look to the left.
But was Verstappen entirely blameless? There is a case for suggesting that a slightly more prudent driver might have backed off as he saw the situation with Brundle unfolding, but we must remember that we are dealing with race drivers here, and hungry young chargers at that. Ultimately, Irvine deserved his fine and suspension, although it was interesting that the initial camera shots that we saw in the press room told rather a different story to those shown immediately afterwards on the BBC transmission. The originals were tight
shots that suggested Verstappen had made a late dive for the inside gap; the later shots were from a longer perspective and showed the drivers’ progress from the previous corner. They proved that the Dutchman had in fact planned his move very much earlier, and was in full control of the situation up until Irvine began to move left. You also appreciated far better just how quickly the three of them came upon the slowing Brundle.
Why did Irvine keep moving left, apart from a racer’s natural desire not to lose out? In lordan’s official statement he claimed that his left driving mirror had come loose; other reports say he told the stewards that he didn’t look in it. Either way, Verstappen was already well alongside him when things began to go wrong, and his peripheral vision should have told him that.
Verstappen was angry, but replied calmly enough afterwards when questioned about the incident. “I don’t think Irvine saw me. . . “he said with commendable understatement. A cool customer, Mr Verstappen. Cool enough that, as his Benetton touched down again after its aerial roll, he was flicking up his visor before it even came to rest, and looking to his left for Irvine. . . The body language spoke volumes. He drove very well that weekend, and indicated the hard way that he isn’t a man who can be intimidated. I rather think we shall be hearing a great deal more about him in the years to come.
Said Irvine: “I was catching the Ligier quite quickly and was about to overtake him when he suddenly lifted off — much earlier than I expected. Either I went into the back of him or I pulled out — those were my only two options. I pulled out and it was then that I saw the McLaren in front — which I guess is why the Ligier suddenly slowed. I didn’t see the Benetton to my left because my mirror had come loose earlier in the race.”
And lest we forget the effects of one Fl car rear-ending another at high speed, let’s recall the incident back in the 1989 monsoon on Adelaide’s Dequetteville Terrace straight between Nelson Piquet and Piercarlo Ghinzani. Fl cars have very low noses and their front wings nowadays are extremely strong. They no longer tend to deform on impact, as their aluminium counterparts of yore might have. And the backs of the cars sweep up to form the diffusors. If one car hits another from behind at sufficient speed, it’s all too easy to lift the car in front so that one slides right beneath the other. In Piquet’s case that day the Osella came right up to his Lotus’ windscreen. Indeed, one of its tyres actually left marks on Nelson’s helmet . . .
“The trouble is people think I’m some sort of nutter, but I was looking at a guy in front of me at 200 mph and Verstappen should have understood I had to take evasive action,” continued Irvine. “I think the decision is harsh.” Clearly Eddie has a particular style of driving and mental outlook at the wheel, as those who have raced closely against him will tell you. He has a reputation outside Fl
as a hard man who does not give rivals track space and racing room. There are plenty in an Fl paddock who would say that in this sport, as in life, what goes around, comes around. One team manager said: “The stewards in Interlagos were right to ban him, and I hope they stick to that. There’s no point if people can always get a softer sentence on appeal. You’ve got to look at this and at Suzuka. Verstappen can be forgiven what little blame might attach to him because it was his first GP, and if Irvine hadn’t been involved in incidents prior to this he would probably have got the benefit of doubt. But he has been involved before; and forget the Senna thing. What he did to Warwick in Suzuka was deliberate and cynical, and he deserved to be punished just for that. He shouldn’t have been allowed to get away with it.”
The telling thing about the whole Brazilian incident is that a third option appears not to have occurred to either Irvine or (to a lesser extent) Verstappen. Neither lifted off at any stage. and to me that suggests that both should bear some blame. Once he realised he was boxed in, Irvine should have accepted the fact and backed off. He didn’t. Verstappen can be excused rather more readily since it is unlikely that he fully appreciated that his left rear wheel was on the grass until it was too late, and in any case he was definitely not the aggressor. However, older heads in racing have suggested that, with greater experience, he might have eased a fraction and survived to race another lap. Call it 90/10 when assessing percentages.
At the time of the incident there was a degree of feeling that the well of tolerance for Irvine had long since run dry, not only after the Suzuka Incident but because of his apparent insouciance at the FIA hearing into it during the winter. Certainly, he did not win himself any friends in high places with his attitude on that occasion. Ultimately, though the punishment may have been harsh, it might also be just what is required to focus his thoughts. Without Brundle’s problem the entire incident would most likely never have occurred. Brundle
himself was not even aware that it had happened, until he saw the video footage. “I woke up thinking, ‘I’ve had an accident. How strange.’ But I didn’t know how it had happened. And I was wondering what the other cars were doing there.’ The blow he received on the head from Verstappen momentarily knocked him unconscious, split his helmet in two, and broke the McLaren’s rollhoop and headrest. Of all the drivers he had the luckiest escape from an incident that could have decapitated him, but he merely commented: “It was basically a horrible set of coincidences.”
Thankfully it’s been a while since there were any witchhunts against drivers in Fl, as poor old Riccardo Patrese will tell you. Back in 1978 his actions from the Swedish GP, when he relentlessly baulked Ronnie Peterson, were thrown back at him in the aftermath of Ronnie’s fatal accident at Monza. Even though Riccardo categorically had nothing to do with the Swede’s shunt, blame was heaped upon him (particularly by the late James Hunt) and as the mud stuck he received a one-race ban. Some of the drivers who insisted on it will today admit to being ashamed at the way they were swept along.
The blame in the Brazilian GP incident was more clear-cut since it was captured so well by television, and in the light of the spectacular failure of his appeal against a one-race ban which the FIA increased to a three-race suspension at a hearing in Paris on April 6, whilst simultaneously waiving the original $10,000 fine Eddie Irvine might be well advised to have a cold heart-to-heart with himself if he is to avoid being labelled as the ’90s equivalent of Willy Mairesse. The Irvine Incident II was not the only unsatisfactory point in Interlagos. The FIA, for reasons better known to itself but which are believed to have concerned money, had taken on new timekeepers in place of Olivetti. who have served Fl so faithfully for years. Motor Sports Timing, well-known for its work in British racing circles, had the unenviable task of following a tough act, in conjunction with trusted TAG Heuer, and sadly dropped the ball on a number of points. The most prominent was crediting Berger with second place on the first lap in the official lap chart, when it was of course Alesi, who had taken over the spare Ferrari which still obviously carried the number 28 signal. It mixed up the laps for Gachot and
Beretta too, who collided on lap one. There were unacceptable delays getting times printed during practice, and the lap-by-lap race screen information was confusingly presented. Teams were irritated to find that they were now denied some information given out readily in previous years. It will all get better, of course, and this was the first try, but information is the key to communication, and if the FIA wants its championship broadcast accurately round the world, that’s what everyone involved needs.
Then there were the anxious moments that Benetton had to endure shortly after the race, when Jordan lodged a protest concerning the aerodynamic splitters fitted to the sides of Schumacher’s winning car. Jordan had not felt moved to lodge its protest after scrutineering, when FIA Technical Delegate Charlie Whiting had invited all and sundry to do so if they felt there was anything they disliked about their rivals. That surely would have been the time to settle the matter, particularly as it is a bone of contention at which Jordan has been gnawing for some time. Basically, anything that protrudes from the car should be reflected in the overall plan of the chassis’ flat bottom. In other words, if rear-view mirrors stick out then there should be corresponding ‘shadow plates’ on the base of the chassis. That’s why you see those funny little bits sticking out just behind the front wheels. Jordan has long believed that the aerodynamic splitters should also have similar shadow plates, but since they were first introduced by McLaren in South Africa last year, there was little patience in most quarters when the team lodged its protest after the race. It seemed churlish and ill-advised, and certainly lost the team a smidgeon of the respect it has built up over its years in F 1 . In particular it scored a big zero with journalists racing to meet a very tight deadline before they flew out of Brazil within five hours of the race finishing. All in all, Eddie’s boys rather had the gun pointing at their own feet on that occasion, and it must be reported that when Schumacher’s victory was upheld and it was announced that the 2500 Swiss franc protest fee would not be returned, there was spontaneous applause in the press room. D T
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