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When, back in July, Michael Schumacher telescoped his Ferrari into the tyre wall at Stowe, we knew at once that things would be different for a while. As the Silverstone grid formed up for the restart Ross Brawn was left to mind the shop, while Jean Todt went with his injured No 1 in the helicopter to see how much damage had been done to Ferrari’s World Championship challenge.

The answer was, not as much as at first thought. That’s not a comment on the state of Schumacher’s tib and fib: as I write, between Hockenheim and Hungary, there are wildly conflicting rumours of how soon he expects to return to the cockpit. It’s more a verdict on the way Eddie Irvine, unfettered at last by the restraints of his No 2 status at Ferrari, has risen to the occasion. At Silverstone he would have beaten David Coulthard, had he not overshot his pit on his first stop and lost a vital couple of seconds of track position. In Austria he made no such mistakes, and won: in Germany, with a little help from his Finnish friend, he made it two.

So Irvine left Hockenheim with an eight-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship, and Ferrari with a fat 16 points over McLaren in the Constructors’. But Mika Hakkinen and McLaren still have to be title favourites, and by the time you read this those margins may have reduced. Irvine is nothing if not honest – he speaks, as the media have found to their delight and the team to their dismay, as he finds – and in the euphoria that followed the German Ferrari onetwo he was the first to acknowledge that “the races keep coming to us” and that “McLaren have shot themselves in the foot again.”

There is no doubting McLaren’s woes since Magny Cours. In four races they’ve had two car failures, one exploded tyre and three driver errors. In the same period, Ferrari if you accept the official line of a loose brake bleed nipple on Schumacher’s car at Silverstone had one car failure and one driver error, Salo’s collision with Herbert on lap 1 in Austria. (If you don’t, they’ve had two driver errors.)

So, by the start of August at least, Ferrari’s championship challenge was in better shape since Schumacher’s accident than it had been before. Once again the invidious role of the No 2 driver had come into the limelight. Eddie Irvine, a classic example of the genus conductor secundus, had done everything right.

Being the team-mate of the best driver in the world, and the highest paid, has its snags: ask Johnny Herbert, who lived alongside Schumacher at Benetton and found himself virtually ignored, unable to get testing miles, and yet scored two good wins for the team. No surprise that Irvine, having said for years that he was happier to be No 2 to the best driver in the best team than No 1 in a lesser team, now plans to accept a very large cheque from Ford to become the new man to spearhead Stewart, aka Jaguar.

Throughout the history of F1, Number Twos have played a shifting role. In the days when Enzo Ferrari ruled his team with a personal rod of iron, he had a queue of drivers eager to accept a drive on almost any terms, and apparently took a malevolent pleasure in playing them off against one another. In 1957 he fielded nine different drivers during the F1 season.

Unless a World Championship was to he settled – like Phil Hill slowing for Hawthorn in Morocco in 1958, or Collins voluntarily handing over to Fangio at Monza in 1956 – much of the hardest racing took place between team-mates.

At Mercedes in 1955 Moss shadowed Fangio for an entire season, apart from the famous British Grand Prix at Aintree where Fangio may or may not have allowed Moss to win, hut where Stirling both earned pole and set fastest lap. At Lotus in the 1960s you were always No 2 to Jim Clark, whether you were Spence, Arundell, Trevor Taylor or Graham Hill, for Jimmy’s natural speed on any type of circuit made team orders unnecessary.

At Tyrrell in the early 1970s there was a different relationship. Jackie Stewart was ready for retirement, and he was helping to groom his own successor in Francois Cevert – an unusual state of affairs, for retiring champions rarely give a fig about who comes after them. Jackie still talks about Cevert’s talent, and the tragedy of his death at Watkins Glen in 1973, in practice for Jackie’s last race.

If a team leader is injured, or worse, the No 2 can find himself abruptly pitched into the responsibilities of team leadership. When Ayrton Senna died at Imola in 1994, the still comparatively inexperienced Damon Hill had to lead Williams in very difficult circumstances. Four weeks later he beat Michael Schumacher to win the Spanish Grand Prix. When Jochen Rindt was killed at Monza in 1970 the No 2, John Miles, promptly left the team: he and Colin Chapman had been arguing about the wisdom of running the Lotus 72 without a rear wing when Rindt crashed. But the team had a No 3, a Brazilian newcomer called Fittipaldi. Emerson rebuilt Lotus morale after the tragedy by winning their next race.

Often two drivers have apparently equal status, but one establishes himself as the Number One. When David Coulthard arrived at McLaren he was a winner, and Mika Hakkinen wasn’t. DC often out-qualified and sometimes out-raced Mika. But gradually the Finn proved himself the quicker, and while there is still no official difference in their status – and Coulthard’s embarrassing mistake on the first lap of this year’s Austrian Grand Prix was because he was racing Hakkinen for the lead – Mika is now generally seen as the team leader.

In 1974 Clay Regazzoni, already a winner in F1, returned to Ferrari, and Niki Lauda, then a young tearaway with little form, joined too. That first year Lauda took nine pole positions, and out-qualified Regazzoni in all but two races. Clay had more reliability, and finished second in the championship to Fittipaldi; but Lauda had already surrounded himself with that aura that only a No 1 can generate.

Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve, at Ferrari five years later, were a more closely matched duo. Both had interestingly differing strengths: Villeneuve the wild racer, Scheekter the canny thinker. That year both won three races, both had three second places. It was the lesser placings that decided the title in the South African’s favour.

Sometimes there have been generation differences: a great driver passing his zenith, a young lion coming up. At McLaren in 1984 Lauda and Prost epitomised this. In the end experience had its last fling as Lauda took the title from his team-mate by half a point. And there have been clashes between two differing types of greatness, as in the unhappy relationship between Prost and Senna at McLaren which culminated in the notorious Suzuka collision in 1989. But Ron Dennis will always remind you that, over the two seasons that he employed both Prost and Senna, McLaren scored 340 World Championship points – and he will also stoutly maintain that Hakkinen and Coulthard are allowed to race each other now, and will continue to be. (In the last race of the season, if Irvine and Hakkinen were within a few points of each other at the top of the table? Surely not.)

Which brings us back to today, and to team orders within the Ferrari team. It was a pleasing irony that, at Hockenheim„ Eddie Irvine was able to benefit from exactly the same No 1/No 2 strictures that he has been squirming under at Ferrari for so long. Mika Salo drove a perfect race second time out for Ferrari, reinventing his own career in 82 minutes. He saw PI on an F1 pit board for the first time before the inevitable radio command to ease off, so that Irvine could win the race and lead the Championship.

Later, the honest Irvine told the post-race press conference he’d give the winner’s trophy to the Finn, because it didn’t belong on his own shelf. A No 2 himself for so long, he knew just how Salo was feeling.

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