Can Eddie crack it?

If Eddie Irvine wins a world title for Ferrari, he will be the first Brit since John Surtees to do so. Adam Cooper speaks to both men about his chances.

You don’t need me to remind you that 20 years have passed since Jody Scheckter won Ferrari’s last World Championship, but perhaps a less obvious statistic is that it’s been 35 years since a British driver won a title for Maranello. If Eddie Irvine gets it right in the coming months, there will be two new landmarks in the history books.

Such a prospect would have been impossible just a few weeks ago, but Michael Schumacher’s leg-breaking accident at Silverstone has turned the 1999 title battle on its head. Irvine, for three years Michael’s frustrated understudy, has suddenly been presented with the chance of a lifetime.

“I have a realistic opportunity to be World Champion,” Eddie said just before the Austrian GP. “I have to work very hard, make no mistakes and take every opportunity that I can. It’s not going to be easy but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I’ve just got to get on with it. It’s up to me, and I’ve got to push the team as hard as they’re capable of working, and try and make the car as good we can.”

Many think that he has no chance of beating reigning champion Mika Häkkinen, and that any talk of Ferrari salvaging the title without Schumacher is pure nonsense. But at the A1-Ring and then Hockenheim, Eddie force-fed his critics humble pie.

In Austria he drove a brilliant race, biding his time early on and then withstanding intense pressure from David Coulthard to take his second win of the year. Good fortune certainly played its part at the German Grand Prix, too, but victory there means that in the last three races – MOTOR SPORT went to press before the Hungarian round – Irvine has taken 26 points from a maximum of 30. Suddenly he is leading the world championship.

It’s still a long shot, and luck will have to work against McLaren, but Irvine has a chance of joining that elite group of Ferrari champions. Only seven men have preceded him, namely Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Mike Hawthorn, Phil Hill, John Suttees, Niki Lauda and Scheckter.

Surtees was the last Brit to win with Ferrari, back in 1964. Not that there have been many others with a serious chance; apart from Irvine the only home driver to have held a full-time drive at Ferrari was Nigel Mansell, in 1989-90.

“I would have thought that after their experience with him it would have put them off having British drivers,” jokes Surtees. “They used to tell me the stories about him stomping off. In the first race it all sort of clicked and he flew, but then the next year Prost comes along and totally destroys him. Nothing like that has happened between Schumacher and Eddie, because they’re quite different characters.”

On the face of it there’s not much similarity between the situation in 1964 and ’99, but a closer look reveals some clear parallels. Surtees had a good car, but like this year’s Ferrari, it was not regarded as the best overall package. And like Irvine, he had to come from behind to defeat the reigning World Champion. Indeed, on paper his task looked even tougher than Eddie’s does now

As this year, the British GP represented the halfway point of the season. But while Eddie lay just eight points behind Hakkinen, after the ’64 race at Brands Hatch Surtees was a lowly sixth equal in the title race, with just 10 points to his name. Jim Clark was racing away in the lead on 30 points, while ’62 champ Graham Hill was his closest rival on 26. With only five races in which to make up the deficit, Surtees didn’t look like a contender. He has no doubts as to why his season started badly.

“It was because we only started to have some attention paid to us after Le Mans,” he recalls. “Let’s face it, we threw the championship away half the time, by never having a full effort. The Old Man always said it will be different next year, but the lure of Le Mans always swayed him. I tried to get them to separate the F1 team from Le Mans. As much as I liked running the prototype cars, from the Grand Prix point of view it meant we ran the season with our hands tied behind our backs.

“When you were doing well the powers-that-be would turn their attention to something else. It was never a case of ‘it went well, let’s do even better.’ It was, ‘That went well, let’s do something different’. Which is why the English teams came through. But I think the international team they’ve put together now is superb. You can’t compare Ferrari then and now. Ferrari today is what I dreamed of at that time!

“We should have walked the championship. If we’d just started properly and done some testing, it would have been very much easier. The big thing was that competing against the Climaxes, we were lagging behind. It wasn’t as if Ferrari had the horsepower in those days. Our engines ran differently from one day to the next with their direct injection systems. They were very temperamental.

“Jimmy in the Lotus was a formidable opponent. Graham was very steady; he wouldn’t pull any fireworks out, but the BRM was quick and reliable, and it was a very well engineered car. Graham would always be around, as he was very consistent.”

In the second half of the ’64 season, the situation changed dramatically. Surtees won in Germany, retired in Austria when the suspension broke on Zeltweg’s bumps, won again in Italy, and finished second in the USA. Another second in the final race in Mexico was enough to secure the crown. After Brands, such a scenario had looked impossible.

Despite his obvious pace, all kinds of misfortunes – much like Hakkinen has had to endure recently – ensured that Clark scored just two points in those five events. Hill was John’s closest challenger, and lost his chance after an infamous collision with Lorenzo Bandini in the finale. Despite the points disadvantage, John never gave up.

“You’re not watching the others. All you’re doing is looking inwards. It wasn’t a situation .where you thought you couldn’t beat the others. If you just got down to it, and everything went well, you could win.”

That’s exactly the sort of approach Irvine has to take now and the Irishman concurs with Surtees’ attitude three decades earlier.

“Nothing’s actually changed,” Eddie noted at the German race. “You’ve still got to get it from the startline back to the startline as quickly as possible. I just have to drive flat out all the time and not make mistakes. That’s all I can do.”

Surtees and Irvine both had good cars, but they perhaps weren’t quite the fastest in the field. John agrees that there’s a similarity between then and now.

“You can’t discount the fact that Ferrari have had an extremely good period for reliability. Odd things have happened, but generally they’ve been strong. The biggest single difference between the two cars is that McLaren have the benefit of being able to set cars up knowing they have the most powerful engine. What Ferrari have to do is find more power.”

John also remains convinced that the Hakkinen is a formidable opponent, who won’t be easy to beat.

“Look carefully and you can see the McLaren is a step ahead of the others. The way Hakkinen leans the car into the corners, driving it in with total confidence that it isn’t going to let go. The way he is able to place the car and push it is something which a driver only experiences a few times in his career. It’s very impressive. I think that the combination of Hakkinen and the Mercedes probably has a distinct edge.”

Irvine too has a car in which he can place a lot of faith – certainly in terms of its longevity.

“When you’re given the material which will perform and keep going, it allows one to express oneself” says Surtees. “It’s something that today’s drivers have which we largely didn’t, for the simple reason that you were always compromising from an early stage in the race. Very rarely did you have a car where the flag went down and you went through the race able to extend the thing fully.

“What you have also got to take into account is the actual race time difference that will normally exist between Eddie and Schumacher. Eddie obviously has to make a little bit of a leap forward.”

However, Austria’s tactical victory proved that even without Schumacher, Ferrari and Irvine can still outfox McLaren.

“They will try even harder because they haven’t got the Michael factor. They will obviously have to take one or two chances. Where they would have played safe, because they relied on the Michael factor, now they will be more adventurous. Because its the name of the game – they’ve got nothing to lose.

“Eddie’s driven some good races, and it will depend on him remaining cool, calm and collected. Now is the time for him to just concentrate and get stuck in, and hopefully find less to comment about.”

The situation is complicated by Irvine’s future plans. It seems ever more likely that he intends to leave Ferrari for Stewart in 2000. He certainly made It clear to the media that after four years, he’d had enough of his number two status. His spell as number one began with that Austrian win, and it remains to be seen what effect his title charge will have. Surtees says Eddie should just get on with the job.

“I know when I went to Ferrari – and the same applied to any team I went to – I said I would expect number one status to go to the fastest driver. Michael Schumacher has been the all-round faster driver. What are you going to do? Downgrade your team so that you can be number one? Let’s face it. If Schumacher beats Irvine, nobody thinks anything of it. If Irvine was to challenge and beat Schumacher, then the world would be looking at him. As Eddie was saying when he joined, he had nothing to lose.

“I can well see that he is now thinking about where other opportunities come. But at the moment his thoughts must be to salvage this year for Ferrari, and Ferrari will obviously give him 101% effort.”

Meanwhile, Eddie will continue to plough his own furrow, ignoring the critics.

“A lot of people at Ferrari said that winning races was the right answer to give my critics, but I actually don’t think about them. It’s a waste of your life worrying about what journalists say. It’s a waste of two minutes of your life reading what they write. It can be interesting and funny, but no one knows more about what’s going on than you do, so you’re not going to learn anything from the newspaper. I know a few people said Irvine’s not a team leader, he’s not this, he’s not that. Well, they’ve got that a bit wrong.”

If Eddie does achieve his goal, some might think it a hollow victory, since Schumacher was absent. But his team boss makes an interesting comparison with what’s happened this year in the other world that Surtees knows.

“Look at motorbike racing,” says Jean Todt “Mick Doohan was World Champion six times in a row, and he is now out after an accident. Alex Criville is leading that championship, and he was never able to do that while Doohan was there. Maybe it’s a sign from above, who knows?”