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Eddie Irvine: Overlooked or Overachiever?

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Eddie Irvine was and is a man that stood out from the crowd. As one of the most outspoken drivers of the modern era off track, he never strayed far from controversy. It was the same on the circuit as well, being involved in numerous incidents including the one at Interlagos in 1994 that cost him 3 races. But opinion on his ultimate ability has been divided, generally slanting more towards the “lucky to get a Ferrari drive, lucky that Michael got injured, and lucky that Jaguar didn’t know what they were doing when they signed him” line of argument. But I think this is rather harsh. You don’t nearly win the world title purely because you have the best car.

The early years of Irv the Swerve

Irvine’s junior career was hardly brilliant but neither was it particularly bad. Finishing in 5th in British F3 in 1988 and winning the first heat of the Macau GP led to F3000 in 1989 and 1990. In his second season in the series, he finished 3rd behind Eric van de Poele and champion Erik Comas. He then opted to go east to Japanese F3000, a series frequented by a number of soon-to-be-famous names. In his 3rd year in the championship, he finished runner-up to Kazuyoshi Hoshino despite finishing on the same number of points as the veteran.

That same year saw his F1 debut at Suzuka, a track he knew well. He had signed for his former F3000 boss Eddie Jordan, whose team had gone through 4 other drivers in the 2nd seat alongside Rubens Barrichello – Capelli, Boutsen, Apicella and Naspetti. It was not a particularly good car, with the only previous highlight coming at Donington when the Brazilian sat in the podium places for most of the race until retirement. But in Japan, Irvine qualified 8th and Barrichello 12th. The pair went on to finish 5th and 6th with Rubens leading the way, the team’s first points finishes of the season. But it was Irvine that was in the news after a collision with Derek Warwick whilst battling for 6th and a post-race spat with race winner Ayrton Senna, whom the Irishman had cheekily repassed when Senna was lapping him. Senna later punched him in the face over the incident, but it proved to be his breakthrough. He was soon signed up for 1994.

Irvine’s 2 years at the team didn’t yield enormous success but he made a name for himself on a number of occasions, mainly for some aggressive driving. Most notably, he was banned for 2 races, which then became 3 after an unsuccessful appeal, for being judged to be at fault for causing a 4 car pile-up in the Brazilian GP. There was also quite a bit of tension between him and team mate Barrichello, with plenty of mind games going on, and it did seem that it was starting to get to Rubens by 1995.

But what about the actual results? Irvine’s best was a 3rd place finish at Canada in 1995, but this was a pretty wild race with plenty of retirements, as demonstrated by the fact that the race was won by Jean Alesi and Rubens finished 2nd. But in terms of other race results, it’s difficult to make an accurate comparison, as it became a rare occurance that both drivers would finish the race. In 1994, it happened just twice, in Portugal and at Jerez, and both drivers “won” one apiece. In 1995, out of the 5 races where both finished, Rubens “wins” 3-2. So qualifying is probably the best measurement. In 1994, Rubens outqualified Irvine 9-4 (13 races because Eddie was banned for 3), but in 1995, Irvine “won” 12-5, only qualifying outside the top 10 twice and taking the team’s best grid slot of the year with 4th in Argentina (which he promptly wasted at the start by driving into Mika Hakkinen and knocking off his front wing).

So it’s pretty even, all told. 1994 definitely goes to Barrichello but you have to bear in mind that he already had a year of experience in F1, whereas Irvine only had 2 races. In 1995, Irvine was definitely the best in qualifying, but it’s difficult to compare race results because the Jordan-Peugeot 195 was so unreliable. So it’s probably fair to say that Irvine was just about getting the upper hand by the end of the season. This makes for an interesting comparison considering all that happened to both in later years…

The Prancing Shamrock

Initially it looked like Irvine would be staying at Jordan for 1996 and beyond. Jordan confirmed him for 1996 and 1997 in late September 1995 alongside Barrichello, but a week later, Ferrari made the shock announcement that made Irvine’s career. The Scuderia had been thought to be about to sign Nicola Larini as number 2 to Michael Schumacher for 1996, but the team are said to have decided against it as they wanted someone mentally stronger and Michael is believed to have objected to an Italian team mate in case the Italian got better treatment, so instead they bought out Irvine’s contract – not exactly cheap if you consider how much they had already spent on signing Michael. Irvine at the time was temporarily being managed by Bernie Ecclestone after his normal manager Mike Greasley suffered a stroke, so no doubt he had a hand in it too. A good article from the time on the announcement can be found here.

Eddie unsurprisingly bore the brunt of the team’s unreliability issues in 1996, particularly mid-season when he suffered 6 mechanical retirements in a row. He finished only 5 races all season, all being top 7 finishes (plus another classification in 7th at Monaco where he crashed out at the end). This included a podium in Australia, a race for which he outqualified Schumacher, only the 3rd time the German had ever been outqualified by a team mate. But it’s difficult to make any meaningful comparison between the 2 knowing the status Michael had in the team. His qualifying performances were generally strong, though, with the only time he started outside the top 10 being when he started at the back in France after a technical infringement in qualifying, and he was usually running in the top 6 when he retired.

1997 would be more of an acid test, though, as this time Ferrari built a fast, reliable car which Schumacher used to great effect. Irvine had another tough year, with erratic form both on Saturdays and Sundays. The year started with controversy with a first corner collision with Jacques Villeneuve and Johnny Herbert, for which Irvine was blamed. But after a war of words in the press with the Canadian, a poor weekend in Brazil and rumours that he was to be replaced in 1998 by Mika Salo, Irvine took his best result so far at Buenos Aires when he harried leader Villeneuve right the way to the finish. But that would be pretty much the high point of the year. Statistically it was his best year yet, with 5 podiums and 7th in the championship, but he qualified outside the top 10 6 times – not really acceptable when your team mate, superior equipment or not, is challenging for the title. He was also forced to retire from 6 collisions in total, including one in Austria that led to conflict with Jean Alesi – that is a lot, his fault or not. But he showed his worth to the team in Japan where he proved instrumental in helping Schumacher to a crucial win by passing and holding up the opposition. 3rd at the finish was his reward at a circuit he always went well at.

The following year would be an improvement, with 8 podiums, just 3 retirements all year, and never qualifying or finishing outside the top 8. At the Nurburgring, he took the first of his 4 2nd places in quali, what would prove to be his highest grid slot. He also finished 2nd 3 times in France, Italy and Japan. But a race win proved elusive, with the Schumacher/Hakkinen/Coulthard axis locking out all of the wins bar at Spa. In 1999, it would have to be win or bust.

The Irish Eyes are Smiling

Fortunately for Eddie, he did win. Not only that but he did it straight away as well, silencing a few doubters in the process. Of course there was a bit of luck involved, with both McLarens retiring and Michael suffering from a number of different issues through the race, but he had plenty to deal with and handled it in exactly the way he needed to. It would be crucial for the championship. He didn’t win again before Michael’s injury but was a consistent point scorer, with his only non-score coming with his only retirement in San Marino. Thus by the time Michael was on his way to Northampton General Hospital, Eddie was already in a very good position, having been only 6 points behind Michael going into the British GP. 2nd place in that race brought him within 8 points of Hakkinen, whilst 2 consecutive wins in the next 2 races reversed that completely.

The big question is should he have closed it out from there? He had the car, he had the team’s support, he had a capable number 2 in Salo as demonstrated at Hockenheim, and he held a reasonable lead effectively worth 2 wins (the gap between 1st and 2nd being 4 points at the time). But of course he did not – Mika stole it from under his nose. The turning point came at the Nurburgring. The pair were level on points with 3 races to go, but the race weekend saw 2 crucial moments – Irvine’s poor qualifying (9th) which set him 6 places behind Hakkinen on the grid, and the decision to pit during the first rain shower and the infamous pit lane committee meeting that followed that cost him valuable time. A valiant recovery drive got him up to 7th but that was one place outside the points. Had Eddie stayed out initially, or had he qualified better and not needed to take the gamble of coming in, he would probably be world champion.

Then there’s the last race. Eddie was ahead of Mika going into the race and Suzuka is a circuit he was always strong at, but after his qualifying crash and resultant slide to 5th on the grid, he was on the back foot, and in the race his pace wasn’t particularly special, recording only the 7th fastest lap of the race. Again, without the early setback in quali, he may have done enough for the title. But you could point out loads of examples from the season like that – another one is from the French GP, when the team instructed him not to pass Michael despite the fact that he was struggling and Irvine was much faster. Had he passed, he would’ve gained an extra point, which would’ve meant that Eddie would’ve had enough points in hand to have won the title by finishing 2nd, which could then have been achieved by Michael letting him through in Japan.

Instead of looking at what might have happened, I have looked at the results using the 2003-2009 points system. Not only would Eddie have won the title but he would’ve wrapped it up in Malaysia, being 12 points ahead of Hakkinen with or without the ‘red ruler’. So it does raise the question of who was the most deserving champion that year, if you ignore the usual “the champion always deserves to be champion because he scored the most points” line. It’s a strange semi-parallel to what happened 9 years later, with the McLaren star just edging the not-as-highly-rated-former-number-2 driver, albeit with Hamilton taking it on consistentcy ahead of Massa who had won the most races. In both cases, the points system worked against Ferrari.

Hakkinen had been quite erratic but had won the most races and been on the podium the most. Additionally, Irvine hadn’t sat on pole all year, whereas Hakkinen had taken 11 poles. Mika had also had 3 unfortunate retirements – the problems in Australia, the wheel falling off at Silverstone, and the tyre failure and resultant crash at Hockenheim. So looking at it that way, there should only have been one winner, a convincing argument in favour of the Finn. But that fails to take into account a number of things. Like Hamilton, Hakkinen had made a couple of crucial errors, notably crashing/spinning out all on his own from the lead in both Italian races. He had also failed to beat his team mate at Spa and was lucky to get back into the points at the Nurburgring, where he had pretty much given up after making 2 unnecessary pit stops. Irvine, on the other hand, had been a number 2 to his team mate for half a season, which presumably included inferior machinery. He had been consistently in the points all year, as using the 2003-09 points system shows – the title clinched with a race to go and an 8 point victory at the end is pretty significant. His number 2 was pretty erratic as well – Salo went from nearly winning at Hockenheim to running deep in the midfield in Hungary.

So overall, it’s hard to judge. I’d like to say Irvine deserved it purely on the strength that Hakkinen made 2 silly mistakes, one you could perhaps justify as catastrophic in the situation (something he realised at the time, no doubt – just look at his reaction). And on a purely contrafactual basis and with the massive benefit of hindsight, you could argue that Irvine would have taken it had Michael been generous enough to let him through in France when Irvine was much faster. But at the same time, Eddie’s season wasn’t perfect either, and Mika did win the most races, after all. And of course he did actually win the championship in reality, which is sort of important.

From Maranello to Milton Keynes

Either way, the Ford Motor Company had seen enough. With Irvine leaving Ferrari having emerged from Michael’s shadow, they were keen to snap him up to lead what would become the Jaguar team in 2000. Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but maybe this was a mistake. We all know about how much of a disaster it was, and how Ford managed to turn a promising young modern outfit into a wasteful mediocre midfield team, but is saying that they were stupid to sign him up as team leader a bit unfair? Again, whether you think he deserved to be champion or not has a bearing on the answer you give, although the deal was done before the end of the season. At the time, Eddie was looking like a deserving contender for the championship. But the usual questions surrounding this subject are whether he was a good team leader. Here was a guy who had spent 2 years in a midfield team and then moved on to become Michael Schumacher’s wing man – not exactly the best qualifications to lead an ambitious team owned by the world’s biggest car manufacturers. But at the time, he was winning races and contending for the title – he was getting the job done. There is nothing really to suggest that he wasn’t a better-than-average driver, but there was nothing to suggest he was world class, although Eddie did believe that he was. And that is the main sticking point – was he really the best person to lead a team?

Ultimately, I don’t think Eddie should be held responsible for the team’s failure, though, because even after he’d gone they were still a distinctly midfield outfit. The team was certainly capable, as shown by Stewart and Red Bull’s successes before and after, but they didn’t/don’t have the burden of Ford, whose politics upset the balance of the team and led to frequent personnel changes at the top of the tree. Irvine, and Herbert, Burti and de la Rosa likewise, were largely innocent victims. Eddie had already shown he had the ability when given decent enough machinery, but Jaguar didn’t provide it, whilst Herbert suffered from plenty of bad luck and was nearing the end of his career, Burti was shafted with his early release despite being a member of the Stewart fraternity for years, and de la Rosa, like Irvine, ended up without a race seat after 2002, despite the Spaniard having another year to run on his contract.

And so Irvine’s career was over, after 9 full seasons. Despite dragging himself into the top 10 in the championship by seasons end, he and de la Rosa were released in favour of Mark Webber and Antonio Pizzonia. Irvine had been in talks with Jordan but the withdrawal of Deutsche Post as the team’s title sponsors meant they were forced to search for a pay driver. With no other teams keen to sign him, probably down to his salary demands, his age (he turned 37 after the end of the 2002 season – he was quite old coming into F1) and his lack of real success in recent years, it was game over.

Analysis

So how should Irvine’s career be looked upon? Was he a very good driver that spent his career either in uncompetitive machinery or as a number 2, and that he only really had one chance at the gold run which he was unlucky to miss out on? Or was he an average driver that got a lucky break in 1999 (specifically the one in Schumacher’s leg) and that his shortfall in talent was exposed by him not taking a title that should have been his?

Well, it’s a difficult one to answer. F1 fans generally tend to take the latter stance, citing his many blunders, the fact that it took until 1999 for him to win a race at Ferrari, his lack of pole positions, and that he was lucky to win the races he won, either by misfortune for rivals or just by having the best car. And to a certain extent, I do agree. I don’t really think you can make much of a case for Irvine to be ranked as a top level driver in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

But then again, who were the top level drivers of the day? These days, we seem to have a pretty clear idea of who the best drivers are because of the extras we armchair critics have at our disposal, the internet being a prime source of that. Back then, it wasn’t so easy. People generally accepted Schumacher M as the best driver with only Hakkinen able to match him (and I even dispute that to a certain degree). He was then followed by a number of other very-good-but-not-quite-great drivers like Hill, Villeneuve, and Coulthard. Could a case be made that Irvine is as good as these guys? Maybe. The 3 examples I have given, like Irvine, all had the majority of their successes in the best machinery, and most of the time looked average elsewhere. So what was the top level – just Michael on his own? If you include the 3 I mentioned above as in the top level, then who’s to say that Irvine isn’t as good as them? Surely that would make him a top level driver of the day. So it depends on your definition of a top level driver – it can be quite easy to do Eddie a disservice without looking at the bigger picture.

The only real valid team mate comparison you can make is with Barrichello. Rubens was the man Ferrari chose to replace Irvine as Schumacher’s number 2, and on occasions compared favourably with him. But like Irvine, his form was erratic and it was clear that regardless of how different his car was to Michael’s, he wasn’t quite up to his level. Eddie and Rubens were fairly evenly matched, so it’s fair to conclude that had Eddie stayed on at Ferrari, he would’ve won just as many races there as Rubens did, give or take 1 or 2 either way. He certainly would not have been any worse. Rubens has been pretty highly rated in his time as well, and has been a match for Button over the past 4 years – more than a match on some occasions. So if you compare Irvine favourably with him, then that puts him quite high up the rankings too.

Finally, you also have to take into account that he did challenge for the title – good car or not, no idiot gets as close to the title as he did. There are a number of drivers out there who are rated very highly that never got that close to the title – let’s not forget that going into the final round, he led Mika by 4 points, and under the current system he would’ve been champion quite comfortably (‘what if’ or not, that has to be taken into account). And he had been playing second fiddle for half a season. But should he actually have won it? I think the team cost him at least a point or 2. The team’s devotion to Schumacher backfired in France, and the pit lane cock-up at the ‘Ring was a definite source of lost points. But these are ifs and buts…

Conclusion: Overlooked or Overachiever?

So, in conclusion, I would say that Eddie Irvine was a very good driver, and that his negative reputation amongst F1 fans is slightly harsh. He’s not the most popular driver, which does tend to influence opinion, and his career ended on a low, with 3 years in mediocre machinery and then ending up without a drive and out of the sport without ever officially announcing his retirement. The truth is there’s nothing to suggest he’s any less talented than a stack of race-winning drivers of his era. The only thing that sets him apart from Damon Hill is that Damon took his chance, whilst Eddie did not, but at the same time, Eddie was coming from a less advantageous situation. He got closer to a title than Coulthard, and if you look at the amount of time DC spent in top line machinery compared to Eddie, you could argue that Irvine had a better strike rate.

The problem with Eddie is he did not have the personality and attitude of a modern F1 driver. Like Raikkonen in recent years, he was quite old school in his attitude. Like Kimi, I don’t think this was the right attitude for a team leader, and in the situation they ended up in, he was not the right man for Jaguar, but had they produced a very good car, he may have done a very good job for them.

He was as good as the car. Sometimes, that’s all you need to be – just ask Jenson Button or Damon Hill. I’m sure if Eddie had been in a car like the mid-90s Williams-Renault or the Brawn from last year, he could’ve been champion. But he didn’t have that little bit extra that a team needs to move forward. If he had been team leader at Ferrari into the 2000s, they probably wouldn’t have progressed very far, and certainly wouldn’t have hit the heights they reached under Schumacher.

I think there’s a definite comparison to be made to another driver from his era – one Jacques Villeneuve. Jacques was always as good as the car, and indeed Williams didn’t progress whilst he was lead driver, although there were other factors behind that as well. And when he moved to a new team, it showed that he didn’t really have the right leadership qualities for a mediocre/struggling team. The difference is Eddie knew when to quit…

But whether his attitude and personality were a help or hinderance to him, Eddie certainly made the F1 paddock a much more interesting place. We could do with a driver or two like him right now.

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Written by James Bennett

January 21, 2010 at 20:12

Posted in F1, F1 drivers, F1 history

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