If he wins Irvine will have to face the music

It was Cool Eddie for a change during the Argentine Grand Prix, but the hot passions his nationality arouses made him ask for a neutral flag

MOTOR RACING: Maurice Hamilton

WHEN Jacques Villeneuve goes to Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix this weekend, he may feel like taking time out to thank the Italian media for helping him win in Buenos Aires recently. Had it not been for calls to demote Eddie Irvine to the reserves bench, the Ferrari driver might have been less circumspect during his dramatic chase of the Williams-Renault at the close of the Argentine Grand Prix.

In any other circumstances, Villeneuve could have depended on an attack which would have been just as ferocious as the printed words condemning Irvine’s absence of results during his 18 races with the Italian team. Or, at least, that’s the way Villeneuve saw it.

He knows Irvine of old, the two having competed against each other when cutting their teeth on the international stage by racing Formula 3000 in Japan. They are of a like mind, compromise being notably absent from any tactical plans, and Villeneuve fully expected his old adversary to do whatever was necessary in order to win his first grand prix. In the end, Irvine showed reasonable restraint and had to accept second place.

Villeneuve put that down to self-interest as Irvine made sure of keeping his job by staying away from the gravel traps and bringing his car home. In fact, the Ulsterman claims he would have employed the same tactic even if he could do no wrong in the eyes of his employers and their followers.

“It would have made no difference,” says Irvine. “There was no way I could get by. On the one occasion Villeneuve made a mistake, the Renault engine had more power and I could do nothing about it. The only way to take the lead at that stage would have been by doing something stupid.

“If I felt I had nothing to lose, the only thing I would have done differently would have been to push much harder during the stint before my first pit stop. That might have got me ahead of Villeneuve during the pit stops. Otherwise, I would have driven the race exactly the same.”

Irvine quietly enjoyed the irony of giving Ferrari six championship points on a day when their No 1 driver, Michael Schumacher, committed the sort of crime for which Irvine had been condemned in print. Schumacher triggered a first-corner accident of the kind which has been a part of all three races this year, a fact which the former world champion will regret since it probably cost him his first win of the season.

Irvine may have been the hero of the moment in Argentina, but Schumacher quickly regained the initiative by having his No 2 set up the Ferrari in Barcelona on Wednesday in preparation for the German driver carrying out the serious test work over the next few days.

Despite the euphoria in Argentina, it was business as usual for Irvine in Spain. The struggle is likely to continue this weekend at Imola, where the Ferrari is expected to be hampered by a lack of horsepower on the variety of straights which were absent from the tight and twisting Buenos Aires autodrome.

Even in Irvine’s moment of personal triumph, controversy of a different and more depressing kind surrounded his presence on the rostrum. As the national flags were raised behind the first three finishers, the appearance of the Irish flag, the Tricolour, brought scorn from within the dark and blinkered corners of his home country.

Irvine was born in Northern Ireland and now splits his time between a flat in Bologna and a house in the Republic of Ireland. He races under an Irish rather than a British licence; a matter of convenience rather than a political statement. Irvine embraces both the north and the south of Ireland, travelling frequently by helicopter between the two as he visits his family in County Down.

Strictly speaking, Irvine is from the United Kingdom and refers to himself as being Irish just as David Coulthard is proud to be called a Scot. Irvine has no interest in political or religious debate, so much so that he asked motor sport’s governing body, FIA, to raise a neutral flag, perhaps a white one bearing a shamrock, as and when he reached the podium.

FIA allegedly agreed, but last weekend used a national flag, as laid down by the regulations.

In the event of Irvine winning a race, he will have to face the music in every sense, since the podium procedure calls for the playing of the victor’s national anthem. Again, Irvine would prefer The Londonderry Air (Danny Boy) or some such tune indicating peace and unity rather than the inevitable provocation which will ensue regardless of which side of the Irish border FIA choose.

It’s not funny to suggest that the frequently confusing logic of the Irish situation is such that the governing body can be accused of sitting on the fence by actually standing resolutely on one side or the other.

Perhaps the pernicious undertones will only become apparent if the abusive phone calls received last week by Irvine’s parents are redirected to the offices of FIA in Paris and London.

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