Eddie Irvine - the controversial Irishman who almost became F1 world champion in 1999

As Eddie Irvine turns 56, we revist the career of one of Formula 1's most brash and loudmouthed characters - who almost became world champion.

Eddie Irvine in a file photo. (Image: Twitter)

When talking about the most colourful characters in Formula 1, it’s impossible to not think of Eddie Irvine. The Northeren Irishman was not afraid to ruffle a few feathers and almost always spoke his mind.

This might not have won him too many friends, but he did become a driver who assumed cult-like popularity among F1 fans. It is also worth noting that he was a pretty good driver. After all, you don’t get a Ferrari seat just for being a loudmouth.

He might have spent the majority of his career at the Scuederia as a Number 2 driver to Michael Schumacher. However, he did almost win a world championship in 1999 for the Maranello-based side.

The year saw Schumacher miss a good chunk of the season due to a fracture suffered in the British GP. And Irvine unexpectedly led the charge against McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen, the defending world champion.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be in the end. But the man who Damon Hill once dubbed “the Number 2 driver with the Number 1 mouth” took the fight right down to the wire.

On the occasion of his 56th birthday, let us look back at the 1999 season – the most memorable of the career of Eddie Irvine.

The background

Irvine’s career began at namesake Eddie Jordan’s outfit, Jordan. In a sign of things to come, his tendency to march to the beat of his own drum got him in to trouble.

He made his debut at the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix, where he finished in sixth, thus gaining a point on debut. However, what made headlines was his altercation with Ayrton Senna – both on and off the track.

On the track, Irvine unlapped himself against race leader Senna. The Brazilian was so angry he confronted Irvine in the Jordan hospitality area. An exchange of words led to Senna punching Irvine, which resulted in a suspended two-race ban for the Brazilian.

This wasn’t the only time early in his career that his mouth would get him into trouble. His involvement in a four-car crash in the 1994 season-opening Brazil GP led to him getting a one-race ban and $10,000 fine from the race stewards.

He appealed to the FIA against the ban, but his attitude in the hearing led to the ban being increased! He was now banned for three races instead of one.

Nevertheless, his drives in the Jordan team in 1994 and 1995 led to Ferrari signing him in 1996. Notably, they bought him out of his Jordan deal; he had signed a two-year extension to his Jordan deal in 1996 itself.

1996 was a poor season for Irvine, as Ferrari’s woefully uncompetitive car but 1997 saw some improvement. He finished the season in seventh, often playing the supporting role to Schumacher.

1998 saw further improvement, as he ended the season in fourth but Ferrari again missed out on the world championship.

However, he stunned everyone in 1999 by winning his first-ever F1 race in the season-opener at Australia.

How Eddie Irvine came so close to breaking Ferrari’s dry run

More good results would follow, even though Schumacher would assume the lead role as always. But everything changed when Schumacher crashed in Silverstone and fractured his left leg.

Schumacher’s fracture meant many assumed Ferrari’s run without a world title – they last won it in 1979 with Jody Scheckter – would continue.

But Irvine, now partnered by young Finn Mika Salo and the de-facto team leader, surprised everyone by claiming another win in Austria.

Then, at the German Grand Prix that followed, it was Salo who led Irvine but was told to move over by the team. Irvine, who himself had been on the end of such calls many times, handed his winner’s trophy to Salo and said he sympathised with the young driver, having been in that position before.

However, a poor run of results soon followed. Irvine managed a second-place at Hungary, but then went three races without a podium finish. Worst still, he did not even finish in the points at the European Grand Prix.

This meant that, with two races to go, Irvine trailed Hakkinen by two points. He was unexpectedly handed a boost by the return of Schumacher for the final two races.

At Malaysia, Schumacher led Irvine from start to finish before handing the win to his teammate. The result meant Irvine entered the final race with a four-point lead.

However, disaster struck at the final race. Irvine qualified fifth and thus needed Schumacher – who was on pole – to hold off Hakkinen. The Finn made the better start though and took the lead off the German.

It soon became clear that Ferrari could not catch Hakkinen, and he took the win to seal his second title. Schumacher was in second and Irvine third. Ferrari’s 2-3 finish saw them seal the Constructor’s championship.

The aftermath

Few knew it at the time, but this would be the only time Eddie Irvine would be in a world title fight. He left Ferrari to join the new Jaguar team, Ford’s works team that came about after the bought the ailing Stewart side.

Many thought the change in scenery, as well as being the team’s lead driver, would do Irvine some good. However, Jaguar’s consistently uncompetitive cars meant that wasn’t always the case. He retired at the end of his well-paid three year deal and never looked back.

Schumacher and Ferrari, meanwhile, would begin a dominant five-year cycle with the world title win in 2000. Irvine’s replacement at Ferrari? Rubens Barrichello, a man who had raced alongside Irvine at Jordan.

Irvine would never claim a world title. But his astute financial investments would make him plenty of money outside the sport – and he retired as a well-respected racer.

Sportslumo Desk

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