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Monday, July 26, 1999 Published at 17:38 GMT 18:38 UK

Irvine sets sights on F1 title

Coulthard, Irvine, Hakkinen: Changing fortunes

By BBC Formula One Correspondent Jonathan Legard

Life is sweet for Eddie Irvine at the moment.

"I've proved I can do the job," said Ferrari's new team leader, after a thrilling victory which answered his doubters and thrust him squarely into the championship battle against Mika Hakkinen.

Jonathan Legard: "Irvine needed the luck and he rode it in style"
"I knew qualifying did not represent our true performance and because of that and the right strategy, I was able to win."

Irvine's charging drive to the flag was worthy of Michael Schumacher and left Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn, purring in appreciation.

"Eddie did everything we asked of him," said Brawn.

Outstanding recovery

"He was under a lot of pressure, but he showed what he's made of and drove really well."

For David Coulthard, however, the race was a personal nightmare - only a fortnight after his dream result at Silverstone.

[ image: Ross Brawn:
Ross Brawn: "Eddie did everything we asked of him"
He pushed his teammate off the road as he led the race from pole and came second behind his main opposition when all the signs pointed to a McLaren 1-2.

No man has ever looked so unhappy on the podium.

"I am very sorry for what happened with Mika," he confessed afterwards.

"I completely misjudged the second corner of the race and hit Mika, spinning him round.

"Then I was unable to put in quick laps just after my stop, because I was caught in traffic. That meant Irvine was able to get ahead of me in the pit stops and I was unable to regain the lead."

Irvine's stock rising

Hakkinen's recovery from last to third was outstanding. Frustration channelled into a hard driving surge, which only slowed down after he and Coulthard had been gathered into a meeting with team principal, Ron Dennis to air their grievances.

"To come here and score points was important," was the champion's terse verdict.

[ image: Eddie Irvine:
Eddie Irvine: "I've proved I can do the job"
"Whatever happened at the second corner is no longer important and I appreciate David's apologies."

For moment at least as he clings to a two point championship lead. But if Hakkinen goes on to lose the title to Eddie Irvine by that sort of margin, his mood will be considerably less charitable.

Driver rivalry is a healthy incentive in any team, but this sort of incident can turn things nasty. It can also affect job prospects.

Irvine's stock will have risen. Coulthard's will have slipped, and McLaren's offer to retain his services could be put on hold.

I understand one key McLaren official has been highly critical of him, and this latest incident could do his cause serious harm.

Publicly, McLaren have closed ranks.

"Days like today can be used to strengthen a team," declared Dennis.

Hockenheim hopes

"David's apology and Mika's acceptance of it reflects the maturity of their relationship."

Time will tell if he is right. For Coulthard's sake, it helps that the next race comes this weekend at Hockenheim - an early opportunity to atone.

But he can expect few favours from Hakkinen, whose determination to beat off Irvine will surely be redoubled.

[ image: Mika Hakkinen: Unable to regain the lead]
Mika Hakkinen: Unable to regain the lead
Hockenheim's power-hungry straights should be meat and drink to McLaren, such comprehensive winners twelve months ago.

But Irvine's already talking a good race.

"We made a big step forward at Monza in terms of running on high speed tracks, so now I'm confident for Hockenheim."

Sounds like Michael Schumacher's red army could be flag-waving on Sunday as much as they would if their hero was behind the wheel of Ferrari's lead car.

But who's taking anything for granted these days in Formula One?

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