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Friday, October 29, 1999 Published at 09:32 GMT 10:32 UK

Irvine's slow start towards title

Irvine and Schumacher relax at Suzuka

Eddie Irvine had a disappointing first day at the Suzuka track in preparation for the world-championship deciding Japanese Grand Prix.

The drivers' championship leader was 1.5 seconds behind his nearest championship rival, McLaren's Mika Hakkinen, in Friday's practice session.

The Finnish world champion lies in second place for the title, just four points behind Irvine as the teams go into the last race of the season. The Ulsterman needs to win at Suzuka to ensure victory for himself and for Ferrari in the constructors' championship.

Coulthard crash

Irvine was disappointed with his performance on a track which he knows better than any other. He raced Formula 3000 cars in Japan for three years from 1991 and Suzuka was his home circuit.

[ image: Hakkinen and Irvine shake hands, but their rivalry is total]
Hakkinen and Irvine shake hands, but their rivalry is total
After the practice, he said: "I would have preferred to be first, but Friday is Friday. The car was not handling that well and we have some work to do...but by tomorrow I think we will be able to challenge them.

"There's a lot riding on it for me but there's also a lot for Italy - for the team, the mechanics."

David Coulthard in the other McLaren was also quicker than Irvine, despite a high-speed crash which left his car badly damaged.

The Scotsman walked away unhurt after suddenly departing from the track and hitting a tyre wall at 110mph.

"You never have a small shunt in Formula One," said Coulthard, who was second fastest in Friday's session - 0.1 seconds behind his team-mate.

" I think a tyre hit a kerb and the car just snapped back on me much quicker than I expected and there was not much of a run-off area."

The usually taciturn Hakkinen was bullish after practice, declaring: "I have got a lot of my self-confidence back.

Slippery track

Meanwhile, former world champion Michael Schumacher, who turned in the third fastest time in Friday's session, said that the Ferraris would perform better during Saturday's qualifying session.

The German was challenging for the drivers' title until he broke his leg in a crash during the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in July. He also led the last race in Malaysia, before pulling over to allow Irvine through for the win.

"Don't worry about Eddie. The track is much more slippery than we expected," he said.

"There are a lot more fast corners here which doesn't suit our car, but we found a good set-up on the car right at the end and I am sure we can challenge for pole position tomorrow."

Eddie Jordan, owner-manager of the Jordan team, said he was excited for his namesake: "He'll be the fourth world champion to pass through our hands - if he wins it'll be a great thing for everyone back home."

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Toyota set to join F1

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1999 Championship standings

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