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   Thursday, 23 January, 2003, 11:47 GMT
Farewell to an F1 playboy
Eddie Irvine and a model
Irvine revelled in his playboy lifestyle

The breakdown of Eddie Irvine's talks with Jordan for a drive in 2003 almost certainly means the end of the colourful Northern Irishman's Formula One career.

At 37, he is no longer of interest to any of the top teams, and he is too expensive for the smaller ones.

As is so often the case with ageing F1 drivers, the sport has left Irvine behind before he was ready to leave it.

But Irvine, more than many others, has left an indelible impression on the sport.

Eddie Irvine
Born: 10/11/65
Races: 147
Wins: 4
Teams: Jordan, Ferrari, Jaguar

That is as much to do with his activities off the track as it is to do with what he achieved on it.

It is his playboy image and ready wit that will most lodge Irvine in the memory.

Like James Hunt - who discovered Irvine, and was a great support before his death in 1993 - Irvine lived the archetypal F1 playboy lifestyle to the full, and revelled in it.

He enjoyed dating - and being seen to date - some of the most beautiful women in the world.

In many ways, this detracted from the way he will be viewed as a racing driver - which is a shame, because he is a very fine one.

The zenith of Irvine's career was in 1999. As a Ferrari driver, he battled for the title with McLaren's Mika Hakkinen right down to the final race.

Eddie Irvine spent four years with Ferrari
Irvine battled for the title with Ferrari in 1999
Good though Irvine is, however, he is not as good as he believes - which is better than anyone bar Michael Schumacher - and few would claim he would have been a deserving champion.

His chance came after team-mate Schumacher broke his leg, forcing Ferrari to focus on their number two driver - and only because McLaren's reliability was appalling.

After that, Irvine was forced out of Ferrari, and it was here that he showed an often-forgotten aspect of his character - his intelligence.

In a sport of wheeler-dealers, Irvine's eye for a deal is sharper than most.

Irvine was already a millionaire when he came into F1, thanks to judicious investment in the stock market of the large salary he earned in Japanese domestic racing.

He continued that policy throughout his F1 career, and it garnered him untold riches and an enviable lifestyle - with all the toys a rich man could want, and houses in Milan, Miami and Dublin Bay.

David Coulthard
It wouldn't have taken Eddie very much more effort in 1999 to have won the championship

David Coulthard
But the best deal he ever struck was with Ford, which in 1999 offered to pay him 21m over three years to lead its Jaguar team - at a time when he had no other options.

As this suggests, contrary to his image, Irvine is one of the more cerebral of racing drivers.

He can be boorish, misogynistic and arrogant but he also has a mind that is aware of other things than F1.

That always makes his opinion worth seeking - even if doing so often leads to a torrent of jocular abuse.

Asked why his helmet was orange and green, for example, he said: "It's orange because I'm a Protestant from Northern Ireland, and it's got green on it because I don't want to get shot by the IRA."

And of being team-mate to the brilliant Schumacher, he said: "It's like being hit over the head with a cricket bat every couple of weeks."

Eddie Irvine spent three uncompetitive years with Jaguar
Irvine struck the deal of the century to join Jaguar
But his lifestyle and attitude led to criticisms that he did not take his job seriously enough, an accusation Irvine disputed, but which doubtless had some foundation in reality.

As David Coulthard put it: "It wouldn't have taken Eddie very much more effort in 1999 to have won the championship in a car that finished 14 races."

Irvine said that his attitude did not get in the way of his career.

There was talk of him going to McLaren for 2000, and Irvine said: "McLaren would sign Billy Connolly if he was the best driver."

But Irvine was wrong - McLaren decided to keep Coulthard because, on balance, they thought any advantage they might get out of Irvine would be outweighed by his downsides.

As it turned out, that decision decided his future - three years "topping up his pension at Jaguar", as some described it, and then enforced retirement.

All the same, and for all his faults, it will be some time before F1 again sees the like of Eddie Irvine.

See also:

01 Nov 02 | Formula One
27 Sep 02 | Formula One
15 May 02 | Formula One
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