Eddie Irvine: F1's Last Maverick?
The story of an eccentric Ulsterman who was perhaps the last of a particular breed.
During the recent lockdowns I, an F1 fan have been sampling all the Formula One content I can get my hands on. One night I stumbled across an old documentary titled, "Eddie Irvine: Living The Fast Life". This hour and a bit-long film appealed to me because as I'm from Northern Ireland Irvine, one of the few men from my small country to have made it to the pinnacle of motorsport has always been one of my favourite drivers. Naturally, I watched it in full without pausing and gained an insight into this notorious man's life and career at its peak.
More about that documentary later, as we look at Irvine's escapades from the beginning. In the junior categories he had varied success mixing it with many of his future F1 contemporaries such as Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, both of whom need no introduction. In late 1987 he set the fastest time in a test organised by Marlboro, earning himself a 1988 British Formula 3 drive for West Surrey Racing in the process. His success in this test proved Irvine's raw speed and confidence, the latter of which he displayed on and off the track.
No, that's not Ayrton Senna in his McLaren, it's Eddie Irvine sporting a Senna tribute helmet in his F3000 days. Image Credits: Unknown
First held in 1954, the Macau Grand Prix is still a highlight of the motorsport calendar every year. In terms of single-seater events it has been reserved for junior category cars and drivers due to it being too tight and twisty for F1 cars. This means over the years we have witnessed many a future F1 star wrestle their machinery around this Monaco-style Asian street circuit. In the 1990 Macau Grand Prix Irvine impressed by finishing third overall on a weekend which featured no less than 9 future F1 drivers.
Irvine on the 1990 Macau Grand Prix overall podium, next to his two future Ferrari F1 teammates Michael Schumacher and Mika Salo. Image Credits: Mandel Ngan/AFP
That same year, in 1990 he joined the Jordan F3000 team, finishing 3rd in the F3000 championship and beating his teammate and fellow future F1 star Heinz-Harald Frentzen. This was significant as Eddie Jordan would then give Irvine his F1 debut in 1993 by promoting him to the newly-formed Jordan F1 team.
In his first race, the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix Irvine displayed a bit of what was about to come throughout his F1 career as he scored points by finishing 6th while also pissing off the great Ayrton Senna by unlapping himself against the Brazilian who was leading the race at the time. This debut summed up Irvine's reckless yet fast driving style. Oh, and after the race Senna criticised Irvine for being "unprofessional" and planted a swift left hook on him for good measure. Ironically, Senna was one of Irvine's heroes as seen by his aforementioned helmet based on Senna's.
The overtake. Image credits: F1.com
The next couple of years saw Irvine impressing at Jordan before securing a dream move to Ferrari for 1996, teaming up with then double world-champion Michael Schumacher. Consequently, this meant he spent much of the next two years staring at the back of the superior German's car.
An accurate depiction of how much of Irvine's time at Ferrari was spent. Image credits: Unknown
Now, back to that documentary. It followed Eddie throughout the 1999 season which unbeknownst to him and everyone involved with him at the time would be the peak of his racing career and possibly life. This was because Schumi's leg-breaking accident at the British Grand Prix ruled him out for the rest of the season and unleashed Irvine, the now de facto Ferrari team leader towards an unlikely title challenge against the then reigning world champion Mika Hakkinen. In the documentary however, Irvine seems completely relaxed and almost unaware of the importance of what he is a part of. He spends much of the year lounging in his yacht on the Italian coast and throwing lavish parties for all of his socialite friends. It seemed as though to him, partying and womanizing was his career while Formula One was a hobby which funded this brilliant lifestyle. After the Japanese Grand Prix of that year, in which Hakkinen won emphatically and clinched his second championship ahead of Irvine you would expect Eddie to be visibly distraught after what was the biggest missed opportunity of his career. But no, the documentary shows him return to his hotel for a few hours and doing a piece to the camera about how the best man won before embarking on a night out with two Japanese girls in Tokyo. Could you imagine Schumacher doing that the year before when an unfortunate puncture for him gave Hakkinen the championship? Of course not. He would probably be doing sit-ups or going for a run before sensibly heading off to bed early for some much-needed rest.
Eddie at home in Monaco. Image Credits: Media Storehouse
This brings us back to the original question posed by the title of this article. Is Eddie Irvine the last playboy in the James Hunt mould to grace F1? Probably. Although there are still quite a few cheeky characters on the current grid most of them are still relatively reserved and undoubtedly strict in their preparation. This means they might not be as fascinating to follow and won't create as many funny anecdotes that will go down in F1 folklore but they are better drivers and sportspeople for it. Like James Hunt, Irvine's most endearing quality was also what held him back. Recently, Eddie Jordan said Irvine was the laziest driver he knew and that he could have been world champion if it wasn't for his reluctance to train among other things.
Hitting the apex in his Jaguar R1. Image Credits: The Race
After the highs of lows of 1999 the promise of a move to the newly rebranded Jaguar team followed. Sadly for Irvine, Jaguar and Ford got it horribly wrong and after three disappointing years in woeful machinery with nothing to show for it but a podium at Monza in 2002 he quietly retired from F1. Even with hindsight, I doubt Eddie is bothered by the disappointing end to his career and what unfolded in 1999. After all, he now spends his days on his own private island in the Bahamas.