From 1996 to 1999, Eddie Irvine was teammate to Michael Schumacher at Ferrari. Though it wasn’t until 2000 that the German began his incredible run of five successive titles, Irvine knew that his teammate was destined for greatness.
Never the ‘walkover’ teammate that his successor, Rubens Barrichello, turned out to be, Irvine sought to give Schumacher a run for his money, but it was only when the German was sidelined by a crash at the start of the (1999) British Grand Prix that the Ulsterman began to flourish, putting together a sequence of results that saw him finish runner-up in the drivers’ standings.
“Their jobs are to do the best they can do, that’s it,” he tells the Betway blog. “Bottas has beaten Hamilton before, more often than he has lately. Perez is new in there against Verstappen, but Verstappen has shown that the game is already over.
“They’re both de facto No. 2s,” he continues, “but I don’t think against two guys like Hamilton and Verstappen that’s a great negative.
“I don’t think anybody in Formula 1 would go up against those two guys and regularly beat them. I think Hamilton is getting older now and his pace isn’t as good as it used to be, but he’s still, as I said, a consummate professional. I think people know that anyone who goes against Verstappen is going to get beaten because of his pure speed.”
As the world championship heads to France, Irvine believes that – as it stands – Verstappen is out-performing his title rival.
“Finally after six seasons he’s definitely getting his act together,” he says of the Dutchman, who in his first few seasons gained notoriety for his fiery temperament, both on and off track. “He’s always been super-fast, and you can see that he’s by far the most dominant team leader on the grid. He’s had many, many different second drivers in the team and none of them have got close to him. So it’s a bit like the Michael Schumacher effect. While Lewis has been regularly out-qualified and out-performed by his teammates, you’d have to say Verstappen is probably the ultimate talent, although Lewis is a consummate professional and has very few weak spots.”
With his teammate sidelined, the 1999 season saw Irvine battle Mika Hakkinen for the title, the Ulsterman ultimately missing out by just two points, asked about the pressures involved in such a title fight he admits: “The pressures of Formula 1 are immense. You’ve got 500 or 600 people working at the factory, and you’re the guy who’s responsible for getting the results at the end. So you have all that pressure on you, plus you want to do a good job because, if you’re in the sport, you take it very seriously. You want to perform at your best.
“Sometimes a lot of it is out of your control, but you’ve got to give 100 per cent all the time. It was very difficult in ’99 because it was my one chance at the World Championship and we got close, but we didn’t quite pull it off. The fact it was my one shot was an added pressure – it wasn’t like I was in a Williams for three years and had three years to win the championship. It was a lot of pressure, but that’s what we’re paid for.”
At the end of 1999, after four seasons as partner to Schumacher, Irvine left Ferrari to join the fledgling Jaguar team. So what was it like being teammate to arguably one of the best of all time.
“Being Schumacher’s teammate was amazing in one way because I got to work with who I still believe is the greatest driver of all time,” says the Ulsterman. “He dominated his team-mates massively. Of course, he started to get older and wasn’t quite as quick but in the early days it was amazing to watch a guy operate at such a high level. So from that point of view it was an honour.
“Obviously, you never look particularly good when you’re up against someone like Michael Schumacher. But I was lucky in a way because by the time I got there, Schumacher was very much seen as special. The guys that Schumacher came against much earlier in his career got dumped because people didn’t realise how good Michael was at that stage.”
Asked if he learned from the German, Irvine admits: “It was hard to learn from Michael because it was just pure talent. He just had an amazing ability to extract the most out of a racing car. That was that.”
Other than Schumacher, Irvine’s teammates included Barrichello, Johnny Herbert and Pedro de la Rosa, but who was his favourite.
“I would have to say Michael because we had a very good working relationship,” says the Ulsterman. “I never had an issue with him at all. He performed the best he could every weekend, I performed the best I could every weekend. If I had to do something for the team, I had to do something for the team, and that was it. It was very simple.”