Eddie Irvine: Fighting Ayrton Senna and matching Michael Schumacher

By Andy GrayBBC Sport NI
Eddie Irvine ahead of the 1995 Brazilian Grand Prix
Irvine pictured at the 1995 Brazilian Grand Prix

"I just never have, or ever will, bow down to people."

Former Formula 1 racer Eddie Irvine has never been one to shy away from an opinion, both on and off the race track.

Runner-up in the championship in 1999, the Northern Irishman's career was certainly colourful and varied, from making a statement on his debut with the lowly Jordan outfit before racing for the biggest name of all - Ferrari.

Just over 25 years on from his debut at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1993, Irvine, now 53, reflects on some of the moments that defined his time in the sport.

Laughing his head off on Grand Prix debut

Eddie Irvine in the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix
Irvine made his debut at the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix, finishing sixth before clashing with Ayrton Senna after the race

"I wasn't nervous," said Irvine, after qualifying in eighth place on his Grand Prix debut at Suzuka, "I'd qualified so well and made such an impact.

"I'd watched previous years' grands prix and everyone pulled to the inside. I knew I was going to sail around the outside of everybody and it worked out perfectly.

"Coming out of the second corner I was fourth, and I was laughing my head off. I couldn't believe they all fell for it.

"Now you get points for turning up to the race, which I'm really against. So to get points in my first grand prix, when points were more special, I was super happy.

"I'd already agreed all my contracts for next year to stay in Japan, so this was a kind of a fun thing to do.

"I didn't think I would get into Formula 1 the following year, but I'd done so well that people were interested."

Irvine's sixth-place finish on his debut, on top of his qualifying performance, was certainly impressive, but it was not the thing that people remember about his debut.

Coming together with Senna

Standing up to Senna on your Formula 1 debut

While most rookies would want to keep their heads down and stay out of trouble on their Formula 1 debut, Irvine ended up on the end of a punch from, at the time, the most famous driver in the sport, triple world champion Ayrton Senna after coming to blows with the Brazilian on track.

"It overshadowed an amazing debut because that's what everyone was talking about," reflects Irvine, "I was like, jeez, I've just finished sixth on my debut grand prix in a Jordan, which basically hadn't scored a point all year.

"I just never have, or ever will, bowed down to people, and I think that's why I got as far as I got. I'm always am up for a challenge and I'm always looking for a different way to do something.

"I've never conformed, so whenever Senna tried to put me in my place on the Friday or Saturday before by blocking me, I just blocked him the next lap.

"I don't care who you are. I'm out here for me, you're out there for you. But don't try and intimidate me because it's not going to work.

"I sent that message quite clearly to him, so he was annoyed about that, and then what I did in the race, which was correct."

"Damon Hill actually blocked Senna, not me. But it was from what happened from the Friday or Saturday and that's what infuriated him and I think he was looking for an excuse.

"I didn't back down to him so it carried over onto the Sunday and he tried to make it look like my fault, but it was really Damon's."

'I could have beaten anyone but Schumacher'

Eddie Irvine Formula One stats
The Northern Irishman's career spans 10 seasons from 1993-2002 with Jordan, Ferrari and Jaguar

Irvine's big F1 break came with Ferrari in 1996, racing for four seasons alongside Michael Schumacher, and before the 2019 season, he is the last British or Irish driver to race for the Scuderia.

"The Schumacher part sucked because if I had any other team-mate it would have been quite good for me," he jokes, "I think apart from Schumacher, there weren't many people out there who were better than me. Schumacher was just another world.

"It would have been quite nice if I had a [Gerhard] Berger or [Jean] Alesi because I think I could have beaten them, but to drive for Ferrari is another world. You have no idea of the level.

"You become like a rock star more than just a sportsperson. It's incredible the power that the association with the Ferrari name, gives you - you can get drunk on it to a certain extent.

"Even now when I'm in Italy, I eat for free a lot of places, I drink for free a lot of places," which Irvine adds he particularly enjoys, "To be a Formula 1 driver is one thing, to drive for Ferrari is to be a Formula 1 driver on a magnitude of 10."

'I can't imagine my life being any better than it currently is'

Michael Schumacher wins the Monaco Grand Prix from Eddie Irvine and Mika Häkkinen
Irvine (left), got his chance to challenge for the title when Schuamacher broke his leg at Silverstone, with the Northern Irishman eventually losing out to Mika Häkkinen (right) by two points

Irvine got his chance to lead Ferrari after an accident at Silverstone put Schumacher out of action for a large chunk of the 1999 campaign.

Taking over the mantle, Irvine put together a title charge, eventually missing out on claiming a Formula 1 championship by just two points to McLaren's 'flying Finn' Mika Häkkinen.

"The main problem that year was as soon as Michael had his accident, Ferrari took the car out of the wind tunnel," says Irvine, "They stopped developing that car and put next year's car in the wind tunnel."

But despite Ferrari changing their approach to the 1999 season, Irvine does not hold it against them: "It made sense for Ferrari because the chances of me winning the world championship were low.

"McLaren had a better, faster car than ours. We didn't know that circumstances would occasionally work in our favour at the last few races, and we put a few developments on the 1999 car that came off the 2000 car, and then we made a step in performance.

"They had to make a very clear business decision, 'Can Irvine win in a 1999 Ferrari?' Everybody would have said no, including myself, because the McLaren was a second a lap quicker than our car that year.

"They know Michael is coming back for next year, and Michael is the superstar, so it made total sense."

But despite the missed opportunity, Irvine says he does not hold any regrets: "I think my life has turned out pretty good. I can't imagine my life being better than it is.

"It would be nice to be world champion for sure, but there are guys that I know I was better than who are a world champion, and there's other guys who were better than me that's weren't world champion too, but my life is good, I can't complain."