Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, August 14, 1999

Teamwork At Ferrari Gives Irvine The Edge

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
BUDAPEST - When Mika Salo handed Eddie Irvine the victory at the German Grand Prix two weeks ago by letting the Northern Irishman pass him for the lead, it was yet another recent reminder that Formula One racing while performed by exceptional individuals is above all a team sport.

Since Michael Schumacher broke his leg last month at the British Grand Prix, Irvine has been the beneficiary of both Ferrari's teamwork and McLaren's uncharacteristic lack of it. It is a fitting

recompense for Irvine, whom Ross Brawn, Ferrari's technical director, has called ''the best driver that's been teamed up with Michael.'' But it is the team's cohesion that has enabled them to lead the constructors' championship throughout the season with a car that is inferior to the McLaren.

In contrast to the angry public reaction to an incident in the first race last season when the McLaren drivers followed team orders in Australia and David Coulthard pulled aside to let Mika Hakkinen win, there has been no uproar about Salo letting Irvine win. Salo qualified higher on the grid and drove faster.

But Irvine has a chance to win the championship. And as a result of his victory in Germany, he goes to the Hungarian Grand Prix at Budapest on Sunday eight points ahead of Hakkinen.

Irvine seized the advantage during Friday's practice sessions at the Hungaroring track, recording the fastest lap at 1 minute, 19.476 seconds around the 3.973-kilometer (2.4-mile) track. Hakkinen was second, 0.246 seconds behind. During the afternoon session nearly a dozen cars spun out, including Hakkinen's, and he was unable to continue.

Last year the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body, studied ''team orders'' and said that ''any act prejudicial to the interests of any competition'' should be penalized. But an FIA official said in Hungary this week that Formula One was a team sport, like baseball or basketball, and what was beneficial to the team was therefore not prejudicial to the competition.

Teamwork will be especially important in Budapest, where overtaking on the narrow and twisty track is difficult. Last year, Schumacher won thanks to an audacious three-stop strategy by Ferrari that depended on the speed with which its pit crew worked on the car.

Irvine's victory on July 25 in the Austrian Grand Prix was achieved through such superior pit-stop strategy and teamwork on the part of Ferrari, plus a lack of teamwork at McLaren.

The McLaren drivers began the race with instructions that it was every man for himself. The result was that Coulthard knocked Hakkinen off the track on the first lap in an over-optimistic passing attempt on Turn 2.

Ron Dennis, McLaren's director, later said that while it was too bad Hakkinen lost out that way, Coulthard also lost the victory because of the team's mistake in not informing him that he shouldn't worry about the collision.

''He really struggled with his concentration into the 15 laps prior to the pit stop, and that's really where he lost the race,'' Dennis said.

The pit stop was also the moment Ferrari's teamwork came into play. Brawn chose to delay Irvine's stop until five laps after Coulthard's. That allowed Irvine to cover several laps at top speed while Coulthard drove more slowly with a full tank. The Ferrari pit crew then handled Irvine's stop quicker than anyone else, enabling Irvine to re-enter the race ahead of the McLaren driver.

Like Coulthard with Hakkinen, Irvine has played guard dog at Ferrari for Schumacher since the two joined the team in 1996. Most recently he lost a point in France in June as he stayed behind Schumacher, who was then driving slowly in fifth place.

Jean Todt, Ferrari's director, said it was natural for Irvine to give way because Schumacher was usually the faster driver and higher placed in the championship.

''The ideal is to have two drivers following one another, first and second,'' said Todt. ''When the one that is leading stops, if he has a problem, the other is right behind.''

The interaction between drivers on the track is only the most visible aspect of cooperation in teams that have hundreds of employees.

''Even if you have very strong personalities, but everyone is blowing in different directions, you have nothing,'' Todt said. ''But if you have a team where everyone is blowing in the same direction, then you can make it advance. We have this now, whereas it wasn't there in the past.''

While Todt says Ferrari has to eliminate the notorious backbiting and back-stabbing of the past, there has been a spate of press reports in recent weeks saying that Irvine will refuse to continue as second fiddle when Schumacher returns from injury. But the alleged feud has had no noticeable effect on the team's performance during races.

While the winning teams also have the largest budgets, money counts for nothing without teamwork.

''If it was just money, Ferrari would win every race,'' said Craig Pollock, owner of British American Racing, a new team estimated as having the third-largest budget, behind Ferrari and McLaren. BAR has the worst results of the 11 teams, having scored no better than seventh place. Ferrari, with the largest budget, has not won a constructor's title since 1983, or a driver's title since 1979. BAR, according to Gerald Donaldson, an author who is writing a book about the team, has everything except cohesion. He said, ''They have all the money they needed to set the team up properly, and they've done that. But it's a team of individuals. It hasn't really had time to develop yet.''

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