Sunday 16 December 2018

Fast Eddie

Barry Egan

Barry Egan

He's just a simple boy from Down who doesn't know what he's done to deserve the playboy label. Maybe it's something to do with the fast cars, beautiful women, private planes and international luxury homes. And yet Eddie Irvine argues the best moment of his life was the birth o

He's just a simple boy from Down who doesn't know what he's done to deserve the playboy label. Maybe it's something to do with the fast cars, beautiful women, private planes and international luxury homes. And yet Eddie Irvine argues the best moment of his life was the birth of his daughter Zoe. Has the priapic prince of Formula One actually grown up? Barry Egan was granted an exclusive interview with Irv the Swerve

EDDIE Irvine is unalarmed by the idea of there perhaps being nothing in the next life. Maybe because he's had his heaven here on earth. "It hurts my head when I think about that," he says, methodically. "I guess I believe in something but I don't know what it is. I can't work it out. And I like to work things out. And that you can't work out."

Does he think of God in the split-second he's about to crash at 200mph? "No. I think of nothing. I think about going faster." Is he frightened of dying? "I don't want to die. I'm having too much fun."

There is a side to him that gets lost in the tabloid hall of mirrors. At 36 years of age, Eddie Irvine's self-absorption is immovable. He lives in his own little world inside his head a world he created when he was a child. Within that world, Irvine constructed an almost indestructible belief in himself.

He says his parents never gave him advice when he was a child. He says he never read a novel in his life. He didn't watch movies. He was too busy thinking about the future. He sounds like the identikit loner.

"A loner?" he says, looking through me for a second. "I normally wouldn't mix with people. Whenever people came into the house, I'd go into my bedroom. Most of the time I can't be bothered talking. I used to live in my head."

When did he start to live in his head? "From the very beginning. I always was working things out. I was always scheming. How to do this. How to do that. I read motoring magazines. As for novels, you put it down and where are you? I'm not into escapism. I was totally focused on getting ahead. Always scheming. Always plotting."

The Down Machiavelli would buy a big bag of potatoes by the side of the road and then sell them in small bags. Fixing cars up to try and to make a few bob "and get ahead" was another money-making memory from his youth. "I was never one for wasting time," he says. "A lot of friends went partying down the pub, I wouldn't be into that. I'd go but I wouldn't be as focused on it as they were."

Edmund Irvine was born on November 10, 1965, in Newtownards. His ambition to drive very fast cars was inspired as a child from watching his father race at local circuits. Edmund senior retired in the early Seventies to concentrate on his scrap-car business. When Eddie left school at 16 he joined his father and grandfather Harry in repairing and selling damaged cars.

"I liked comedies. I still love Fawlty Towers," he offers. On his boat the Anaconda Irvine has all the tapes of Basil and Manuel. "I also love Del Boy Trotter," he says. Did Only Fools and Horses remind him of days with his father in the scrapyard in Bangor? He allows himself a loud laugh.

"We were always trying to make a few quid with everything, because it was the only way to get ahead. Ireland was not the most wonderful place economically 20 years ago. It was always a hard living." (Ironically, as we speak, Irvine is texting the skipper of his boat moored somewhere in the Med "I'm trying to find out where the f*** he is!")

"We weren't poor but we weren't rich," Irvine continues. "We never had a new car. We used to go to Silverstone in a camper van on holidays." Eddie and his sister Sonia would crawl under the fences to get into Silverstone to watch the British grand prix. He denies that his family background gave him a grounding. "It isn't grounding it's logic," he corrects. "I'm a very logical person. I just apply logic to everything in my life."

His childhood was "just normal". He lived in "a small house in the middle of the countryside. We ran around the fields all day." And then as now, nothing seemed to faze young Edmund Irvine. As his sister Sonia says: "If mum told him to go to bed without any dinner, he'd just go to bed whistling, so you never got the feeling you'd got one over on him."

He tends to think everything through with meticulous precision before making a decision (and then he has trusted advisors like manager Enrico Zanarini and longterm friend John Foley to talk to). There is an illuminating story about Eddie as a six-year-old. Summer, 1971: Edmund and Kathleen watched their son at Bangor swimming pool climb to the top of the diving board.

Finally, after thinking about it for almost an hour, remembers his father, Edmund, "he dived off. That's Eddie. He weighs things up, he's not a natural risk taker; he likes to know the odds are stacked in his favour."

A more unforgettable aqua experience was watching his daughter Zoe now five swim for the first time on holiday, "five years before I did. I was a very good swimmer, so that's an impressive start." Zoe lives with her mother, Maria Drummond, in Macau. A proud dad, Irvine regularly flies out to see her. Eddie met Maria (half-Chinese with Scottish ancestors) in 1992 when he was racing in F3000 in Macau.

In his autobiography, Irvine said his daughter is the best thing that ever happened to him. "I'm not a natural lover of babies, I hate the mess, and most of all I hate the noise," he writes. "But Zoe is mega! She's not a difficult child at all, she's a great kid and loves her bed, just like me!"

His youth in Northern Ireland was relatively untouched by the Troubles. He can remember his father leaving the house to drop a relative home to the Falls Road area of Belfast and being suddenly terrified that he wouldn't come back. "And obviously, you were stopped every time you went into the shops. Searched. You had road blocks on the way home and things like this, but that was normal. I only realised that wasn't normal when I went to England for the first time as a kid. I walked into a shop and stopped at the door and waited for someone to search me. That's the first time I realised: 'Shit, that's not normal."'

Irvine's birthplace has a deep resonance for him. We see its full emotional charge when he says he can remember vividly where he was when the Omagh bomb happened. He was preparing his car at the Hungarian grand prix in 1998 when he heard that a car bomb had devastated a small Co Tyrone town preparing to celebrate its carnival.

He went cold. He remains shocked at the loss of life that August day in Omagh. He believes that the Real IRA atrocity, which killed 29 people and two unborn children, was "Northern Ireland's September 11. It was horrendouswhen you think how many people were killed. The families of the victims of Omagh are going to take them to court for damages." He realises that a civil action could be the only chance the families have to bring the suspected bombers to account. "I was talking to a lawyer the other day and if it does happen it will be a ground-breaking decision."

I ask him what was the lowest point in his life. "I don't have lows. I'm either high or a little bit above average. I always have highs. I have highs every day. Enrico [his manager] rings me up and says we just landed another sponsor. I feel great for five minutes. Then I get on the phone and tell him: 'Where's the next one?' If I do a good property deal I get a high. If I see a nice-looking girl in a bar and she says hi to me I get a high."

Was it a high when your baby was born?

"No, because that added responsibility to my life and I've spent my life trying to get rid of responsibility, in a way," he answers with admirable forthrightness. "Now she's fantastic. The situation is fantastic. The mother is fantastic. Zoe has turned out really good, because of the mother to be honest with you, because the mother is tough a real hard lady, very intelligent. So that has worked out well."

Do you ever worry about getting killed on the track and never seeing her again? "I do. I always think: I hope Zoe's not sitting at a table in St Tropez, buying everyone champagne, saying, 'Daddy raced one year too long. That's why I've got all this money!' I think about that sometimes. But you can get killed walking across a street. Formula One is a lot safer than it used to be."

Formula One also has a worldwide annual television audience of 40 billion across 200 countries. And Eddie Irvine is one of its biggest stars. When asked in 1995 what he would have done if he wasn't an F1 driver, Eddie replied he would have replaced Mick Jagger as lead singer of the Rolling Stones. In fact, Mick Jagger would only be trotting after Eddie Irvine.

For years, Irvine's concept of fidelity seemed to be: have one steady supermodel companion plus whoever else came along; the perks of driving Formula One. (They don't call F1 groupies screwdrivers for nothing.)

The feminist lobby would imagine, in keeping with Irvine's perceived misogyny, that his girlfriends are discarded once they've served their purpose. But Irvine has been dating American student Katheryn Rice for well over a year. And they seem smitten with each other. The day I spent with them, Irvine doted on her, hung on her every word and generally acted like a man in love.

He seemed far from his image as the priapic prince of Formula One, the colossus of male appetite who has had lovers by the thousand while never being in love. And whenever Eddie is seen out with a beautiful woman, there is invariably a rush to judgement a reaction marked by the green-eyed monster.

Irvine's 200mph arrogance with women, and the world in general, is breathtaking. And refreshing. We seem to live in a world where all our stars are dull and doing their utmost to appear humble and worthy.

Here is an X-rated Peter Pan with a multitude of million-pound toys to play with: a floating palace with five beds, called the Anaconda (Irvine is phallocentric to the ends of his toes), which he keeps moored in Portofino; a private jet; a helicopter; three Ferraris, and multi-million-pound bachelor pads in Dalkey and Milan, St Tropez and Macau. He spends money with shameless abandon. And we Irish just can't stand the sight of a rich man enjoying himself.

How much money is he worth? "I have no idea. I don't have that much money in the bank, because I have so many property investments."

He seems to have everything a man could want. Wealth. Women. Property. I ask him did he plan it all as a child scheming in his bedroom. "It wasn't a plan," he laughs. "I'm not very good at planning. I'm more inspirational," he says. "I built this house in Dalkey. I was down there today and it's incredible. It's turned out even better than I thought it would. But I live really in Milan most of the time."

Mercifully Irvine is anything but the smug jetset bastard he easily could be. (He is for this reason very likeable and engaging company.) "I know I'm lucky. I'm very, very lucky. Jesus, the life I have is incredible. It's hard work at the same time. I've been three days testing in Valencia. It was mind-numbingly boring because there was nothing to make the car go quicker over there," he says in reference to the lamentably slow Jaguar car he is driving this season.

"Just to drive around in circles does not give me a thrill. It's progress that gives you a thrill. So it was three very hard days down there from eight o'clock in the morning until eight o'clock at night. Testing. Debriefing. Going through technical stuff on it. It's very hard work. Everybody looks at Bono bouncing around on stage like a yo-yo and probably thinks what a great life, but the work to be as creative as you need to be to get up on that stage ... "

Such philosophical intimacies he has shared with some of the most beautiful women in the world: Jemma Kidd, Kate Moss, Anouk Voorveld. Still, dating such indisputable pulchritude does not come without its problems. Even when you are with the most beautiful girl in the world, the one across the table looks better, he told GQ.

"It's always that way, isn't it? You've felt that. It comes from human nature. It all goes back to basics, doesn't it?"

Is it sex addiction for you?

"Am I addicted to sex, Katheryn?" he shouts across the room at his lovely young girlfriend, Katheryn Rice.

"That's some question!" she laughs.

"I think we're all very basic people at the end of the day, aren't we?" He thinks it goes back to the caves?

"I think it does, yeah."

I ask Katheryn is her famous fella a sex addict who happens to drive a car. "Not really, no."

"You've ruined my reputation!" Eddie laughs. For the record, they met in Miami in a nightclub one night last May. "I was in a club and she seen me and came over ... "

"Eddie, no I didn't!" she laughs. Unable to escape her suitor, she soon felt the tell-tale tingle between the shoulders. She liked him. "He was just such a nice guy. Normal. Friendly. Easy to talk to ... "

"An easy-to-talk-to sex god," smiles Eddie.

"He's got a good package," Ms Rice continues. The American accent throws both Eddie and me. "I've got a good package? Or I am one?" he enquires. (Irish supermodel Andrea Roche might have another opinion. On Channel 4's 1999 documentary on Eddie Irvine, The Inside Track, the former Miss Ireland spoke about the alleged size of Mr Irvine's manhood, according to talk in the ladies. "Very small, apparently," she said, before implying that it is rumoured that, however modest, he knows what to do with it.) "He is a good package!" she corrects with a giant laugh.

You've been going out for over a year, do you laugh at this image of him as a playboy? "I haven't noticed since I've known him." "I have my moments," her boyfriend smiles. "I'm very quiet at the minute. I'm lying low."

If he was ever unfaithful to you, would that be the end of the relationship instantly? The answer? "Yeah. Absolutely." Eddie, meanwhile, is not so sure. "Oh of course not." She puts him straight: "Oh of course."

"Of course not!" Eddie tries one more time. And by the end of it like young lovers they were wrapped around each other in knots of laughter.

"I'm very happy at the minute," Eddie says later. "She's good fun. She doesn't break my balls. And she makes me laugh."

It was no laughing matter when Irvine finished sixth in his first Formula One appearance for Jordan in the 1993 Japanese grand prix. It made world headlines. The young interloper was punched by Ayrton Senna, then the undisputed King of Formula One, after daring to overtake him. ("It wasn't really a punch. He swung at me. But so what?")

Then Irvine was banned for three races in the 1994 season when he was involved in a huge crash at Interlagos grand prix. Irv the Swerve was born. In 1999, he finished second in the Championship for Ferrari.

The ascendancy of Irvine could be seen as a reaction against the Formula One establishment: against the conservative bosses, against the humourless bores driving the cars ("I love taking the piss out of the drivers"). He remains one of world sport's most popular figures.

I suggest to him that people would love to see him do better for Jaguar. He brings flair to the sport. "Let's hope I can bring some results. But what the f*** can you do? You gotta just keep working."

And flirtin'. Before the Monaco grand prix in 1998, a TV interviewer asked Liz Hurley which driver she liked. The Irish guy is "pretty sexy", she said. Irvine's response was one of characteristic humility: "She's only human." The popular conception of Irvine is that he is a superhuman playboy. He is intimately repelled by the notion.

"I'm not a playboy," he huffs. "I would have loved to be a playboy, where my father was very, very rich, and just go around the world, you know. My old man has no money. I have a lot of friends who have very wealthy fathers who just go around. And in a way I don't feel their lifestyle is very satisfying, but that's a playboy for me: someone who has an easy life. My life is 90 per cent work."

'I enjoy my life," he continues. "F***, why shouldn't I? I've got the opportunity to have an amazing lifestyle. I work very hard when I'm working and when I'm away I like to go to great places. I love to go to St Tropez. I love to go to Miami. I like my plane. I like my boat. I like all these things. Why not?"

Why not indeed? Dior model Anouk Voorveld told Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf in 2000 how her then-boyfriend Eddie spent ?45,000 on a private jet and a helicopter to fly from Zeltweg to Greece to meet her for a couple of hours. "A racing driver doesn't have a long career and neither does a model," she said. "This means that we are often thousands of kilometres separated from each other. But that makes the joy of being together even greater."

Sadly the joy ended last year when the relationship ended. "We just broke up," says Irvine now. "A long time, actually, before the papers said we broke up. The Sun did a big story which was a load of bollocks. Two hours of questions about Formula One and there was two sentences. It was all Anouk. That's where newspapers are dangerous. They make up a headline and they don't put inverted commas on it and as long as they don't put inverted commas on it they can pretty much say what they like: I Boshed So 'n So. As long there are no inverted commas you didn't say it but it reads like you said it."

The Yvonne Connolly Keating story, in particular, he identifies as a spectacular piece of Tabloid Bollocks. (There is so much Tabloid Bollocks written about him that you begin to understand his fury at it.)

"If you looked at what I said in my book: I say that we went out [before she married Ronan Keating] but there was nothing serious. End of story. The headline in the tabloids was something like I Boshed Boyzone's Bird, Irvine says. I never said that. Because there were no inverted commas, it read like I said it. I can understand why they do it. It keeps your name up there. I have more sponsors than any other driver in Formula One, except for Schumacher, purely because of this image and Enrico."

Did he bosh Kylie Minogue? "All bullshit. I've met her a few times, and she's a lovely girl, but I never boshed Kylie." He laughs. "Sorry to disappoint. That'll be the headline of this article: I've Never Boshed Kylie."

And did he say Claudia Schiffer was "a fat pig"?

"Where that actually came from was: I was on a photo shoot with a couple of models de da de! they weren't supermodels. They were like glamour models and they said Claudia Schiffer is amazing. I had been on a TV show with her the month before and I said actually she's huge. She's very big. In photographs and real life, there's no comparison. I was just trying to get that across to these models."

In a sense, none of this matters, because only what Eddie Irvine does on the racing track matters. He was 16 when he tried out his first racing car at the local Kirkistown track. Five short years later he took two championships and a win in the Formula Ford Festival. From there he went to F3 and then on to Formula One with Jordan in 1993. Irvine wasted no time in making a huge impression, on and off the track, and a reputation for himself.

In 1999, he was nail-baitingly close to winning the Formula One championship for Ferrari. He was beaten at the final race in Japan and ended the championship watched by 1.4 billion people in second place. He left for the new challenge of Jaguar. He took a major career gamble by leaving the unstoppable genius of Ferrari in 2000 for the promise of Jaguar. It hasn't so far paid off. It has been a complete disaster. He says he doesn't regret leaving Ferrari as Schumacher's number two.

"You regret not being on the podium all the time, for sure, but I had been on the podium 28 times or 30 times. Michael was going to be coming back. Where was the future in that?" Was there a personality clash between him and Michael? "No, not at all. Me and Michael worked fantastic together. He's said privately that I was a far better team mate than Barrichello [Ferrari's number two driver], technically and to work with, because, unlike Barrichello, I never whinged."

Still, despite recent failures, Irvine's record speaks for itself. He won four races in 1999. He has gone from final championship finishes of 10th ('96), 7th ('97), 4th ('98), and 2nd ('99) to his current position of back-marker in a Jaguar car that doesn't seem to know how to go forward. I ask him how he explains to his millions of fans why his car seems so bad. "The old management. Putting the wrong people in the wrong jobs. That's why I pushed so hard to get rid of Bobby Rahal, the guy was taking the team in totally the wrong direction."

Irvine's run-in with the chief executive of the company resulted in Rahal trying "to sell me to Eddie Jordan last year. Jordan wanted me to go there. I would have made probably an extra $5m over what I'm making now. But really it came down to a choice between me and Rahal. And that's what it was for Jaguar. I won out. My logic was logic."

He left? "He was kicked out," he says, smiling. "He should never have been hired for that job, because he was never the man for that job. They asked me about him before they hired him and I said no and they hired him anyway. That's one of the reasons the Jaguar car is so bad."

Irvine has survived a wretched two seasons with Jaguar. Luckily, his existence isn't spent waiting for the world to like him. He is too busy enjoying life. Too busy trying to make Jaguar a great team. "But it's going to take time. The lucky thing is the current boss of the team, Gunter Steiner, is a very clever guy. Certainly the most impressive person I've worked with since Jean Todt [the Ferrari boss]."

Whingeing is anathema to him, but his fall in two years has not been easy: the ridicule in the press; the public humiliation every time his car breaks down; the media telling him he's a has-been, the oldest swinger in town (he is the oldest driver in Formula One). This kind of strength is innate and not acquired.

"You wouldn't have got from where I came to where I've arrived without being strong," says the Down Machiavelli. "You can't be that lucky."

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