After living a life surrounded by beautiful woman, extravagant comforts and the pleasures that come with celebrity status, Ewan MacKenna takes a glimpse to see what’s left under the Ulster man’s bonnet
True story. Eddie Irvine pulled up a stool at the exclusive Cipriani Bar in Manhattan one evening back in 2006 and began to contemplate his surroundings. His mind wandered amongst the high skyline outside, the high skirtline inside and a party he’d be attending later that New York night. Suddenly a lady approached, gently whispered that she was drinking with Pamela Anderson and said the former Baywatch actress wanted to meet him. But being Eddie Irvine, he had to follow his own rules when it came to the opposite sex. Number One: women want what they can’t have.
So off he went to his party, leaving the woman once voted the sexiest ever to ponder his refusal. But he uses it as an example of how his self-discipline and female enticing work. Within a couple of months, tales of Irvine and Anderson were filling entertainment columns and gossip blogs and they quickly became a little closer than friends. When she came to Dublin she even made a point of visiting his now defunct Cocoon bar and the place notched up its biggest ever sales figures for a single night.
Now he’s back in his home town of Bangor for just a few hours, checking in on one of his many business ventures worldwide. He takes a seat in the lobby and begins to talk of how Anderson is one of the funniest women you could possibly meet and how she has a brilliant financial brain that once saw her open a lemonade shack on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway and sell $20,000-worth of refreshments in a single day. But you are more curious about Irvine and, more specifically, his attitude towards women in general.
“You’ve said in the past that the girl across the table is always hotter,” you remind him.
“I used to think that, now I’ve calmed down a bit though. I would sit there and I could have a beautiful girl with me but the one over there is better because she wasn’t with me. I’m not making that up, I’m not proud of it, it was a fact for me.”
“You’ve been quoted as saying, as well, that on a night out it’s better having your mates to talk with and to leave your woman until you’re going home.”
“I believe that, yeah.”
“And that you’re better off going for average looking women because they are easier.”
“I’d probably have compromised that a little bit because now I’m in New York a lot and the most beautiful women in the world are in New York. The level of beauty is so high there that it doesn’t really matter.”
“You’re a chauvinist,” you inform him.
“No, no. I love the company of women. But I believe a woman has a place. I believe a woman has to be feminine. The feminist thing is a woman has to be smart and hard working. I don’t buy that. I think a woman has to be a woman first and then if she can still be other things, fantastic. But if she tries to be a man, she loses everything. I think she needs to know her sexuality. She can never hide that and that has to be the number one thing and everything else has to be worked around that.”
“Did you tell that to Pamela Anderson?” you inquire.
“Pamela would know that. She’s very feminine. Very, very feminine.”
“But you’ve a daughter. How would you feel if she grew up and was treated the way you’ve treated women? Would you be mad at a guy for doing just like you’ve done?”
“No, because the women that come with me have a great time. On the way out maybe they get a little pissed because they don’t get all they want. But when they look at it after, they realise I was honest, made no promises or commitments, and they know they had a good time.”
Welcome to the wild, wild world of Eddie Irvine.
It’s not so hard to punch a pin into the timeline and see just where and how the Irvine of today was cast and moulded. The interest in Formula One started when the family’s annual holiday was to the British Grand Prix but Irvine was scared to dream. His parents tell a story that when he went to the swimming pool as a kid he’d refuse to jump off the diving board without surmising the situation from above and below several times. This was no different. When he went to Silverstone and Brands Hatch he’d refuse to believe he could one day be out there racing and instead set his sights on becoming a mechanic.
Thing was, James Hunt knew how to turn dreams into reality and being a playboy from another age of Formula One, he took an interest in a young driver with a similar love of women. On a trip to Dijon to watch Formula 3000 in the late 1980s, the pair picked up a couple of French girls and boarded a train in Paris with several bottles of vodka. When they ran out of mixers, they located some conscripts with Bunsen burners who were heading for Marseille, and with a basic knowledge of chemistry, they created something to dilute the alcohol there and then.
It was supposed to be a business journey but this was what businesses liked about Hunt and he made sure his connections in Marlboro liked Irvine. By the second last race of the 1993 season, with a little help from the corporate world, the Ulster man had raced his way through the ranks and was in a Formula One cockpit. Then, overnight, he became a superstar.
Ayrton Senna: What the f**k do you think you were doing?
Eddie Irvine: I was racing.
Senna: You were racing? Do you know the rule that you’re supposed to let the leaders come by when you’re a back marker?
Irvine: If you were going fast enough, it was no problem.
Senna: I overtook you. And you went three times off the road in front of me, at the same place, like a f**king idiot, where there was oil. And you were throwing stones and all things in front of me for three laps. You took a very big risk to put me out of the race.
Irvine: Where did I put you in any danger?
Senna: You didn’t put me in any danger.
Irvine: Did I touch you? Did I touch you once?
Senna: No, but you were that much from touching me, and I happened to be the fucking leader.
Irvine: A miss is as good as a mile.
Senna: I tell you something. If you don’t behave properly in the next event, you can just rethink what you do. I can guarantee you that, you’re not a racing driver, you’re a f**king idiot.
Irvine: You talk, you talk. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you, you were too slow, and I had to overtake you to try to get at (Damon) Hill.
Senna: You be careful guy.
Irvine: I will. I’ll watch out for you.
Senna: You’re going to have problems not with me only, but with lots of other guys, also the FIA.
It was after the Japanese Grand Prix and it wasn’t Irvine’s stunning sixth place debut or points finish for Jordan that was making headlines. By the end of their conversation outside Irvine’s trailer, Ayrton Senna took a swing while telling the young driver he was going to learn some respect and as the young driver leaned out of the way of a right hook he laughed out “insurance claim”. On a plane back to Hong Kong the next morning, the man sitting beside Irvine was reading all about it on page one of the local newspapers.
“It was embarrassing,” recalls Irvine. “When he came over it was a bit nerve-wracking because Ayrton Senna was my big hero but when he reacted that way, I lost all respect for him. He lost it but that’s what’s beautiful about being from Northern Ireland: we are the best piss-takers in the world. I sat there and I totally just wound him and wound him. I’m still a big fan of Senna’s driving ability, I just think he had lost touch with real life. I don’t give a f**k how good a race-car driver you are, I’m interested in the whole package. Same with (Michael) Schumacher. He was an amazing race-car driver, full stop. Testing the car? No. Smart? No. I had much more.”
It took a while for him to prove to people he was more than the idiot Senna had declared him as. The word was fired at him again at the start of the 1994 season after a pile-up in Brazil left him with a three-race suspension, although he still maintains his innocence and says he’d have liked to take a gun to the incompetents running the FIA.
Gradually though, Irv the Swerve became Steady Eddie but success just brought more complications. His first podium in 1995 saw a Union Jack flown. His second podium in 1997 saw a tricolour mistakenly flown. His solution of a white flag with a shamrock and ‘Derry Air’ as an anthem was rejected by the governing body and led to threats from paramilitaries.
“I didn’t care. My dad was told many times to close down by the Orange Order. They came down and used to threaten him. People that talk normally don’t do it. Anyway, I’m not into flags so I don’t care. I’m Irish. I’m not British. I’m an Ulster man. I’m not a Protestant. I’m not a Catholic. I’m an agnostic. I don’t buy all these mandate brands they’ve invented in the last 2,000 years. I have an Irish passport. I’ve an out-of-date British passport. I always race with the Irish licence because it’s cheaper. But I think Ulster is a very different part of Ireland. I used to believe in the united Ireland but now I don’t because we are very different.
“And for me I don’t think there can ever be a united Ireland. I don’t think there will ever be an independent Ulster. I’m no fan of the connection with Britain so we are just in this constant transient state. But people don’t realise the life you can have. We should send our kids to Italy just to see what living is all about. School trips should go to Italy and they’d see the light. It’s about good food, good wine, enjoying your life. Politicians here? Please. It’s embarrassing and I’m not easily embarrassed.”
Lucky Irvine didn’t get embarrassed more often because he’d never have come out to play. When a couple of Bernie Ecclestone’s bouncers failed to let him off the track one afternoon, he threw one over a wall and showed up the following day wearing a fighting Irish t-shirt the F1 boss had bought for him. He threw ice down a TV reporters pants. He threw water at Mika Hakkinen at an after-race press conference. He cut short trackside interviews if a woman walked by. In fact, when Ferrari came calling at the end of 1995, the negotiations began with him asking the most famous name on the grid if he could get cheap parts were he to sign on the dotted line. But for all his arrogance, you’re confused by why he’d join a team where he had to play number two to Schumacher.
“I didn’t,” he refutes. “I had to be better than Michael to be number one. I had an amazing target so I never got fed up of being second. I had the best racing driver that’s probably ever been, I had the same equipment and it was my chance to test myself.
“This (Rubens) Barrichello bullshit of not having the same equipment, it’s all bollocks. If Ferrari with $500m can’t prepare two cars we have got a problem. Some guys turned down the role when I took it. They were chickens. I went out and said I’m going to learn from this guy and then I’m going to beat him because I knew I was smarter than him. But he just has so much talent.”
Finally his chance came in 1999 after Schumacher’s rear brake failed at Stowe Corner in Silverstone. His car flew off course and resulted in a broken leg. You ask Irvine if he was pleased when it happened.
“Oh yeah. For sure. He wasn’t hurt in any bad way. Broken leg. Big deal. You can do that walking down the street. It was nothing personal. Sure we had nothing in common other than driving and I wouldn’t go out with him because he’s a mess when he drinks but I was happy purely because it gave me my chance to go for the championship. Okay, we didn’t have the car. Ferrari thought the championship was gone and they started to develop the 2000 car. If I was them, I would have done exactly the same thing but it didn’t give me a good chance. We needed something special in Japan but I was just driving around on wood.”
A decade on from losing the world title on the final day of the season when a third-place finish handed the championship to Mika Hakkinen, he tells you he has no regrets but you muse over his attitude and can’t help wonder if his life off the track slowed him down on it.
“Let me put it this way. Jean Todt was boss and he let’s live and he’s right. If you are not happy in your life, you are not going to be happy in the car. Loads of times I’ve seen him in San Tropez and I’d be there with four or five girls and having lots of fun and he’d be laughing and he’d want to get introduced to the girls half the time. Barrichello ain’t out there getting much action, believe me. Michael Schumacher ain’t out there getting much action. If I had to give up that in Formula One then there was no point in it because I would have been miserable.”
What if you scratch and peel and pick at the surface of a person, only to finally break through and find there’s nothing there? What if the person you’ve been trying to get behind is the person behind? What if you finally hammer down the brick wall to find a world of concrete? What if this is the real Eddie Irvine?
He talks about his boat, once owned by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. “It’s a Riva Aquarama, it’s actually been voted the most beautiful thing ever made by man. And it is and I love beautiful things. I needed a boat so you put the two things together and you buy a Riva Aquarama.”
He talks about his houses. “I go to Miami to go running and work out. I go to New York to have fun. I go to Milan to see my people. I come to Ireland to see my daughter. I’m lucky that I don’t have to live in one place and compromise on my nightlife because that place doesn’t have a great nightlife. I don’t have to compromise on my skiing because that place doesn’t have good skiing.”
He talks about his plane. “In America, where I live most of the time, I wasn’t going places because I hated going to the airport and checking in and all this. It was crazy. I thought, ‘buy an airplane and go to the places I want to’. So I did and now I travel so much better.”
He talks about his friends. “I know where the brake pedal is. It’s the big thing I say to Mickey Rourke all the time, because he’s a good mate of mine. We could be in the club and I’d go at five and I’d say, ‘Mickey, it’s about time you hit the brake pedal’.”
“You’re coming across arrogant,” you tell him, unable to understand where the Eddie Irvine who became a millionaire through stocks before he ever drove for a living has disappeared to over the years. “I don’t think I’m arrogant. It comes down to do you want me to lie so you don’t think I’m arrogant? People ask what I did yesterday. Now do I lie or do I say I was in Cairo and then went to London to shop? Now that’s interesting. And I know I’m super lucky. I was a racing driver, I am Eddie Irvine and there is a lot of brand recognition with that name. Next week I can go see Brian Adams play in a really small venue in New York because I’m Eddie Irvine. “If I was you, I wouldn’t have gotten invited.”
As he heads off to his boat and plane and famous friends, you are left with one tale still dangling, yet to be tied up. The man once voted Britain’s 38th biggest loser and confirmed as Northern Ireland’s fourth richest man was left behind by Pamela Anderson after a couple of months.
You’ll never guess her reason either. She said Eddie was just too nice.
5 April 2009