It might not surprise you to know that Eddie Irvine, the former Formula One driver, international tycoon and unreconstructed playboy from Northern Ireland, owns a few motors. It may surprise you, though, that his favourites are a brace of Aston Martin Cygnets which he acquired second-hand.
As if you didn’t need reminding, the Cygnet is not a pedigree Aston Martin. It’s a 2011 Toyota IQ supermini with an Aston grille and an aristo-pimped interior which was priced at twice that of the base car thanks to its prestige badge and luxurious furnishings, and was offered for sale to full-size AML customers as a present for their daughters, ostensibly.
It was a divisive car, just as Irvine, 54, was a divisive racing driver. On his debut at the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna tried to punch him in the face. He’s never given a hoot about what anybody else thinks, and tells it how he sees it.
I’ve called Eddie on the phone while he’s at his summer home in Italy to talk road cars and contemporary F1. The previous weekend, his ex-employers Ferrari had celebrated their 1,000th grand prix with a party in Florence, which Irvine attended. He turned up in one of his Cygnets, and his boundless enthusiasm for this car is matched by his bleak assessment of the Scuderia post-Jean Todt and the glory days he himself enjoyed (for the long-legged trophies as much as the sterling silver ones).
In fact, he’s so in love with the 97bhp city car it takes me about 20 minutes to get him off the subject. “I keep one in Ireland and one here in Italy. They’re just so gorgeous inside… the smell is incredible… the leather… the quality… so comfortable… so reliable… quiet as anything… I can park anywhere… They cost me nothing in petrol… It goes around corners like a go-kart and it goes as fast as I need it to go. James Hunt used to have an Austin A35, and he loved it because he could be on the limit at 35mph.”
It makes perfect sense that Irvine would find kinship with James Hunt, the hard-driving perma-shagging party animal who died the same year the Ulsterman arrived in F1, behind the wheel of a Jordan-Hart. If one were to trace the diminishing line from old school drivers like ‘Hunt the Shunt’ through to Kimi Raikkonen it would pass directly through ‘Irv the Swerve’.
In 1996, Eddie was promoted to Ferrari alongside another newcomer, Michael Schumacher, and there followed four memorable seasons with the Scuderia, culminating with the constructors’ title in 1999 – Ferrari’s first in 16 years – and the runner-up spoon for four-time GP winner Irvine, who became the unexpected team leader from Silverstone onwards after Schumi crashed and broke a leg.
Let’s just say Eddie seized this and every other opportunity that came his way. “I had Michael as my team-mate, so to beat him was impossible. But at the same time, he was married and German, which the Italians don’t really like. So, he was the king on the track and I was the king off the track.”
While Ferrari’s race cars were good – and even better when Rubens Barrichello took the rear-gunner role from him in 2000 – Irvine wasn’t so keen on their road cars. Characteristically, he preferred the throwback models. “I didn’t get offered free Ferraris, but I got a discount. At that time, the 360 Modena was out which I really didn’t like. I bought the 550 Maranello; I liked the back, and the middle section was gorgeous, but the front looked really weak. And I told [Luca di] Montezemolo that. They redesigned it a few years later [as the 575M] and made it a little more masculine, but they never got the front of that car right in my opinion.”
Rather than a late ‘90s Ferrari, Irvine chose a 1985 288 GTO (worth approximately £1.75 million today) to go about his business. “I used it as my daily driver. It’s amazing to say that about such a rare supercar, but it was. I looked at an F40 the other day and thought to myself ‘what the hell am I going to do with this?’ But with the 288 GTO, you could just jump in it and drive to the shops, which is what I did.”
At one point he had the GTO, a Daytona, a 512 BBi and a Porsche 959, but after he retired from racing at the end of 2002 and moved from Europe to Miami, New York and his own private island in the Bahamas, automobiles became less of a focus. He made investments in property, shipping and software, and abandoned his classic cars in mates’ garages back in Dublin and elsewhere. Eventually he just sold them. “I went to America to start doing business. I never used them, they were just sitting there. I lost money on the GTO but made money on the others, but nothing worth talking about.”
He says he’s started to collect again, though, having recently purchased a Lamborghini Countach. “It’s Series One with the Bravo wheels, and it’s drop-dead gorgeous. For me, that’s less like a car and more like a piece of art. I’ve built a garage in Ireland; really modern architecture. I’m just going to put my cars in there, like a gallery, and I doubt they’ll ever move.”
Fast Eddie also currently owns a Porsche 930 Turbo and a 911 Targa, a Mercedes SLS AMG, a Caterham Seven, and his mum’s MGB which has been in the family for 42 years.
So, what’s the best car he’s ever owned? “Listen, the best car I’ve owned is the Cygnet.”
Ok, what about the worst? “Hmm, well, from a reliability point of view it was the 959. What an amazing car, but also what a nightmare. Every time I got in it and switched it on a new alarm would go off. It made me sick to the back teeth. They have so many problems because they were so far ahead of their time, and as you get older it’s more about reducing aggro than having an amazing car. I’d kinda like a 959 again, but I just don’t want the aggro.”
Irvine is said to be worth nine-figures, and most of that is the result of his investments. He doesn’t count the cars among them. “People say, ‘oh you’ll make so much money on this Countach’. I have no interest in making money from my cars. I want the cars that I want, and that’s it. If they go up in value, that actually annoys me because the insurance is going to cost me more and I’m not going to enjoy driving them as much. I prefer that they’re worthless and then I don’t care, because that way you get full pleasure.”
He says Italy is about the only country he feels he can let a car off the leash these days. “It’s the last place where you can drive relatively freely. I haven’t been stopped for speeding there for about 20 years. I was driving a Lancia Delta Integrale too fast and the cops pulled me over. They were banging on the windscreen, screaming blue murder, but then they recognised who I was, burst into these wide smiles. Suddenly they wanted to shake my hand and get an autograph. These days I normally sit just below 100mph. That’s where I feel most comfortable. More than that and I get a bit nervous. I sit at 95mph, and I’ve got guys coming past me that nearly blow me off the road they’re going so fast. That’s Italy for you.”
Given his rock star status there, not to mention his winning ways, switching to the Milton Keynes-based Jaguar Racing in 2000 must have been a shock to the system. “Listen, it made complete sense at the time,” says Irvine. “They told me ‘we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that’. It was a beautiful story, Jaguar in Formula One. But it was a romance novel, a work of fiction. They were going to move to Silverstone, Silverstone was going to be the full-time test track. They were going to build a wind-tunnel there, yadda yadda. But they paid Jackie [Stewart] so much for the [Stewart Grand Prix] team, so much for Cosworth and so much for Pi [Research] electronics there was no money left for anything else. [Ford CEO] Jac Nasser had obviously bought Aston Martin and Land Rover too, and it was all going wrong. The red ink was enormous. It was insanity.”
Ford sold the struggling Jaguar team to Red Bull at the end of 2004, and Red Bull Racing went on to win four drivers’ and four constructors’ titles. Ferrari, meanwhile, hasn’t won a title in over a decade, and 2020 looks set to be their worst season since 1980. Its team principal, Mattia Binotto, is under pressure. He used to be Irvine’s engine engineer. “He’s a very good friend. He’s a very smart guy and really calm. I was just with him at the weekend and he’s obviously under serious pressure, but you wouldn’t know it.
“It’s much harder to win when you’re not in the UK. You’ve got a lot more F1 brain power in the UK than you have in Italy, just because of the sheer number of teams. You get this cross-pollination of people and ideas. It’s a big disadvantage for Ferrari but, obviously, they have to stay in Italy, where everything is harder. I love this country, and I love the way they live life, but I wouldn’t want to do business here.”
In replacing Sebastian Vettel with Carlos Sainz Jr next season, to run alongside 23-year-old wunderkind Charles Leclerc, the veteran recognises a similar structure to the pairing of himself and Schumacher. “I think Carlos is a very good choice. I’m not sure he’s got the speed to deal with Leclerc, but I don’t think he’s been hired to deal with Leclerc. I think they’re going back to the Schumacher-Todt plan of a number one and a number two. It makes it easier to win the championship. Mercedes are doing the same with Hamilton and [Valtteri] Bottas. But Ferrari have a long way to go with their car. I don’t know how they got it so wrong this year, it’s a disaster.”
Despite these insights, Irvine insists he’s not a regular viewer. “I watched the Mugello race highlights on YouTube because someone said it was good, but I don’t usually tune in. I’ll go to Monaco and turn up at the Amber Lounge with a bunch of girls and a couple of friends and we just have the most fun I have the whole year. But I don’t really watch the racing, and I don’t know why, because some of the races are good.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve been there and done it. Maybe it’s because I see the drivers as boys as opposed to men. When I was growing up, I saw Senna, Piquet and Prost as men because I was a boy. Now I’m looking at these boys racing, but they made their money in Mugello I tell you. That last section of corners – Casanova, Savelli and the two Arrabbiatas – that’s serious big balls stuff. Sometimes the sport gets it right, but for the most part, with the safety cars, wide kerbs, barriers so far back, it’s all too forgiving. And there are way too many races and the off-season is too short. You want anticipation for a new season and every race, not one every weekend. It’s the same with overtaking, you can have too much of it. I compare it to fishing: I’d rather sit all day waiting for one big fish than catch 100 mackerel. When I go fishing in Ireland, all I catch is mackerel. I’m just fed up of catching mackerel.”
Interestingly, he barely recognises himself when he sees footage of his F1 career from 1993 to 2002, 146 starts and 26 podiums in total. “I don’t even know who that person is. It was another life. I’m happier these days because I enjoy business more than motor racing, and because I’m no longer the product. I never liked being the product.
“These days, you’re up against companies like Red Bull, companies that don’t make their money from racing. The Eddie Jordans of this world are gone. That’s when I really enjoyed Formula One. Eddie Jordan, Ron Dennis, Frank Williams, Ken Tyrell; entrepreneurs whose business it was to go motor racing. It wasn’t a marketing tool. The sport lost a lot of its appeal, for me, when these figureheads disappeared. It’s now incredibly corporate, and I’m not a corporate person.”
“I was lucky to race when I did. The manufacturers came in and paid us a load of dough. It was the golden era of making big money. From that point of view, it was good that they arrived, but they ruined it at the same time.”