SPIELBERG, Austria, July 26 (Reuters) - Eddie Irvine was challenged
by Ferrari's team boss on Monday to back his boasts with further grand
prix victories and clinch the team's first driver's title for 20 years.
The outspoken Briton made the most of the absence of injured team mate Michael Schumacher, the number one Ferrari driver, to win Sunday's Austrian Grand Prix and move within two points of championship leader Mika Hakkinen.
His narrow victory over Hakkinen's McLaren partner David Coulthard puts Irvine firmly back in favour with Ferrari team chief Jean Todt, and the Italian press who had attacked him after lacklustre qualifying.
Todt, however, gave Irvine a veiled warning that after 10 days when his words had triggered as many headlines as his deeds on the track, the Briton should concentrate on his driving.
``This was the right kind of response from Eddie to the situation in which the team finds itself at the moment.
``We said we would not give up and this performance shows we have not. Now Eddie must continue to deliver this kind of race because, as usual, actions speak louder than words.''
Irvine's win lifted him to 42 points, just behind Hakkinen who finished third on Sunday after recovering from a first lap collision with Coulthard.
The Finnish world champion has scored in only six of the nine races this season while Irvine, who won the season-opening Australian grand prix, has collected points in eight of them with seven races to go.
With Schumacher now expected to be sidelined until at least early September, so missing the German, Hungarian and Belgian races, and possibly the Italian too, Irvine has the opportunity to lead Ferrari to unexpected glory.
His emergence as a genuine race-winning driver was a surprise to many race fans who have seen him restricted for the last three years because of his contractual obligation to drive as Schumacher's number two.
But it was no surprise to Jackie Stewart whose Ford team are reported to be interested in a swap deal for Irvine next year with Brazilian Rubens Barrichello going to Ferrari.
``Eddie has been one of the outstanding drivers this year and he is certainly one of the outstanding racers,'' said Stewart.
``He keeps going from start to finish which is a wonderful asset to have in Grand Prix racing. And now that he has won his breakthrough he can do it again and again.''
Significantly, Irvine has been one of the few drivers not to go out of their way to wish Schumacher a speedy return to formula one.
Only two drivers, Frenchman Jean Alesi, who lives near him in Switzerland, and his brother Ralf visited Schumacher in hospital at Northampton on the night of his accident.
Irvine is now focusing on his own performance for the rest of this year. He expects Schumacher to play second fiddle when the German eventually returns.
One of the two McLaren drivers is still strongly fancied to take the title, despite Irvine's heroics, but the team is suffering from alarming unreliability.
In a combined total of 18 races, they have finished in the points only 10 times - just twice more than Irvine's individual total.