Paul Stoddart’s overriding recollections of Minardi’s last days before the minnow team was sold to Red Bull at end the end of 2005 and renamed ‘Toro Rosso’ ended as follows: “Did I have enough money? No.
“Did we get through? Yes. But we had to fight for things. The fighting, the fighting…”
The wiry, chain-smoking Australian acquired the beleaguered team when it was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2001 and kept it alive for five tumultuous seasons, even outscoring Toyota in 2002. True, that was the Japanese team’s maiden season, but it spent a billion bucks (or more) in buying its way into motorsport’s top category, whereas Stoddart had spent $10m on buying Minardi – some of it bartered…
What made shading the world’s largest motor company into 10th in the world championship – and finishing fifth to the giant team’s sixth in the opening round of the season – so utterly satisfying was the back story. As part of his purchase of Minardi, Stoddart acquired the services of its highly-rated ex-Ferrari technical director Gustav Brunner, whose pioneering work include the first female-mould carbon fibre chassis and magnesium gearbox casing.
Thus imagine Stoddart’s surprise and dismay when he found the following in the Minardi fax machine one Saturday in May 2001: “Paul, Gustav here. I’m sorry to tell you, but I’ve joined Toyota.”
At the following round in Austria, Toyota team principal Ove Andersson was “frogmarched” into the Minardi motorhome. “He got the whole Australian ‘What-the-fuck-have-you-just-done?’” Stoddart recalls. “He was such a lovely guy, but I literally berated him and Toyota for half an hour with every Aussie word.”
(Toyota weren’t even racing in F1 at this point – the team tested at a series of F1 venues with a development car and observed race weekend proceedings from a motorhome parked outside the paddock, hence Andersson’s presence before the team had officially entered.)
At this point Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone intervened to help Stoddart’s team. “I was about to send a press release when Bernie sent for me, and said: “Stoddart, you’ve lost the fucking guy, how much money do you want?’
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“We agreed on a figure, so I turned a technical director who was as useless as tits on a bull into a sponsor for a year and got on with life.” What was the settlement? “Two and a half million dollars…” The payoff equalled a quarter of what he had paid for the team in the first place, and amounted to 10% of his 2001 budget.
Another fight in which Stoddart came off better than the rest – and saw Ecclestone become a 50% shareholder in Minardi on paper – came to a climax during the Canadian Grand Prix in June 2003 but had bubbled under since the start of the season. Effectively, the major teams pushed for short-term regulations changes, which Stoddart (and follow independent Eddie Jordan) refused to support on cost grounds.
The independents – then outnumbered seven to three by manufacturer-backed teams – were promised a “fighting fund” and cheaper engines, contributed to by the majors. However, once the changes were agreed the fund was conveniently forgotten.
However, the teams underestimated Stoddart’s tenacity and his knowledge of the Concorde Agreement. Somewhat wryly he says, “None of them was as sad a fucker as I was to read it from cover to cover,” having once admitted he could recite F1’s constitution verbatim. He kept a copy beside his bed, he told me at the time.
Thus, the scene was set for Montreal’s Friday FIA press conference, Stoddart armed with a dossier containing the agreement plus some notes on every team: “I was ready to pull the [grenade] pin on Minardi. We’d been fucked around from pillar to post from January to June, and nobody had given us the money they promised us.
“So, I was ready. I printed 50 copies of a 200-page Concorde Agreement in the hotel, we’d taken over their office, we had 50 T-shirts made, and I made 50 press packs. Why we were pulling the pin they would be able to figure out themselves when they read the Concorde.
“I had gathered some information, some of which was given to me by very prominent people: various things about Ferrari’s secret payments – not quite so secret anymore – and Ron Dennis had few issues here, Frank [Williams] a few issues there…
“Eddie [Jordan] have given me a copy of a fax he had got from [title sponsor] Benson and Hedges to say if the fighting fund was not forthcoming, they believed Jordan Grand Prix would be trading insolvent and they didn’t want to be associated with it. So, I had a file that was very damaging to anybody who wanted to be an asshole.”
Ron Dennis’ PA came by and invited Stoddart to McLaren’s hospitality unit. “Ron said, ‘Paul, you know, if it gets too hot, get out of the kitchen, you can’t be in Formula 1.’ I reminded him of various things [such as having been liquidated thrice, which is why McLaren was known as Project 4], and he said, ‘Yeah, I know, but if you haven’t got the money, get out.’
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s a bit rich coming from someone who agreed to pay us a certain amount of money – as all other teams did – in exchange for us allowing them to change the [regulations] in April. I said, ‘If I go, I’m not going quietly’.”
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Stoddart arrived at the press conference punctually and prepared, but his peers were delayed by a meeting called by Ecclestone to diffuse the situation. So, Stoddart unpacked to the assembled press corps, attention rapt during his seven-minute solo performance.
“Then everybody traipsed in, I mean, everybody, Bernie, all the team principals, not just the five that were supposed to be up there with me. We’re all sitting there, and Ron opened his mouth; I have this folder sitting in front of me, Ron to my right…”
McLaren’s then-boss commented that F1 is a professional business, that much as he felt for owners such as Stoddart, there was no place in the sport for them, then repeated his ‘heat/kitchen’ mantra.
“So I open this folder which has some very interesting [undisclosed] information which Ron caught out of the corner of his left eye. Bear in mind it was pissing down with rain outside, and Ron had his traditional white shirt and black leather jacket. He was sweating like pig and the black leather jacket came off. “His actual words were, ‘I know I shouldn’t do this, but I can’t help myself’.”
“Eddie was sitting behind me, to my left. He started on about, ‘I feel for Paul, I feel for Minardi, but you have to understand Jordan is not in this situation, Jordan doesn’t need any money, we’re fine…’
“That’s the day I named him ‘Judas Jordan’. I opened this file to the Jordan section, just went thump, thump, thump with my fist to get his attention. He saw what I had in front of me, the absolutely devastating fax. “There were 17 ‘um ahhs…’ [from Jordan]’, then he said, ‘I’ve got nothing more to say.’
Ecclestone offered to buy 50% of the team the next day, enabling Minardi to fight another day – although the sale was never completed.
At the next race in France Stoddart asserted that all the cars enter were technically illegal under the current regulations. But, he pointed, out Minardi had two fully compliant PS01s in the race truck.
“To say there was uproar would be a gross understatement. There is a lovely picture of Ron Dennis with his arm around me walking down the hill after the press conference in Magny-Cours. He said, ‘You’ve got fucking balls. I will sort out this fighting fund, you have my word. True to his word he did, and we were paid our dues. I’ve been a friend and admirer of Ron since, and we’ve become fantastic friends.”
The next major battle Minardi was embroiled in came on Stoddart’s home turf, Melbourne, with FIA president Max Mosley, who was planning more changes to the technical regulations for 2005. “At the end of 2004 Max wanted to slow [the cars] down, but it was too close to the end of the season to be able to do it legally.
“So, he brought in [the revised regulations] under ‘safety’, which was total and utter bullshit and everyone knew it was bullshit. All the other teams excluding Ferrari knew Minardi was going to turn up with their 2004 cars at the 2005 Australian Grand Prix. In the extreme we could have protested the race result, because our cars were technically the only two legal cars on the grid.”
Stoddart had prepared a legal challenge and had lawyers standing by. He advised F1 race director Charlie Whiting accordingly, who said Mosley instructed him to not pass the cars at scrutineering.
“We went straight to the High Court in Victoria, Melbourne and presented our case, which had been well prepared on every argument on the [regulatory process] and the way Max tried to change them.”
Stoddart was granted an injunction requiring all parties – 10 team principals, plus representatives of the FIA and the promoter – to be in the High Court in Melbourne at 1pm Saturday, the same time as qualifying. Thus, his lawyers needed to subpoena them – no problem with all bar Ferrari. Stoddart says team boss Jean Todt was un-contactable.
“[But] he was at the grand prix ball that night, and there were fans. He was signing all over, programmes, autographs. I said to our lawyer, ‘Line up with those fans’. Jean signs two autographs, my lawyer is third in line, and he signs [the subpoena]. My lawyer says, ‘Mr. Todt, you’re served…”
Around midnight promoter Ron Walker called Stoddart and begged him to withdraw the action at his “home grand prix”, which the team owner agreed to do. His crew returned to the circuit, worked through using [upgraded] parts and bit of cut-and-shut and by 8am the cars were legal enough to pass scrutineering, “although they ran like dogs and were uncompetitive”, he said.
“You can’t have a High Court hearing and not turn up, so both sets of lawyers turned up at the 1pm hearing to say the parties had reached agreement. The judge didn’t like that very much, said he wanted to see the parties at 10am Monday to get to the bottom of how it got sorted out.
“Which is where it would have stopped, except Mosley insisted on a press release that came out at 9am on Sunday. It said, basically, that if any judge in Australia thinks they are able to impose judgments on the FIA, they need to think again, [the FIA] will withdraw all Australian motorsport worldwide.”
The FIA’s statement read: “Apparently, the judge thought it right to interfere with the running of a major sporting event, overrule the duly appointed international officials and compel the governing body to allow cars to participate in breach of the international regulations, all this without first hearing both sides of the case.
“If Australian laws and procedures do indeed allow a judge to act in this way, it will be for the World Motor Sport Council to decide is a world championship motor sport event of any kind can ever again be held in Australia.”
When they returned to court on Monday, among the first questions asked by Justice David Habersberger was: “Is Mr Mosley present?” to which he received a reply in the negative. “Pity, he would have needed his toothbrush,” Stoddart recalls the judge saying.
The final major controversy Minardi was embroiled in was that chaotic 2005 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis when Michelin’s tyres proved unable to withstand the stresses of the circuit’s banked sections, Stoddart’s recollections of which were published here recently.
He remains adamant he planned to withdraw Minardi – despite their Bridgestone tyres having no such problems – after the formation lap. This move had been agreed in sympathy with the Michelin runners. Ferrari intended to take the start on their Bridgestones, while the final Bridgestone user, Jordan (by now owned by Midland) were allied to the other eight teams. The ‘rebel’ team bosses were assembled in Ecclestone’s office, embroiled in last-ditch talks when they heard two Ferraris fire up.
But no one had realised Jordan boss Colin Kolles was missing. “Lo and behold, we hear a third [car] start up and go out, which we’d not planned to do,” recalls Stoddart. “And I’m like, ‘Who the hell’s that?’
“We look around, there’s nothing in the room that’s got yellow on it. ‘Oh, where’s that…’ – I won’t say what we called him, but anyway – ‘Where is he?’
“Of course, he’s gone and put his cars out against the agreement. At that point other team bosses said: ‘Paul, you’ve got to go out because you’ve got to race to take points.’”
The team finished fifth and sixth (out of six starters), but Stoddart felt no satisfaction from equalling Minardi’s best-ever two-car finish. A television interview he gave during the race, which captured the fraught emotions of the situation, became notorious.
“I walked alone out the back of the garage and was leaning up against a wall smoking a cigarette. Jack [Plooij] from RTL came to me. I said, ‘Jack, don’t even ask because you wouldn’t [televise] a word of what I’d say. It’s not a race, it’s a fucking farce.
“He said, ‘No, Paul, you can swear, I don’t care. We say it all the time.’ Like a fucking idiot I gave him an interview from hell, which is still on YouTube to this day and cost me multiple sponsors.” Laughs.
That’s Paul Gerard Stoddart for you – heart on sleeve, fag in mouth, taking the rough with the smooth and passionately enjoying every minute of the sport he continues to love deeply despite the considerable forces stacked against throughout his five-year tenure as F1 team boss.
Could he make a return to Formula 1? Don’t bet against it.
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