Melbourne-born Paul Stoddart had a fascination for motor racing, but made his principal fortune in the airline industry with his European Aviation group. But to F1 fans, he is known as one of the most outspoken and colourful characters in the sport’s recent history, as the Minardi team’s owner between 2001 and 2005.
Fresh from his appearance at the Australian premiere of the SENNA documentary – where his two-seater F1 cars once again proved a hit – Paul graciously accepted an interview request and gave Richard’s F1 an in-depth interview where no topic was off-limits…
Stoddart has never been shy when it comes to giving his opinion on all matters F1, and his position of fighting for the rights of the smaller outfits was at odds with the bigger manufacturers that shelled out many millions each year, seemingly coming and going at will.
Not always popular, he was certainly always a principled man, as this interview with again attest. Our interview covers many topics: the challenges of running a Formula 1 team on a shoestring, his thoughts on the many drivers who have called Minardi home, his run-ins with FIA President Max Mosley, to name but a few.
We offer our sincerest thanks to Paul for his support in making this interview possible.
How does a boy growing up in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg become a Formula 1 Team Principal?
It’s the old story: when you’re young enough and fast enough, you go racing; when you’re old, ugly and you’ve got the money, you buy the team! I had done some racing at club level when I was younger and been pretty successful, In the early to mid-1990s, I’d done pretty well in the airline business and I decided to get back to something I had enjoyed doing when I was younger. So I bought my first Formula 1 car, and one became two, which became ten, and I think it got as high as 77 at one point.
So we had this huge collection of Formula 1 cars, and we raced a few of them in the BOSS Series and were pretty successful, winning back-to-back championships running a three-car team.
How did you get involved in F1 sponsorship, and what steps were involved in becoming the owner of the Minardi team?
Racing in the BOSS series – while enjoyable – wasn’t the real deal. In 1997, I joined Tyrrell as a sponsor, and the late Ken Tyrrell as I started negotiating as far back as that year’s Spanish Grand Prix when I became aware he was wanting to sell the team. Unfortunately British American Racing also got wind of this and we found out we were up against them. Obviously their being funded by British American Tobacco meant that they were effectively operating with a blank chequebook.
Behind the scenes, some senior Tyrrell figures – including designer Dr Harvey Postlethwaite – joined forces with Honda, and together we put a rival bid in, and while we were eventually unsuccessful, I landed up with a deal that gave me everything except the actual race entry.
We were – with our equipment and a fully operating factory – effectively a Formula 1 team in waiting. The Honda Racing Developments team kicked off in 1999 [with a view to have a Honda-branded team compete in F1 from 2000], but that came to an abrupt end when Postlethwaite died.
At that point, the people who’d left Tyrrell to join the Honda concern now found themselves with nothing to do, so I took them on and we set up a Formula 3000 team, while also our manufacturing capabilities to design and develop the two-seater Formula 1 car [based on the design of the 1998 Tyrrell], which went on through 1999 and the early part of 2000, by which we had a certain Australian called Mark Webber driving for us.
Along the way, I looked into buying Jordan during 1999, and I looked at buying Arrows in 2000, until we looked at their books and quickly came to our senses!
It was no great secret in the pit lane that I was looking to buy a Formula 1 team, and I eventually had a phone call in December to tell me that Minardi was for sale and to ask if I was interested. I thought about it for all of ten seconds before saying ‘Yes’, and the next day I was on the plane to Faenza.
|Looking to buy his way in: Stoddart’s first involvement in F1 was his European Aviation concern being a sponsor of Tyrrell (1997), Jordan (1999) and Arrows (2000). all outfits that he looked to purchase. He would eventually become the owner of the Minardi team at the end of the 2000 season.|
Talk us through the purchase and you first few days running the show to get the entire operation on the grid in just a few weeks.
It was initially just a visit to say hello and get the ball rolling, but it was rapidly apparent that if we didn’t come in right away, the team would collapse. It was that bad.
However, they had a car that had been designed. It was actually designed to take a Renault engine, but that was now no longer a possibility. The operation had completely run out of money, people had left the team, and there was the added problem that poor Gabriele Rumi [Minardi’s majority shareholder at the time] had terminal cancer and bigger issues to worry about than a Formula 1 team.
We came in literally in the nick of time. I had to put several million into it just to keep it going, and this was before we could even do any due diligence on the team. For the first three or four weeks, we were shelling out money to keep it going and pay the bills, and once the sale had been complete, we had six weeks to get everything ready to get all the freight off to Melbourne for the opening race.
The timeframe was so tight that I brought a planeload of my Ledbury-based mechanics over to Italy to help out. We took over a local hotel and had the mechanics working for as long us they could until they couldn’t stand anymore, before sending them off to the hotel for some shut-eye while someone else took over their bit. It took that kind of effort to put it all together.
We had plenty of challenges during that time – the language barrier being one of them – but we got the car built, and had one straight line test before everything was put on the plane. We built the second car in the pit lane on the Thursday of the Australian Grand Prix weekend.
How did Gian Carlo Minardi cope with the transition, and no longer being the driving force behind the operation?
He struggled to be honest, although I tried to be as good as possible to him. I let him keep his office, and I always gave him respect. There was the odd occasion where I had to put my foot down: he was a particularly hard taskmaster on the Italian crew. We used to joke about there being a Minardi mafia – referring to the small group of them that had been around for a long time – but they all worked incredibly hard.
Language was occasionally a problem, but he did very well and his English improved enormously, to the point of almost being fluent by 2005.
You ended your first ever Grand Prix as a team owner with Fernando Alonso finishing in twelfth place, an incredible achievement in the circumstances.
Yes, we ended that race and I came into the garage feeling very chuffed and proud that one of our cars had lasted the distance, and I saw all of the team members around me crying. I thought someone had died, but realised that it was just the immense relief that the impossible had been achieved. They were tears of joy, and it was a spectacular way to start my Formula 1 career.
The year was not without its challenges, not least of which being the departure of Gustav Brunner, your Technical Director, to Toyota…
That was unbelievable. It was a bank holiday, and I walked into the Ledbury office to find this fax at Reception, which simply said “I’ve joined Toyota. Sorry, Gustav”. I was beside myself.
Looking back on it now, one way of seeing it is that we turned our former Technical Director into a sponsor of the team, but dint of us being paid out a lot of money for him breaching his contract.
One thing it did do was give Gabriele Tredozi [who was Brunner’s deputy at the time] the chance to step up into a larger role, and he really rose to that challenge. When you look at what some of today’s teams are investing and they can’t even get as close to pole position as what we managed under Tredozi’s direction, it beggars belief. He did tremendously well and designed a couple of really excellent cars, often with a budget smaller than what some teams would spend in a year on catering.
But you also had a brilliant driver in the form of Fernando Alonso behind the wheel…
The man who became the youngest-ever race winner, World Champion, and double World Champion! I had an inkling when we took him on that he was something special. I’d seen him win a wet race at Spa in Formula 3000, and that really made me sit up and take notice. It was an outstanding race from him, a really ballsy drive.
There were many special moments with Fernando, but one that stands out for me was his last race with us at Suzuka. If ever there was an example of someone’s talent then this was it. This was back in the days when you still had Sunday morning warm-up, and – as was common practice in those days – teams would go for glory by draining the fuel out of the car for a banzai lap at the end of the session. I’d been in a meeting and only just got back by the time they’d gone out, and I’d found out that there’d been a little bit of a disagreement among the engineers, with the decision being that he wasn’t allowed to take the fuel out of the car.
Fernando was pretty unhappy about that, and to demonstrate his pure racing ability, he proceeded to drive the 53-lap race as a series of qualifying laps. Those who knew what to look for saw that this was a champion in the making.
By mid-season, you’d formed a strong relationship with some Malaysian backers, and Alex Yoong arrived for the final three rounds to take over Tarso Marques’ seat.
He had a lot of sponsorship, being Malaysia’s first F1 driver, and that’s where our relationship with the Malaysians started. To be fair to Alex, it was his sponsorship that allowed me to bring Mark Webber on for the 2002 season without stipulating that he had to bring any sponsors with him.
Alex did a good job. He struggled a little bit – he would admit to that as well – but I think his best efforts were in the races after we ‘rested’ him.
Perhaps the most famous weekend for Minardi (under your ownership) were those two points Mark Webber picked up on debut at Melbourne. Just how special was that weekend?
There were so many things that just kept happening in the lead up to that Sunday. For one, we’d just taken deliver of three Boeing 747s from British Airways, and we managed to achieve our international certification to fly these in just twelve weeks – usually this takes a year at least.
So we flew the entire team in these to Australia and landed at Avalon airport to this big welcome with a red carpet, brass band and the Victorian Premier. It was very special, and it just kept getting better.
Press-wise, we were the story of the Grand Prix weekend and I honestly thought we were going to land with an almighty bump on Saturday qualifying, because I had real fears that Alex wouldn’t be able to qualify within the 107% rule. And with his home race [the Malaysian Grand Prix] being next up, I was really hoping he’d make the grid and be able to get some racing miles.
Fortunately it rained, and he qualified 21st – Mark was 17th – and I convinced the crowd to do a big rain dance so it wouldn’t dry up and screw us!
And then on the Sunday, who would have thought that the first corner would present so many problems for the others, and that it would be so right for us? I was firstly worried that our cars had been caught up in the fracas, and then (when we weren’t) I was worried the red flag would be brought out.
Fortunately it didn’t and the marshals did a fantastic job to clean up the mess so quickly, and it was pretty apparent that you would have a reasonable result provided you could get the car to the finish. At this stage, we weren’t in the points, but as the race unfolded and Mark got into fifth place, we were looking pretty good.
But the on major problem was that I’d been consistently told that Mark’s car was terminally ill [the differential had gone] and that he wouldn’t make the finish. How the hell he got it to the chequered flag is a mystery!
The 2003 season was one where you targeted a move into the lower midfield for Minardi, and many of the ingredients were there: Cosworth engines, new sponsors, a new points’ structure, a great driver combination in Jos Verstappen and Justin Wilson, and if anything, things were tougher?
In 2002, we finished in ninth position in the Constructors’ Championship, ahead of Toyota and their $400 million budget, which – when compared with our $25 million expenditure – put us in great stead. In 2003, all the ingredients were there, but we simply didn’t have the luck.
In the case of Jos, he was a good guy: a real charger and very hungry to do something. And Justin was coming in via a very unique way [having floated himself on the stock exchange to raise funds to buy the second seat]. It was very novel, and I’m not sure it’s been done since. But it worked, I even bought some shares in his career and I still get my papers every year to tell me what’s happening.
It was a very good relationship between all the parties, but we struggled and the points were not there to be had. It was pretty much a season where many people finished races, so it was slim pickings.
Having said that, we sold Justin to Jaguar in the mid-season – we had built a relationship with them because of Mark [Webber] moving there – and it was good for our relationship with Cosworth as well. Justin went there and he did a good job for them, despite the car not being suited to his liking.
|The Class of 2003: Jos Verstappen was “a real charger”, while Justin Wilson’s stint at the team was too brief…|
There were two moments that stood out in 2003. One being a particularly famous press conference during the Canadian Grand Prix…
Ah, Friday the 13th of June. There had been a lot happening at the start of the year, and as you mentioned the rules changes, many of these hurt the small teams. Simply put: change costs money.
So there were meetings in January and April where it was agreed that a ‘fighting fund’ – although it would be more appropriate to call it a ‘fairness fund’ – would be set up. Customer engines were now upwards of $10 million a year, and the smaller teams were struggling to find sponsors who would shell out that kind of money.
But you still needed at least 20 cars on the grid, and what we were being asked to do was commit ourselves to an uphill struggle by agreeing to short-notice technical changes. That’s all well and good for teams with massive R&D budgets and manpower, they can respond to that very quickly. But the smaller teams would inherently take longer to respond, and then fall further and further behind the frontrunners.
So if we were to agree to something that was going to disadvantage us, well then there had to be something in it for us as well. The manufacturers were collectively spending upwards of $1 billion a year, effectively pricing the smaller teams out of the game. So it was agreed that the manufacturer-backed teams would help out the smaller teams with their engine bills.
So we signed up to a series of very … irregular … rules that would benefit the larger teams, in exchange for the setting up of this fund.
By the time we got to Monaco, it was quite clear what would happen. Teams were reneging on the deal, so by the time we got to Montreal, I’d had enough, as indeed as Jordan owner Eddie Jordan. So we were going to take a stand, and it had to be sorted out.
Now it so happened that the FIA had scheduled both of us to appear at the Friday press conference, and I arrived on time, only to find the others hadn’t rocked up. I would later find out that the others were at a team meeting that I’d been excluded from.
Having had the full support from Eddie in the lead up to the press conference, imagine my surprise when I find that Eddie – once he’d arrived with the others, including Bernie Ecclestone – had completely changed his tune. We laugh about it today, but on that day I referred to him as ‘JJ’ (for ‘Judas Jordan’) instead of his usual ‘EJ’ moniker.
It was a very interesting press conference. I was quite blunt in my opinion that Minardi didn’t have the money to continue, and I felt pretty aggrieved by the way things had been promised and then withdrawn. I wasn’t going to be backwards in coming forward and saying it.
Would it be fair to say that this moment forged your reputation as Formula 1’s ‘shop steward’?
I was fighting for fairness. I was prepared to the lot of them on that day, and I was much better prepared than perhaps many of them realised. Luckily [for them], I didn’t have to reveal too much.
At one point, Eddie was asked a rather tricky question, and the minutes (of which I still have a copy) will show that he said a lot of ‘ums’ before eventually answering it. I happened to be seated slight lower than him, and I had a folder open with a certain page quite visible, and I simply pointed to a section of it when he was asked the question. Eddie saw what I was pointing to – he couldn’t believe that I had the document – and knew full well that I was prepared to divulge its contents! It was a pretty interesting meeting.
Unfortunately it was one of those instances that detracted from the racing that weekend, and there have been many of them since, when the politics have completely dominated the landscape.
Perhaps the other key moment in 2003 was the Brazilian Grand Prix…
The race we should have won. We had the strategy, but it just didn’t happen. I very rarely overrode the decisions of the race engineers – in fact, I did it just twice in my time with Minardi – but I did this time. I believed that the rain wouldn’t stop and that the race wouldn’t go full distance. I’d researched how far we could go on one tank of fuel, and I calculated that if the race was stopped at 75% race distance (the point at which full points can be given) and at least half the race had been run under Safety Car conditions, we wouldn’t need to refuel.
But the cars had been locked away after qualifying the previous day, and you had to start the race with whatever fuel you’d qualified with. So the only way we could change the fuel level was to start one of the drivers in the T-car from pit lane, completely loaded with fuel. So we told the drivers our plan, tossed a coin, and Jos won the toss to switch cars.
Technically you were supposed to have just cause to switch to the T-car, although other teams – especially Sauber! – did it from time to time. It turned out that there was a small issue on Jos’ car, and we were able to justify it to ourselves and the stewards that this was an appropriate course of action.
The next challenge was to make sure that we would be the first car at the end of the pit lane, because if some other team thought of the same idea and got out ahead of us, then we’d be second if the race panned out how I thought it would.
We managed to be the first car sitting at the end of the pit lane, and everything – the weather, safety car interruptions – worked out as we’d speculated, except for one thing: Jos caught the river at Turn 3 and the gearbox didn’t kick into anti-stall because it wasn’t programmed to do so at such high speed.
The same problem had happened to Justin just moments before, and we should have gotten onto Jos a little quicker to warn him. But we didn’t, and I remember throwing my entire God-damned radio kit from the pit gantry into the garage, and it slammed into the wall at the back of the garage. Nobody spoke afterwards, it was the strangest thing. We knew that it was the day that Minardi could and should have won the race.
Into 2004, and you had a new line-up with Zsolt Baumgartner and Gianmaria Bruni, who were two contrastingly different drivers. What was this season like for you and the team?
What pretty much summed up the entire season was Zsolt getting that point for finishing eighth at Indianapolis, which meant a lot to us.
Gimmi would have scored that point if he hadn’t been so pigheaded and stupid about retiring his car after it suffered minor damage at the first corner. To be fair to him, he was often in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was therefore unlucky. But he was also too hot-headed, and there are instances where he could have had better races than what he did. I think the engineers had just about had enough of him at various stages, whereas Zsolt was so loveable and likeable, he got on with just about everyone.
|The Class of 2004: Zsolt Baumgartner (above left) was “loveable and likeable”, while Gianmaria Bruni was prone to being “hot-headed, pigheaded and stupid” when things didn’t go his way…|
A huge event that year was the death of John Walton, your right-hand man. How did you cope in the aftermath of his passing?
It was just unbelievable, and one of the saddest moments for me, if not the saddest moment. It was just so unexpected, there were no warning signs at all. I remember speaking to the chief medical officer of Silverstone when he’d been rushed to emergency, and when I was told he wasn’t going to make it.
We ran a tribute livery to him during the British Grand Prix weekend, and sadly parted company with a few sponsors as a result of that. Mr Wilux wasn’t paying his bills anyway, so he just used that as a convenient excuse to drop us.
|The death of ‘John Boy’: The 2004 British Grand Prix saw the team’s sporting director John Walton die of a heart attack. The entire paddock was rocked at the passing of this popular man, and Minardi ran a sponsorless tribute livery in his honour. Unfortunately some of the team’s sponsors were none too happy about this and tore their contracts up. Paul believes this was “a convenient excuse” for them to stop honouring their commitments…|
The 2005 season saw more new rules arriving, particularly governing changes to the bodywork designs and the switch to having a single tyre set lasting an entire race distance – a rule that dramatically hurt the Bridgestone runners (of which Minardi was one). You staged a protest at the Australian Grand Prix, which caused plenty of controversy…
The entire issue dated back to the Brazilian Grand Prix the year before, and that’s probably where I earned my ‘shop steward’ mantle. At that point, Max Mosley was just being stupid, and you had this ridiculous situation of there being eight or nine teams aligned with Bernie against Ferrari, which was aligned with Mosley.
What Max was trying to do was just stupid, and it just got so crazy that meetings of Team Principals would just feature Max and [Ferrari team boss] Jean Todt, because everyone else would just boycott them. The rules changes he pushed through had not been agreed to in accordance with the Concorde Agreement, and they significantly disadvantaged the smaller teams on a limited budget.
Suffice to say, we turned up at the 2005 Australian Grand Prix with a legal car, and Max made sure it wasn’t going to be allowed on the track, but I wasn’t prepared to back down. So I went to court, got an injunction very quickly and easily.
And then we found ourselves effectively being blackmailed – and that’s the only word I can use to describe it, really – to withdraw our protest in the face of the FIA withdrawing its support for future Australian Grands Prix. So in a meeting in this very hotel very late on the Friday night, enough pressure applied that I had to back down. Had this been any other race other than the Australian Grand Prix, I would not have backed down, we would have gone to court and found out who was right and who was wrong. I was pretty much an authority on the Concorde Agreement at the time, and I don’t doubt for a second that a judge wouldn’t have ruled in our favour. It just simply wasn’t worth risking the future of the Australian Grand Prix and the problems it would have stirred up.
So I backed down, and we spent the rest of the night taking a saw to the car and just bastardising everything on it. We got it sorted and the car was far from competitive, and even once we’d been able to fit 2005-spec bodywork to it, we were too far behind in the development race for the first half of the year.
How do you look back on Max Mosley now, especially given his recent issues with the media over his private life?
(Laughs) You probably wonder why I’m smiling now, and you can’t help but smile.
Something happened to Max in or around 2004 that turned him into ‘Mad Max’, as I dubbed him from then on. Up until this point, he’d done a lot of good for the sport and you can’t take away the credit for many of the good things he has brought to the sport. Without Bernie Ecclestone, F1 wouldn’t be the money-making machine it is today, and without Max, F1 wouldn’t be as safe as it is.
But something – perhaps years of frustration at trying to get some changes through and always being stonewalled – changed, and in May 2004 he decided it was going to be his way or else. And whilst I may have had a degree of sympathy for his frustrations, it was simply not the way to go about it, to go against everybody.
Unfortunately, he just got worse as time wore on. Up until early 2005, I was trying to broker peace and get him to see reason – literally just getting him to be sensible with the regulations, not just for Minardi’s sake – and he just would not budge.
And by the Australia Grand Prix, I’d just had a gutful. I’ll always remember one of the comments made in court when we had the protest dismissed formally, and the Supreme Court judge was very disappointed that Mosley wasn’t present for this hearing. I think he would have had quite a bit to say to Mosley, because you don’t go releasing international press releases threatening to throw the toys out of the pram if a judge rules against you. He’d just gone too far.
And he also went too far at Indianapolis…
Yes he did. There was an issue with the Michelin tyres, as we all know.
That race, could have, should have, and would have gone ahead with a full 20-car grid, but one person stopped it. When you have 130,000 spectators and tens of millions of TV viewers denied a proper race because of one man playing politics, it’s very sad.
I happen to recall a rather expletive-ridden interview you had during the race with one of the Dutch broadcasters, and you just captured the mood of so many with a few very direct sentences. Can you tell us about that weekend?
I was out the back of the garages having a cigarette as the race was still going on. He asked me if I’d do an interview, and I told him that whatever I said wouldn’t be able to be broadcast. I rather stupidly fell for the line that whatever I said in English wouldn’t be broadcast for the Dutch TV viewers, and I let rip!
On a completely different train of thought, what was the inspiration behind giving a little-known Israeli driver, Chanoch Nissany, a Friday test drive at that year’s Hungarian Grand Prix?
He goes in history as Israel’s one and only F1 driver. He was a lovely chap, but he obviously needed a lot more effort to improve his skills. He achieved on that Friday probably more than he’d ever imagined he could achieve. He’d lived his dream that day, and he’s probably disappeared back into the construction industry where he’s made his money. He was a very nice guy.
We arrive at the end of the year and the team has now been sold to Red Bull to be renamed as Toro Rosso. How many buyers were on the radar for Minardi, and how difficult a decision was it to sell up?
Red Bull was the thirty-ninth and forty-first buyer. We used to joke at the number of interested parties there were in the five years I’d owned the team, and Red Bull came in and had a little nibble before deciding to walk away.
And then when Eddie Irvine started dealing with a group of Russian investors to buy the team, they started getting more interested again when the Russians were doing due diligence on us. So they called us, and we brokered a deal within a day.
I have to say that Dietrich Mateschitz and Dany Behar [the current head of Group Lotus], who brokered the deal on Dietrich’s behalf, were very honourable. I perhaps don’t agree with everything they did – in terms of staffing, for example – but they did honour all of the agreements and they paid out those they got rid of rather well.
They kept the team in Faenza, which was one of my prerequisites as I wanted to make sure that everyone would be looked after. They got rid of Gian Carlo rather quickly, and the one person I was upset that they moved out very soon after was my financial director. They were going to make changes as the new owners, and there was nothing anyone else could do about it.
|The end of an era: Paul Stoddart sold the team to the Red Bull group, bringing down the curtain on the team’s 21-year ‘David vs Goliath’ foray into the sport. The team never won a race, claimed a pole position or a podium, and it averaged just 1.8 points per season. The adventure had finally ended for Paul and Gian Carlo…|
Do you miss the F1 pitwall?
Oh yes. Enormously. I miss everything about it, but selling up was the right thing to do at the time. Arguably, I could have hung on for a lot longer – I probably would have made a lot more money if I’d done so – but at the time, it was the right thing to do.
The team would go on to take a famous win at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix. What were your thoughts and feelings on that day?
It was still a Minardi win, even though the team was called Toro Rosso. So many commentators talked about it on the day as being ‘Minardi’, and equally as many journalists wrote of it as being ‘Minardi’. In fairness to Red Bull who had honoured their word about much of the structure of the team the same, it was still carrying the Minardi spirit.
Back then, three-quarters of the team was made of up Minardi staff, and even today, close to half the workforce is ex-Minardi. The team still runs out of the same dilapidated factory at Faenza, and the soul of that team is still Minardi.
Obviously there have been plenty of changes and improvements – budget and chassis design are two immediate examples – but at the end of the day, to many of us (and particularly to me) it will always be Minardi.
I’ve done plenty of interviews and commentary over the subsequent years, and I’ll still slip up and call it Minardi when I should be calling it Toro Rosso. Those will be pointed out to me later on, and I’ll just smile due to the fact that those slips were not really accidental…
I remember an earlier interview where you’d remarked that you would only ever consider a return to F1 on the back of a regime change in the sport? Now that Max has gone and Jean Todt is in charge, how do you view the governance of the sport under Todt’s leadership?
I had a few run-ins with Todt over the years, but I have to say that he’s doing a damn good job as FIA President. There have been a few things that have tested his presidency – certainly in the early stages – but he’s managed to get a lot of the politics out of the sport, and achieve many of the things he set out to do. Certainly some of his initiatives are fantastic, and I’d include having a former driver on the stewards’ panel as being one of them.
Under Todt’s leadership, hopefully we can start concentrating on the sport instead of the politics. That being said, there’s a new Concorde Agreement to renegotiate, and there have been some U-turns, such as those on the engine rules and the Bahrain Grand Prix. There have been a few things brewing, but I hope he’ll navigate his way through it.
The Minardi name cropped up in 2007 on the other side of the Atlantic in Champ Car racing. How did this come about, and what did the success of the team mean to you?
We finished runner-up in the championship, Robert [Doornbos] won two races and we achieved countless other podiums. It was our most successful year of racing, and it was great from so many aspects.
Unfortunately, IndyCar and Champ Car were to undergo a merger at the end of the year, and it just wasn’t for me to jump into an oval-racing series – which was never my cup of tea – where we could be uncompetitive. So I handed the team back to co-owner Keith Wiggins, and he’s still there heading up what is now known as the HVM operation.
|Minardi Team USA: The Minardi name found itself Stateside in 2007, when Paul bought into the CTE/HVM Champ Car operation, bringing Robert Doornbos along with him. The Dutchman instantly impressed, taking ‘Rookie Of The Year’ honours and two classy wins at Mont Tremblant and San Jose. Paul’s two-seater programme was also gaining popularity, and one of his high-profile guests was actor and fellow team owner Paul Newman.|
You were also taking your two-seater programme out to a new audience as well…
The year was not only successful on account of Minardi Team USA’s results on the track, but also because we were able to bring our two-seaters along with us. We were able to run some pretty high-paying passengers, which was very gratifying. Formula 1 was still very much part of me, and this was a great way to keep that buzz going.
That year gave me my most favourite moment ever since we developed the two-seater product, which was at Canada when we had Mario Andretti driving the car. We were working on a very tight schedule with out guests before the next session, and up came Paul Newman on his moped, and we got talking.
And just before he headed off, I jokingly said to him that he should give it a go, and his response was ‘Could I?’
It was one of those moments where you start asking yourself what one earth you said that for, but there was simply no way I was going to turn down that opportunity. But I also knew that I would have to buy out one of our passengers – who’d probably parted with upwards of $10,000 for the privilege of being a passenger in our two-seater – in order to slot Paul into the schedule.
The usual process is that all of our passengers had to have a full medical beforehand to make sure they could cope with the stresses of being subjected to the two-seater, but I agreed with the Champ Car doctor that, at Paul’s age (and given the timeframe), it wasn’t worth worrying about!
It was, and remains, one of the most special moments I’ve ever had. Paul loved it, and joked afterwards that he had to get himself one of these cars so he could drive Mario around!
How is the Paul Stoddart of today?
Happy, relaxed, and enjoying the aircraft side of things. I’m missing the racing side of things more than I would care to admit, but I get my buzz with our two-seater programme and with the opportunity of coming to the Australian Grand Prix every year.
What are your thoughts on the 2011 Formula 1 season? We’ve got three smaller entries on the grid – how are you comparing their performance relative to what Minardi was able to achieve?
Those three teams came in – and I will admit to being a little bit biased here – and if you take Team Lotus boss Tony Fernandes, for example, he’s gone about it the right way by hiring a bunch of very talented people to drive the project. He’s putting his money where his mouth is, but even with the talent of [technical boss] Mike Gascoyne, that car is still not really competitive, and not really in any danger of getting there any time soon.
This is a team that’s got a talented crew, a Renault engine, a Red Bull Racing rear end, a budget close to four times what we had, and still not looking like they’re going to break out of the bottom-three teams any time soon.
In the case of Virgin Racing, they’ve been very middle of the road, and in the case of HRT, it’s been a real struggle. A lot of people are saying that HRT shouldn’t be there at all, but they make up the numbers and unfortunately someone has to come last. At the moment, it’s HRT.
I have to smile when I look at the 107% rule being back in the game, and when I look at the lap speeds of HRT, I smile because even they are operating on a bugger budget than what Minardi did. It really makes me feel good to know just what an outstanding job Minardi did, and not enough people realise that. I’m really quite happy with what the team achieved, and extremely proud that I got to be a part of it.