The Minardi family ran the the oldest Fiat dealership in Italy, from 1927 to 1999. In 1947, Giovanni Minardi built his own single-seater racing car and Giancarlo, following his father, was a regular race-goer from when he was a toddler. Unfortunately for the family, its patriach died young, leaving the family businesses to be run by his widow Elena. They were gradually taken over when her three sons were old enough: Giuseppe took over the Fiat dealership; Nando ran the trucking operation and Giancarlo took on the family’s racing team.
Having raced himself in the late 1960s in modified Fiat 500s, Giancarlo – whose boyhood idol was the late Jim Clark – established Scuderia del Passatore in 1972, entering Formula 2 with customer cars.
The team has had good successes and, on several occasions, has occupied prestigious positions, first among the unofficial teams. It subsequently worked with Ferrari for a program of young Italian drivers, participating with Giancarlo Martini in two rounds of Formula 1 non-championship with Ferrari 312T: Brands Hatch and Silverstone. At Brands Hatch, during the warm-up lap, Martini had an accident, while finished 11th at Silverstone as first of private drivers.
In 1977, Minardi bought a Martini-Renault for Martini, while running Ferrari Dino engines in its F2 Ralt chassis’, which were driven by Leoni and Gianfranco Brancatelli . The team won its first victory at Misano.
Giancarlo decided to name his team eponymously in 1980 after partnering with motorsport patron Piero Mancini and former Ferrari engineer Giacomo Caliri, who was hired to design an F2 chassis at his FLY Studio in Modena.
The team ran regularly in Formula 2, and in 1985 Minardi took the plunge and joined Formula 1 with a single-car entry, expanding to a two-car team the following year. The cars were regularly at the back of the pack and rarely finished a race, but the team soldiered on and in 1988 a miracle occurred: it scored its first championship point.
Highlights like those were few and far between in what was ultimately a 21-year chapter for the underfunded privateer Italian team competing against outfits with greater wealth and manufacturer support.
It was the ultimate ‘David vs Goliath’ battle, but the team survived through boom and bust while many of its more fancied rivals fell by the wayside. The team claimed one front-row start and led just a single outright lap in its history, but it remained a cheery, dedicated presence in the paddock until Minardi ultimately made the decision to sell his beloved team to Australian airline magnate Paul Stoddart at the end of the 2000 season.
Minardi remained with the organisation he founded, finding sponsorship and looking for young drivers but in 2005 Stoddart sold the team to Red Bull and a few months later Minardi left the renamed Scuderia Toro Rosso.
As the son of someone heavily involved in motor racing and motoring in general, cars obviously run deep in the Minardi family’s blood. Did you always harbour ambitions of working in this area?
Yes, I was born in the midst of the manufacturer-based competitions of the 1950s. At first, I wanted to be a racing driver, but I soon realized that was not the way to go. Then, at the urging of friends, I went behind the desk, to run the family racing team.
Your first jobs – aside from working in the family businesses – were in running a successful truck dealership before you started competing in motorsport hillclimbs in 1968. What were your first motorsport experiences like?
Initially, it was purely a hobby; I worked on the racing project from 6:00 pm to midnight in a separate department of the family’s Fiat dealership. From 1979 onwards, it became my primary job.
Your first taste of team management came in Formula Italia, where you ran the Scuderia del Passatore team to the 1973 crown with Giancarlo Martini at the wheel. How did team management compare with driving, and did you know at this point that this was what you wanted to pursue in a career?
While it was initially a hobby, we still took our approach seriously and ran a very professional, dedicated operation in Formula Italia. The results were seen on the track; with Martini in 1973 and Lamberto Leoni in 1974, we won lots of races and were the team to beat. Until 1978, I had never thought of becoming manufacturer and passing then to professionalism.
The team changed its name to Scuderia Everest, and by 1980 you were competing in Formula 2 under the ‘Minardi’ name, peaking with a win at Misano in 1981 with Michele Alboreto. How important was this success for you and the team?
The name change to Scuderia Everest was simply due to Everest being a title sponsor. In 1979, our team became a ‘limited’ company, and so it thus became the Minardi team and constructor.
The victory and also other strong finishes were important for the growth of the team. I want to emphasize that Minardi Team’s growth was step-by-step.
You made the decision to jump into Formula 1 for the 1985 season, employing Giacomo Caliri to design the M185 chassis and obtaining Motori Moderni turbo engines. Your debut season with a single car was difficult, and you saw the chequered flag just twice in 1985. Looking back, can you describe your emotions and the relative infancy of the F1 team in the Rio pit lane at the start of the season?
Caliri was an engineer and the chief designer for the Minardi team until 1988. Obviously the 1985 was not an easy debut season, partly because we debuted with the experience of Formula 2 but without the experience of the (then) current great moment of F1 technology: turbo engines.
Certainly, on April 5, 1985 at 9:00 am, when the M185 has entered the track for the first time, marked the realisation of a dream that had gradually matured in our Formula 2 days.
We were now officially in Formula 1!
Your driver that year was Pierluigi Martini, who drove several stints for the team and was your longest-serving and most successful driver during the team’s history. What was your relationship like with ‘Piero’, both then, in later years and even today?
Piero started 103 races for the team – almost one-third of the team’s entire history – and is easily the team’s longest-serving driver. Undoubtedly he, both because he grew up and made his debut with Minardi, is obviously the driver to whom I am more connected, even for relationships that bound me to his (late) uncle, Giancarlo Martini, and the whole Martini family.
Occasionally we still meet, and remember our many adventures together.
You took on another talented driver in 1986 in the form of Alessandro Nannini, who you had previously run in Formula 2. Sandro would go on to become the first ex-Minardi driver to win a Formula 1 race, and this was a feat achieved later by Giancarlo Fisichella, Fernando Alonso, Jarno Trulli and Mark Webber. You have enjoyed quite the reputation as a talent spotter – who do you think was your biggest ‘find’ over the 21 years you were involved in the F1 team?
Undoubtedly the drivers you’ve listed are those who have earned rightful places in Formula 1 history, but one thing is certain, for me personally I have the same amount of space in my heart for all 37 drivers who have helped the Minardi team over its 21-year stint in F1.
After a difficult 1985, ‘Piero’ returned to Formula 3000 and rejoined the team in 1988 at Detroit, where he picked up Minardi’s first ever championship point in F1. What was that day like for you and the team?
Sometimes a team owner has to make some painful decisions to safeguard the growth of the team, and this was the case at the end of the 1985 season.
I promised Piero that he would be back in the team at the first opportunity, subject to how he performed after stepping back to Formula 3000 (he finished third overall in the International F3000 standings in 1986).
He returned to the team at Detroit and showed the respect and trust he placed in me, leading the way to give the team its first points’ finish when he crossed the line in sixth place.
Obviously, the celebrations for us that night were like we had won a round of the F1 World Championship!
A partnership with Pirelli started to bear fruit in the latter half of 1989. Martini and Pérez-Sala achieved the team’s first double-points finish at Silverstone, Piero led a lap of Portugal and was regularly qualifying at the front in the last few races. How satisfying was this period for you and the team?
The 1989 season was a great year for us, both for the points earned and the results obtained. The culmination of the work done by Pirelli – who had partnered with Minardi to re-enter Formula 1 – benefited the growth of our team and built Pirelli’s profile as a tyre manufacturer.
You secured a landmark deal for the use of customer Ferrari engines for the 1991 season, and the team went on to achieve its best season, finishing seventh in the standings with Martini picking up a pair of fourth places. What were the negotiations like with Ferrari and how do you look back on this chapter in the team’s history?
The 1991 season was undoubtedly Minardi’s best year in its history. While the technical partnership with Minardi allowed us to achieve seventh place in the Constructors’ Championship standings (in an era when there were typically at least 15 teams), it penalised us greatly on the financial front. What was meant to be a three-year contract with Ferrari had to come to an end after just a single season.
I still look back at this year with great satisfaction. On some occasions we were really competitive, and achieved the best results in the team’s history.
By 1993, the team was short of funding and in serious trouble, and you merged with the Scuderia Italia operation to keep going in 1994. This was the first time that you had sold part of your controlling stake in the outfit. How much of a responsibility did you feel for the wellbeing of the entire team during these times?
The passage and arrival of new partners, ultimately peaking with a merger with Scuderia Italia, was a necessary step to balance and recover from the effects of the heavy investments made in 1991. The partnership lasted just two seasons (1994-1995), but it enriched the team and helped me grow into a more professional team owner.
The loss of a Mugen-Honda engine deal hurt the team’s prospects, and you had to sell a bigger share of the team to Flavio Briatore. How much involvement did he have in the day-to-day running of the team when he was looking after Benetton as well?
Briatore joined the team to take over Scuderia Italia’s shareholding; it was a necessary move which ultimately strengthened our team. I had a good working relationship with Flavio throughout the period of his being a shareholder. Even though he was engaged with overseeing the Benetton team [where he was Team Principal], he left the day-to-day running of the Minardi team to me and we spoke at least daily over the phone.
Contrary to the rumours [it is claimed Briatore bought into Minardi to acquire the Mugen engines for Benetton], no agreement was ever concluded with Mugen, although we were well advanced with the negotiations and had started to design concepts of the next car to accommodate the Japanese engine.
You then paired up with the late Gabriele Rumi and shared controlling management of the team in the late 1990s, overseeing a gradual improvement in the team’s competitiveness. What was your relationship like with Gabriele?
Gabriele took over Flavio’s shareholding. While he was by and large an industrialist and former team owner [he owned the Fondmetal wheel group and F1 team of the same name, which ran from 1991-1992], his presence brought a new vitality and synergy to our team.
I had a great relationship with him, but it was unfortunately cut too short by his terminal illness. Maybe with more luck and time we would have achieved our serious objectives.
A continuing lack of sponsorship and technical support made it no doubt difficult to be a ‘David among the Goliaths’ when you had Ferrari’s headquarters just up the road from Faenza and a host of other well-backed teams in competition with you. In spite of this, you have worked alongside some talented designers and technical figures, such as Gustav Brunner, Aldo Costa and Gabriele Tredozi, who have overseen some innovative designs on Minardi cars that other teams later adopted. Are you proud of any particular accomplishment when you consider the lack of a budget your team had?
Indeed, despite having to fight big giants of motoring, I am honored to have contributed in addition to our more publicized achievements, also to debut many young drivers. Additionally to have grown engineers, technicians, designers and mechanics, many of whom, while belonging to a small team, have been able to create innovative projects and in many cases, become important players in top teams.
Since dreaming is cheap, sometimes I still find myself thinking about how strong Minardi would be today if I could still put together all these elements.
During the 2000 season, the team achieved its 250th Grand Prix. You had managed to survive while many other teams had collapsed due to a lack of funding, results or bad management. Did your longevity give you satisfaction, or a cause for concern?
It was preferred among the media to emphasize, through Minardi’s history, its lack of finances. That very much occurred at the expense of acknowledging the growth and evolution of our technical team.
The media ignored the good work being done, and despite many claims that we were on the brink of catastrophe, we – thank God! – remained in F1 for 21 years, achieving far more than a number of (perhaps) less-talked-about teams.
History will now tell us that you sold the team to Paul Stoddart at the end of the 2000 season. He seemed very aware of trying to keep the traditional fighting spirit of Minardi alive: keeping its location and staff base intact, retaining your services as the team’s Managing Director and most importantly, keeping the use of the Minardi name. What were your emotions in having to let go of the reins?
I have to give credit to Paul for immersing himself fully in the Minardi mentality after he bought the team. Even though he and I had two different mindsets and approaches, we successfully carried the team from 2001 to 2005 in the midst of many difficulties. Although he became Team Principal after I sold the outfit to him, I honestly never felt excluded from the management of the team.
Mr Stoddart earned criticism at times for making waves as the sport’s ‘shop steward’. While he was trying to fight for the team’s survival and a better share of the TV revenue, his behaviour very much differed from yours when you were in charge of the team. Was his behaviour appropriate in the circumstances, or what would you have done differently?
Living in England, Paul probably had no better way to communicate more directly with Bernie Ecclestone and with other Team Principals. On occasions, he tried heavily to defend the survival of the small teams like Minardi.
By 2005, remember, there were eight manufacturer-allied teams and just two small outfits (Jordan and Minardi). Perhaps if things had turned out differently, fewer manufacturers would have left Formula 1 and maybe we would see different teams on the grid to what we see today?
The proof of Paul’s efforts came in 2006-7, when FIA President Max Mosley brought in a number of changes to the sporting regulations that were part of a suite of changes proposed to help the smaller teams.
While the team was able to survive under Mr Stoddart’s ownership for the next five years, the results didn’t improve and he accepted an offer to sell the team to Red Bull in 2005, where it was renamed Scuderia Toro Rosso for the 2006 season. You took the opportunity to leave the team at that point. What were the circumstances of your departure, and your opinions of the sale of your old team?
It became increasingly obvious that the team was undoubtedly facing difficult years with the decline of high-value sponsors, while we also battled with exorbitant costs of engines and tyres to participate. Therefore, the aim of survival was already an achievement in itself.
Probably, it was inevitable for the survival of the team and to preserve the jobs of the 130 people employed at that time, to sell the team to Red Bull. The arrival of the new management, who brought a very different way of working and thinking, made me realize that it was time to leave Formula 1.
The team’s competitiveness improved under its new owners and Sebastian Vettel took the outfit’s first win in 2008 at Monza. What were your emotions on that day and how do you look upon the team almost ten years after its sale?
As a fan of Formula 1 and as the founder of the Minardi Team, I had a fantastic day in 2008 when Vettel scored his first victory at Monza in 2008.
The emotions for me were even bigger when, at the time of this exciting success, many people were kind enough to remind me that the success on that Sunday was born from the origins of the Minardi team’s managers, engineers and mechanics who were still part of Scuderia Toro Rosso under its new ownership.
You now split your time between running junior teams under the Minardi name. You are an avid fan of Davide Rigon, and believe him to be your next big find. What are your hopes for him?
Today I work with the ACI [Italy’s motorsport governing body] and Scuola Federale CSAI [Italy’s motorsport “university”] to provide my expertise and experience with the intention and hope – even without having an F1 team of my own – to get an Italian driver back on the Formula 1 grid.
As for Davide Rigon, who was the last driver to have experienced a Minardi F1 car at Vallelunga in 2005, he is still very young. I am honored that, with the help of my son Giovanni, he is part of the Ferrari family as a GT driver while also working with the Scuderia’s Formula 1 projects in both the simulator and in other technical areas of the team.
As a keen follower of Formula 1, what is your opinion on the current state of the sport and what more needs to be done to improve it?
Formula 1 is currently going through a very difficult period. This is probably because, compared to other periods in its history, it has reacted too slowly to the seachange happening in the rest of the world.
Today you have many Team Principals who (1) are not owners of the teams they represent and (2) lack experience in running teams all the way from the lower formulae up to F1. They have conflicting interests, and so cannot have a proper dialogue to peacefully collaborate to revitalise Formula 1.
Formula 1 is the pinnacle leader in technology and it should be the ultimate expression of automotive development. That being said, it must also balance this in its regulations to ensure costs are sensibly contained and that all small teams can survive decorously.
Images via Corbis Images, Telesport, XPB Images
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