After the protests, Minardi's leading man drives home his point for the minnows

The Interview - Paul Stoddart: The also-rans of F1 have a pugnacious and persuasive principal. Nick Townsend meets an Aussie not afraid to ruffle powerful feathers
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It is a slightly surreal spectacle, that of Sports Minister Richard Caborn in a grand prix driver's suit clambering into a Formula One car behind Justin Wilson. For some reason the words Dastardly and Muttley come to mind as the pair sit there in a two-seater while the mechanics prepare the vehicle for action. Speaking of that much-loved TV cartoon, Wacky Races, there may not be a Penelope around, but there's certainly a Paul Pitstop.

Paul Stoddart, the Aussie owner of European Minardi, the F1 team who have brought their car to London's Hyde Park to promote the benefits of the two-seater, could be just one of his mechanics as, armed with his "lollipop", he raises it to allow the car to set off with a protesting crackle of its cylinders and an accompanying squeal of tyres down North Carriage Drive. After just a couple of hundred yards the car has to make a tight, controlled spin and return to the gathering crowd of tourists and petrolheads.

The publicity stunt proceeds smoothly, which is something of a surprise for the more cynically minded, who had contended that Minardi would have trouble finishing first in a one-car event. You do wonder what possesses an otherwise successful businessman to acquire an F1 outfit synonymous with failure, as Stoddart did over two years ago. After all, "nul points" are words which sit most comfortably with the name.

Stoddart doesn't view it that way, as he sits on one of the Minardi equipment cases, cigarette dangling. It is an act not recommended near fuel tanks, but Stoddart's the boss and, anyway, he is evidently not the kind of character with whom anyone would care to dispute the matter.

Just ask the McLaren-Mercedes principal, Ron Dennis, whose relationship in recent months with Stoddart has been, shall we say, strained. This followed a meeting in January involving the F1 bosses. With the loss of Arrows and Prost, there was concern that, should Minardi and maybe even Jordan fall and the number of teams dip below 10, the whole sport would be jeopardised. "Everyone else bar Sauber, Jordan and ourselves get engines free from manufacturers," Stoddart said. "For us, it's like trying to compete with Frank Bruno with our hands and legs tied behind our back."

A package of measures was agreed, apparently including a "fighting fund" of $8m to be established for the two poorest teams, as well as a guarantee of cheaper engines for them. "But for five months nothing actually happened," Stoddart said, "so unfor-tunately in Canada [before the Air Canada GP] on Friday the 13th last month, I had to say, 'Guys, it's time to do something about this. We've lost Prost, we've lost Arrows, we don't want to be losing Minardi and Jordan'." He threatened to withdraw his support for rule changes for 2004, which needed unanimous approval from the 10 teams but would be most advantageous to the big players. In response, Dennis told Stoddart that F1 is "not a soup kitchen" and it was the poor teams' own responsibility to build themselves up to competitiveness.

The heat was taken out of that situation when it was suddenly announced that F1's overlord, Bernie Ecclestone, had bought a "significant" stake in Minardi. Yet the row has simmered quietly, and came to the boil again at last weekend's French Grand Prix, where Stoddart, still angered by the lack of financial support, said that, in protest, he planned to run his cars without electronic drivers' aids at this Sunday's Foster's British Grand Prix, which could have led to mass disqualification of his rivals. When we spoke on Friday Stoddart had just relented, having been guaranteed, reportedly, £5m by the other teams.

"Ron and I have had a few issues over the years," he said. "I felt that he was the instigator and author of the problems we've been having; he felt I'd been a bit too personal. We do have different opinions, but that's probably healthy. But we could do without public rows, and we've put all that behind us now."

Nevertheless, the sequence of events demonstrates his refusal to acquiesce to his more powerful brethren. The bearded, gimlet-eyed son of Melbourne has ruffled more feathers than Bernard Matthews. That quality may be what Ecclestone admires in him. The tsar of F1 surely cannot have bailed out Minardi with significant expectations of on-track success.

Still, it does beg the question: just how did he persuade Ecclestone to become Minardi's saviour? "I didn't, if you want the honest answer. He just came up and said, 'Let's talk about doing a deal'. It was as simple as that. With Bernie, it usually is. Bernie won't thank me for saying this, but he's actually quite a kind guy. He's also spent a quarter of century building this sport up and he wants to see it remain healthy. But Bernie works in mysterious ways, and yes, he can be a bit mischievous. Back in Canada, at one stage he was telling the world that 'Minardi had got nowhere to go and they don't belong in F1', even though by then we'd actually done the deal!"

But why no intervention in the case of Arrows and Prost? Not for the first time in his life, it's a case of Ecclestone and the number 10. "Arrows were just too far gone," said Stoddart. "They would have needed a miracle to survive. There were reasons about Prost, too. But the fact is that 10 is a magic number. It goes right to the heart of F1. If we'd have been team number 11, I'm not so sure Bernie would have invested. Dropping below 10 would have seriously caused knock-on effects to the whole sport."

Although Ecclestone's "multi-million- pound investment" is, according to Stoddart, "enough to facilitate our survival", he added: "Bernie's not in the charity business, let's be clear on that. Obviously, I would hope he makes money on his investment, and given Bernie's track record he wouldn't do something like this without a belief that he will. That's fine by me, because when the chips were down, Bernie was there."

Stoddart is now seeking those "one or two large sponsors which will give us that extra 20 mil, to take us up to the $50 million that would allow us to do things other teams do and compete towards the midfield on a regular basis. We're realistic enough to know that we're not going to be up there winning races, because the teams that do have 300- or 400-million-dollar budgets. But if we can perhaps occasionally sneak a point here, a good finish there, a provisional pole [what Jos Verstappen, his No 1 driver, achieved last weekend at Magny-Cours], I'm satisfied."

Stoddart, 46, who is married to Sue, and has one son, 23-year-old Stephen, from a previous relationship, raced saloon cars back in Australia, but that soon became secondary to his business involvements, firstly in the motor industry, then in aviation (he runs the European Aviation Group of companies from his Ledbury, Herefordshire, base). However, motor racing was an interest that resurfaced in 1996. "Since a kid I had always been interested in F1 and I started racing F1 cars at club level," he said. That activity ended when, in attempting to break the track record at Donington in a Tyrrell, he lost it at the hairpin and went into the tyre barrier at 154mph.

"I was severely bruised and the car caught fire, which didn't help. Fortunately I got out OK. These days, I confine myself to two-seater shows. We've raised way over a million in charity, auctioning these rides."

I put it to him that charity should begin at home; a businessman of his stature should have been capable of funding Minardi from his own pocket. He shook his head. "I could have put in more, but September 11 hit both my businesses, aviation and F1, very hard. It's not easy but we're still here, although we're F1's minnows. But we have our days. The two points we scored when [the Australian driver] Mark Webber finished fifth in Melbourne, my home city, last year is a day I'll never forget."

Grand Prix is akin to football's Premier League. Only four teams in F1 have an authentic chance of the drivers' and constructors' titles: Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and Renault. "Beyond that, the rest are competing for positions four to eight, then there's us bringing up the rear," said Stoddart. "Last year we finished the season ninth out of 11. I'd like to see us at the six, seven, eight mark. But I do take pride in the fact that this year we have found another superstar driver of the future, with Justin [Wilson]. That's three in a row now, following Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso, who everybody says is the next Michael Schumacher. Justin is rookie of the year now, no doubt."

Stoddart considered the question: "Will Minardi ever win a GP?" for barely a second: "Highly unlikely in its present format. But you must never say never. In Brazil this year, Jos left the pits in a race-winning position. It didn't happen, of course. But it could come; we could get a podium, and that would be the proudest day of my life."

Until that day, Stoddart will live in hope. His actions off the circuit have warned all his rivals that no one should underestimate this pluckiest of the wacky racers.

Biography: Paul Stoddart

Current position: president and chief executive, Minardi.

A life's work: left school aged 14. Qualified as automotive engineer in 1973. Between 1974 and 1986 owned and operated successful aviation/ motor trade companies in Australia. Moved to the UK in 1986, owning and operating several vehicle franchises. In 1989 formed European Aviation Group, which now employs 650 people, operating 25 jet aircraft. From 1996 to 2001 created a motorsport division (European Formula Racing Ltd), incorporating an F1 facility, F3000 team, F1 two-seater programme, engine development and, from January 2001, the Minardi F1 team.