Button all smiles while Stoddart fumes at Dennis
Sunday 15 June 2003
If Jenson Button felt any hangover from his massive shunt in Monaco a fortnight ago, it didn't show when he stepped back aboard his BAR Honda in Montreal this weekend. A top-five time in Saturday morning's wet practice session underlined that the accident had done nothing to blunt his growing challenge.
"Apart from some small aches in my back yesterday, which I shouldn't really mention," he smiled, "I've had absolutely no problems at all. It was the biggest shunt of my career, but it's left no psychological effects. I wanted to get back into the car in Monaco, and I had no problem doing that here."
The wet conditions revealed that Bridgestone's runners had a marked advantage over Michelin's, which meant that the Ferraris of Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher were the clear class of the field, and that Sauber, BAR and Jordan - and even Minardi - were also well in the hunt until the last laps on Saturday morning, when the drying track began once again to help Michelin men Fernando Alonso and Ralf Schumacher to look respectable.
Justin Wilson, who graduated from his manager Jonathan Palmer's Formula Palmer Audi series and went on to become the only Briton to win the Formula 3000 championship, had his best outing in a Formula One car, running as high as 10th at one stage and finishing 14th. But while this was an encouraging chance for the rookie to demonstrate his true ability, it was a poignant moment for the Minardi team owner, Paul Stoddart.
The previous day the 46-year-old Australian had been accused, to use Tour de France vernacular, of "spitting in the soup" when he got into a very public spat with the McLaren chief Ron Dennis and Eddie Jordan during an FIA press conference. Their disagreement has been simmering since Dennis, in a genuine attempt to help Minardi and Jordan, had suggested the bigger teams form a "fighting fund" to provide sufficient funding to see each through to the end of 2003.
Initially only Stoddart appeared at the conference, and momentarily it seemed that other others had decided to boycott it. When they finally arrived late it became clear to Stoddart that his so-called partners in the F1 show had held a team-principals meeting without him.
In one of the most bad-tempered conferences in recent memory, Sir Frank Williams made it patently obvious, as did his fellows, that he felt he had been set up by the governing body. But where Dennis and Jordan allowed themselves to get sucked into making comments they might subsequently have wished they had not made, Williams said: "I refuse to talk about business matters that pertain to Williams in a public forum. I should also add that I resent being set up. This should be a sporting format... I just prefer to discuss Formula One matters in Formula One team meetings."
Watched by the F1 media and luminaries such as Bernie Ecclestone and the Jaguar chief Tony Purnell, Stoddart said that he had withdrawn his agreement to proposed changes in the 2003 and 2004 regulations, following the absence of any fighting-fund revenue. Since that removed the unanimity necessary to effect the changes, it went down like a lead balloon with his fellow team principals.
Stoddart, a passionate man and the standard-bearer for the underdog, claimed that Dennis and Williams, who had agreed to contribute to the fund, had since failed to honour their commitments. He said: "Talk is cheap. Nothing is being done. I am totally disillusioned with several of the people sitting around me. We saw Prost go and we saw Arrows go. You will see at some point in time if things don't change, Minardi will go. Who's next? Jordan?"
Dennis, equally passionate and clearly very angry about Stoddart's accusations, said that the fighting fund had been conditional on a situation that had not since materialised. "This is a tough, competitive sport and if you cannot take the heat, get out of the bloody kitchen," he said. "I understand Paul's position but he is damaging Formula One by his actions and I love Formula One. We do not have a soup kitchen. There have been huge brands come and go in Formula One, Brabham, Lotus and many more. It's an inevitable ebbing and flowing. No one gave me a hand-out and I climbed from a humble background to being responsible for a competitive team."
The disagreement cast a shadow over what is usually an enjoyable Grand Prix weekend in a vibrant city that fully embraces the sport, and as the teams prepared for final qualifying Stoddart promised to release fresh evidence that, he said, "would prove that most of the people in that meeting yesterday were not telling the truth."
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