Ecclestone drives the safety car to rescue Minardi

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The Independent Online

A day that began with animosity over remarks he had made at the previous day's press conference ended with smiles for the beleaguered Minardi team owner Paul Stoddart in Montreal yesterday.

Things picked up when his cars posted their best performance of the season in qualifying 15th and 18th for the Canadian Grand Prix, and Stoddart took quiet delight when one of rival Ron Dennis's McLarens spun and will now have to start behind his cars. But the day really improved when powerbroker Bernie Ecclestone stepped in with a £2.3m lifeline that enabled his impecunious team to stay afloat for the rest of the season.

Only 24 hours earlier the 46-year-old Australian had faced off Dennis, Frank Williams and Eddie Jordan in one of the worst-tempered press conferences in recent Formula One history, alleging that Dennis and Williams had failed to honour their commitment to form a "fighting fund" to support the independent teams earlier in the season. Then he heard Ecclestone tell reporters that he, Stoddart, was an enthusiast who no longer had a place in a sport where manufacturers were investing multiple millions.

While Stoddart decided that his only recourse was to play hardball and spill the beans to the rest of the world, his rivals accused him, to use Tour de France vernacular, of "spitting in the soup".

Ironically, it had been Dennis' idea back on 15 January to form the "fighting fund" to help Minardi and Jordan. Dennis himself had come up through the ranks the hard way and only succeeded at his fourth attempt. Stoddart, however, claimed that nothing had been forthcoming since then.

Williams refused to be drawn into what he described as "a set-up" (the conference had been organised by the FIA, the governing body), but Dennis and Jordan could not prevent themselves getting sucked in as the debate grew more acrimonious. Watched by the media and luminaries such as Ecclestone and Jaguar chief Tony Purnell, Stoddart said that he had withdrawn his agreement to proposed changes in the 2003 and 2004 regulations, in the absence of any "fighting fund" revenue.

Since that action removed the unanimity necessary to effect the changes, such as keeping traction control, it was as popular with his fellow principals as a rattlesnake in a lucky dip. Stoddart 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 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 incensed by Stoddart's accusations, said that the fund had been conditional on a situation that had not 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 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 handout and I climbed from a humble background to being responsible for a competitive team."

The dramatic emergence of the BMW Williams duo to snatch the front row of the grid for Michelin was the feature of qualifying, as the poor weather that had characterised most of the weekend finally abated. That, and the failure of the Ferraris as Renault and Jaguar also starred, refocused attention on the sporting side just when it was most needed.

But it was after the engines had stopped that Ecclestone stepped in to make Stoddart's day. "The deal has been done on a handshake and with Bernie, that's good enough for me," a clearly delighted Stoddart said. "He suggested the idea this morning, and the deal was worked out very quickly. This is great news for Minardi. Now I hope we can put everything that has happened behind us, because it need not have happened."

Stoddart had been threatening to make further disclosures about his rivals, but Ecclestone's intervention neatly nipped that in the bud. But Stoddart says that he doesn't intend to reverse his decision to withdraw support for the technical changes. "There has been no help from certain team owners so why should I change my stance?" he said. "They have not put the money in, Bernie has, so why should I change what was part of a package of agreement that wasn't honoured by certain team principals?"

It is likely, however, that Ecclestone will persuade him that he needs to go along to get along. Ecclestone himself summarised his own actions and the situation with his customary succinctness when he said: "It's time to go racing."