Minardi swim with the sharks

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The Independent Online

There is just no pleasing some people. At Melbourne's international airport the day after the Australian Grand Prix, when the faces of local heroes Paul Stoddart and Mark Webber were splashed all over the front pages of the local newspapers, two fans discussed the race.

First Australian: "Mate, what's all the fuss about? Schumacher won the bloody race, didn't he?" Second Australian: "Won it fair dinkum. That other bloke was nowhere. Fifth place? He was a bloody mile behind!"

The rest was unprintable, but you get the message. Each attired in polo shirts that proclaimed them to be Michael Schumacher, they had rather missed the point. Webber, driving in his first grand prix, might reasonably have been expected to finish 15th in a field of 22. When you are KL Minardi, and life is all about the struggle to survive in the piranha club that is Formula One, fifth place is like a win and a moonshot landing all in one.

"We set out with clear goals," Stoddart, the Melbourne-born team owner, said. "First we had to survive, and we did that. Then we have to build ourselves into a top-10 team. Well, we achieved all our year's aspirations in the first race. Everything from here is a bonus."

He is an unusual fellow, not everyone's cup of tea in a world that feeds on ego and profile, but a doer whose airline business has lasted longer than Niki Lauda's. A man who calls a spade a bloody shovel; to some, a rich anorak who bought himself a nice little plaything, to others the last little big man in a sport that chomps such figures as a preliminary to breakfast.

Stoddart went for the jugular when he learned of plans to resuscitate Prost's grand prix team, and his straight talking is rare in the bland sound-bite realm of F1. It may yet prove dangerous, but there is something admirable in speeches from the heart.

The performance of the Aussie battlers in the race sent pundits into overdrive. Of course luck helped, but in racing you make your own. Eight leading runners failed to make the first corner, but Webber did. He was not that far off Eddie Irvine's fourth-placed Jaguar. And though his tyres were finished before the end, he kept his cool. It was a nice job, done with panache and confidence, and it was the vastly more experienced Mika Salo who crumbled and spun just when he was poised to overtake Webber. Figure out what either Jaguar or Salo's Toyota team spend, and you would have Stoddart salivating at the thought of a half.

Webber is more Alain Prost than Alan Jones, Australia's last great champion. Smooth, suave and very presentable. A sponsor's dream. "Every time I came down the pit straight I could see the crowd in the grandstand rise," he reported. "But there was no chequered flag and I wasn't sure if the race was over. I'm really proud of the team and the fantastic support we have received from the fans."

It is not often in Formula One that David hefts a sizeable rock in Goliath's face – the cost of slings is way too high – but even if KL Minardi never do it again this year it was worth being there to see it happen just once.