Stoddart spoiling for a fight in attempt to keep Minardi on track

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The Independent Online

Nobody says the words "Welcome to the Piranha Club" to the Minardi team owner Paul Stoddart these days without expecting an emotional outburst.

The cars of the beleaguered Australian took to the track for private practice yesterday, together with Renault, Jaguar and Jordan, but Stoddart had little time to monitor their progress. Instead he was spoiling for a fight in an afternoon official press conference where he would appear with, among others, the McLaren chief Ron Dennis, whom he alleges has failed to honour commitments given earlier in the season, and of trying to woo his lucrative sponsor, Gazprom, the Russian energy company.

Stoddart, like fellow independent team owner Eddie Jordan, is fighting for survival in a sport where money is increasingly hard to come by.

Last year he was thrown a financial lifeline in the form of the television money that would have been due to the defunct Prost team, but then had a fight with the Arrows team over it. In Japan last year, when matters reached a head, Stoddart, a passionate man, went on the attack as team owners Dennis (McLaren), Sir Frank Williams (Williams), David Richards (BAR) and Jordan (Jordan) prepared to take their claim to the money to the International Chamber of Commerce. They were scrapping over $850,000 (£520,000) apiece, but while that was small beer to the big-timers, it was life and death to Minardi.

"I will turn my back on Formula One if this travesty of injustice is allowed to proceed," Stoddart said at the time. "At this time, with all the problems Formula One really does have, for this to happen for me is nothing short of self-destruction.

"I have gone through hell and back again this year and this is the icing on the cake. It's bad enough having to deal with the problems I have had to deal with, but when you get knives in your back from your co-team principals, I'm not interested. Do I want to be involved in a sport with such individuals in it? I'm not sure that I do."

In January fresh hope appeared, as the teams involved claimed that they merely wanted clarification of the ruling on monies owed to defunct teams, and another lifeline was deployed. At a meeting of team principals at Heathrow's Hilton Hotel, Dennis proposed a "Fighting Fund" that would help Minardi and Jordan to survive. Later that day, Bernie Ecclestone, who had already tried to help Stoddart with the Prost television money, stepped in again with the suggestion that the major manufacturers consider underwriting Minardi and Jordan's engine supply bills. At $20m a year, these are considerable.

At the Australian Grand Prix Dennis asked Stoddart to a private meeting, in which it became clear that Stoddart's silence on political matters was the price of McLaren's assistance. At a press conference, attended by both men plus Jordan, Wiiliams, BMW's Gerhard Berger, and Ferrari's Jean Todt, Stoddart was notably taciturn.

Now, however, he claims that he has not seen anything from the so-called "Fighting Fund", and is threatening to withhold his vote - necessary under the requirement for unanimity on any rule-affecting issues under the Concorde Agreement - so that proposed changes cannot after all be ratified. Among these are the decision to keep the controversial traction control beyond its proposed deletion date of July's British Grand Prix, and standardisation of brakes and some aerodynamic components for 2004 and beyond.

"Stoddie is not helping himself by trying to blackmail everyone into helping him to stay afloat," one rival said.

Part of the problem is that other teams are not prepared to contribute to a "Fighting Fund" while Eddie Jordan is pursuing a £225m legal action against Vodafone, Ferrari's sponsor, alleging breach of contract.

"I was forced to reconsider my consent to the Formula One Commission vote on the 2004 regulations, and the proposed changes to the 2003 regulations," said Stoddart, who has brought a QC out to Canada. "On reflection, I was perhaps too eager to please people who, it seems, have actually been working to try to make it difficult for Minardi to continue. On reading the proposed changes in detail, and taking into consideration the cost implications for Minardi, I had no choice but to withdraw my consent."

Canadian Grand Prix (Montreal): Times after private testing: 1 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1min 15.483sec; 2 A Pizzonia (Bra) Jaguar Racing at 0.770secs; 3 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar Racing +0.986; 4 J Trulli (It) Renault +1.146; 5 A McNish (GB) Renault +1.243; 6 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Ford +1.673; 7 R Firman (GB) Jordan-Ford +1.943; 8 J Verstappen (Neth) Minardi +2.369; 9 J Wilson (GB) Minardi +3.013.