It would be a short chat, I thought, when I called Paul Stoddart last Friday, exactly 15 years since a Minardi last competed in a grand prix.
We agree on an interview for the next day. He says to call him on the mobile as, “I’ll be in the hangar and won’t hear the switchboard phone ring.”
When he calls it turns into a 70-minute barrel of laughs, not to mention a flurry of profanity, and that is only the on-record stuff. First, though, the wiry, terrier-tenacious Paul Stoddart (65) apologises profusely before explaining the reason for the delay: A global logistics firm (he supplies the name) has called to lease a Boeing. “It’s PPE, mate, the world has gone crazy for air freight.”
It is, frankly, no surprise that the born entrepreneur is in the thick of transporting personal protection equipment during the Covid-19 crisis, for his life is epitomised by opportunism coupled with basic business sense and a solid Australian can-do attitude.
How else could Stoddart, who left school at 15, have risen from the working class north Melbournian suburb of Coburg through car franchising (Yugo) and detailing of ex-rental cars to proprietor of European Aviation, an aircraft leasing, sales and spares company with its own fleet?
When I later mention on social media that I had spoken to Stoddart, all my feeds immediately lit up. Why does a team which never won a race – never even reached the podium – continue to resonate with fans in this way a decade and a half since they last competed?
“It’s the underdog, at the end of the day,” Stoddart answers. “Everybody loves the underdog.
“You know, it’s never truly been reported, what I really did run Minardi on for each year. Our budgets were so miniscule, compared to the big boys.
“I’ll give you an example: In 2002 I ran on a budget on $28 million for the whole year, against Toyota’s $1.1 billion. Yet we beat them, you know, we beat them genuinely, we had two points that year for the most famous two points ever scored in the history of F1 with Mark Webber at Albert Park.”
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I detect a quiver in his voice as the recollections flow. He refers to that Sunday as “probably the proudest day of my life, certainly from a business and sporting point of view.”
In his book “Aussie Grit”, Webber recalls how race promoter Ron Walker and his media manager Geoff Harris came down to the Minardi garage to take them up to the podium for the benefit of the local crowd.
It was, wrote Webber, “A highly irregular breach of protocol that might have cost us those two precious points if the authorities hadn’t shown a human touch on the day”.
But it remains a sweet memory for Stoddart “to stand on that podium, the only time that’s ever happened in the history of F1.”
“Even things that happened after that,” he continues, “like Michael Schumacher and Jean Todt and Rubens Barrichello calling us into the Ferrari [hospitality] to congratulate us.”
No sooner had they been feted by the world champions than rival team bosses arrived, all bearing their own celebratory champagne: “We didn’t have any of our own, no need to have stocks of it,” Stoddart recalls.
Sure enough, the bubbly was seldom needed. Minardi faced a long, hard slog against manufacturer-backed teams, wealthy independents and the authorities. But Stoddart kept the minnow team alive for five tumultuous years until he accepted an offer from Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz in a deal massaged at the end of 2005 by Bernie Ecclestone. The team is now AlphaTauri, having until last year been Toro Rosso.
That $28m budget equates to around $100m at today’s costings, so around 30% less than current backmarkers operate on – and forget not that there were no budget caps, long-life price-capped engines and gearboxes, testing restrictions, curfews and so on 20 years ago. F1 was an endless money pit, as evidenced by Toyota’s spending, notwithstanding the vast amounts of capital expenditure that team made.
Little known is that before acquiring the dregs of Minardi – Stoddart reckons he paid around $10m but can’t recall the exact figure as some of the price was bartered – he tried to buy Tyrrell. Having sponsored the team in 1997 via European Aviation, he acquired the cars and kit. The entrant’s licence and company registration was sold to Craig Pollock, who formed BAR off the back of the paperwork – the team which went on to become the dominant force of modern F1 which is Mercedes.
‘Stoddie’ also tried to buy a slice of Jordan – “Eddie’s a good mate” – but unsurprisingly realised during due diligence, realising “it wasn’t feasible”.
Interest in Arrows waned after team boss Tom Walkinshaw (“Walking Shark” in Stoddart parlance) went cold on a deal to give Stoddart’s protégé and compatriot Webber a test.
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“I tried to buy the whole team,” he says. “We went in with the due diligence and quickly found that you wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. So, we didn’t, and of course it [eventually] went bankrupt in 2002.”
So, to Minardi: How did this unlikely alliance, which matched an Australian hard-noser with the industrial town of Faenza nestling in the foothills of Italy’s Apennines, actually come about? Flavio Briatore, Renault F1 team boss at the time, whose driver Fernando Alonso raced for the team in 2001, had a hand in the deal.
“He told [F1 designer] Mike Gascoyne, who knew I was interested in buying a team because we had done a two-seater together. I was on a boat in Nice at the time, looking to buy a boat.
“Mike said, ‘Paul, there’s a team for sale, you need to be in Faenza.’ Which I’d never even heard of. I grabbed a plane, shot down to Faenza, met Giancarlo [Minardi, team founder]. I knew him but not properly, looked around the factory, which was pretty depleted of everything.
“Really, the only asset the company had was Fernando’s contract. I spent probably only a few hours before I made up my mind I was going to do it. Flavio had been looking at it for Renault and when they pulled out it was there for the taking. Basically I did a deal with Giancarlo first, and later with Gabriele Rumi.” The latter, Minardi’s business partner and wheel magnate, was by then seriously ill, and died in May 2001.
“What we bought was virtually nothing, a wooden mock-up. I decided we didn’t have time to produce the car in the UK where we had a very good factory with all the tools and equipment and very good people. But we worked out we only had one chance to do this.
“So we needed to actually do it in Faenza, so I flew down 17 of our people from Ledbury, put them in a local hotel, which didn’t have 17 rooms so they had to share. We had people working 24/seven; when you got too tired to work you went back to the hotel, found an empty room and crashed.
“Then obviously I began to focus on a deal for Cosworth engines, and Bernard Ferguson, another of F1’s greats, said to me in his inevitable northern style, ‘What the fuck do you want from me?’
“I said, ‘I want to buy the engine’, [to which] he said, ‘You want to buy engines?’ and I said ‘No, I want to buy THAT engine, the rights to manufacture the engine. I want to do it myself.
“He said ‘You won’t make that work’. So anyway, we did, and the rest is history. That was how I got into Minardi.”
The engine Stoddart refers is the 1998 V10 Cosworth-built Ford Zetec-R as provided to Stewart and later badged as Fondmetal by Rumi, after his alloy wheel company. Thus the engine, rebadged as ‘European’, was already three seasons old when Stoddart acquired the rights before upgrading the power unit via Magneti Marelli electronics.
In the pantheon of F1 history Minardi is little more than an also-ran, a team that sparkled occasionally when some of its stars aligned, which wasn’t often enough for Stoddart. Instead of fighting for points, they fought for survival.
Twice Bernie Ecclestone rode to the rescue. One can see them both now: both shortish, both tenacious self-made men from modest backgrounds, both passionate about the sport, and both anti-establishment. By June 2005 Minardi was in trouble – a ‘fighting fund’ for independent teams had been promised, but had failed to materialise. The bills were mounting.
Ecclestone called for Stoddart and asked how much money he needed. He gave F1’s ringmaster a number, to which Bernie said, “Right, I’m going to buy half your team, I’m going to give you the money and just get on with life.”
Stoddart is full of praise for Ecclestone, calling him “a true gentleman” and “the greatest person that’s ever been in Formula 1.”
Once it was announced that Bernie had bought half of the team, “I couldn’t even pay any fucking bills you know, people like Bridgestone and Magneti Marelli and all the rest of them that were hounding me for money, I couldn’t even give them a cheque once they knew Bernie was involved.
“So I went with my accountant to Princes Gate [then the F1 Group headquarters] in August to do the deal, sign all the papers. Bernie said, ‘Stoddart, are you out of the shit now?’
“I said ‘Of course I am Bernie, I can’t even fucking pay anybody now’. So he said ‘I don’t want your shares, keep your shares’, so I gave him back the money, and that was it.”
Clearly, though, Stoddart needed to sell – manufacturer teams were swamping the sport. By 2005 there were – or had recently – been no fewer than seven big-buck brands, namely BMW, Fiat (Ferrari), Honda, Jaguar (Ford), Mercedes, Renault, and Toyota, with Red Bull entering the sport as team owner, having bought Jaguar.
Over the years he had received 51 offers to buy the team from what he calls ‘time wasters’, including one who gave him a rubberised $10m cheque, which now hangs on Stoddart’s office wall. As it turned out, a 52nd eventually materialised.
“Out of the 51 others,” says Stoddart, “there were probably around the five, so 10%, who had what I would consider the money and the wherewithal to buy the team if they wanted to. The other 45 were just total toss pots and time wasters and wannabees. I’m afraid F1 attracts these like bees to honey.
“The deal happened with Mateschitz in Turkey. Bernie called me into his motorhome and Dietrich was in there, we talked and Bernie said to Dietrich, ‘You should buy this because it’ll give you a lot of advantages having two teams.’
“They then send a consultant in to have a look at everything, and literally by the time we got to Spa (a month later) the deal was done. I was told that Mr Mateschitz doesn’t drink champagne, he only toasts deals with Red Bull.
“I remember my words at the time, which were that those energy drinks ‘taste like aliens’ piss’, and the guy said, ‘Paul, for the amount of money you’re being paid, just drink it.’ And I did, and it’s got a lovely taste to it. Been drinking it ever since…”
How much did he get for the team he had paid $10m for five years earlier? He is under a non-disclosure agreement which he honours to this day, but you can bet Paul Gerard Stoddart did not lose on the overall deal.
The team has since, of course, won two races – the first with Sebastian Vettel and the most recent, in September, via Pierre Gasly – and both, fittingly at Monza in Italy. It has also acted as a Red Bull F1 finishing school for an illustrious rollcall of drivers: Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz Jnr to name but three, and no doubt many more will pass through Faenza on their ways to sporting greatness.
Tellingly, Stoddart still refers to the team by their former name. “When Minardi won those two races and scored a few podiums, every time I felt as though it’s still part of me, part of my DNA.”
“Did I have enough money? No. Did we get through? Yes. But we had to fight for things. The fighting, the fighting…”
Those fights – against Ron Dennis and Max Mosley and Jean Todt and virtually the entire F1 community at one stage or another – will be covered in a future instalment of Stoddart’s recollections on RaceFans, told in his inimitable style.
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