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The Minardi-Ferrari alliance takes F1 by surprise

"You had better sit down," said the Minardi Team Manager Jaime Manca Graziedei on the phone the other day. "This is going to be a bit of a shock. Minardi has an engine deal for next year."

That was not particularly shocking news. So, come on, stop messing about, what's so special about the deal?

"It's the engine which won the last Grand Prix," said Jaime.

There was a brief pause for thought. Who won the last Grand Prix? Oh, yes, Ferrari.

Ferrari!

In modern times, Ferrari hasn't supplied other competitors with F1 machinery. The last time was back in 1976 when the Ferrari factory agreed to loan a 312/T2 to Scuderia Everest. The intention was to run Giancarlo Martini in the Race of Champions and the Silverstone International Trophy.

Martini crashed the car of the warming-up lap at Brands Hatch and finished an uninspiring 10th at Silverstone.

The man running Scuderia Everest was an ambitious Italian, Giancarlo Minardi. In 1977 he went on to run a Ferrari-engined Formula 2 team, using Ralt and later Chevron chassis. The drivers were Lamberto Leoni, Elio de Angelis and Gianfranco Brancatelli and Leoni surprised everyone by winning a European F2 Championship race at Misano.

Thirteen years later Minardi has an increasingly successful F1 team, its lead driver being Giancarlo Martini's nephew, Pierluigi.

Perhaps the link with Ferrari is not so strange after all...

The Minardi-Ferrari M191 may be a landmark for the Ferrari marque, but it is also an indication that Ferrari is now a Fiat-owned company.

"Ferrari is not Ferrari as it once was," says Giancarlo Minardi. "I think what they are looking for now is to have two teams with their engine instead of just the one. It offsets the costs of development and you get a better return of your invetsment.

"As part of the FIAT Group, it is not in Ferrari's interest to suffocate someone else in order not to be beaten by them. That wouldn't be intelligent.

"All the major engine manufacturers are looking to do the same thing. Look at Honda, they will be supplying Tyrrell next year; Lamborghini has Larrousse and Lotus; Renault is looking at other teams and Ford is likely to supply two other teams in addition to Benetton.

"It is an obvious commercial move."

In Italy which leaks racing information like a collander, Minardi manged to keep the deal a complete secret.

"The talks have been going on for about two months," explains Minardi. "We've always had a good relationship with Ferrari. We've often been testing at Fiorano and Ferrari has always been attentive and helpful. We wanted to be involved with them.

"Other than that, our need as a small team is to have a big company supplying us with an engine. Heini Mader has done a wonderful job with our Cosworths, but we have maybe 600 horsepower at the most. We need to have maybe 680. No-one really knows how much we need, but all we know is that we have too little at the moment.

"In Phoenix Michael Kranefuss of Ford came up to me during qualifying and said, 'Too bad you guys haven't got our engine. Another 60hp could put you on pole'. As it was we were second.

Success in today's F1 relies on having a complete package.

"We have a good car," says Minardi. "We have good tyres for both qualifying and the races and we have a very good driver in Pierluigi Martini. What we needed was an engine."

Now that problem is solved and Minardi is moving from being a promising middle-ranking team to a potential challenger for outright victory.

"Everyone in F1 is trying to win," says Giancarlo. "Hopefully this is the right way for us to get there.

"We are all very happy with the deal. The only thing now is that we are aware of the fact that we are already overworked. It's going to be pretty difficult, but we know where we are heading.

"This is going to be a bombshell in Italy. People won't believe it. It's a complete change of trend from Ferrari and we will have people crawling all ovr us, trying to find out what is happening."

So what is happening?

"I expect that we will get an engine fairly quickly," says Giancarlo. "That will let us get work on the new car under way. We hope to have the car on paper by May-June, so we must start pretty quickly. By knowing the engine we will have we are at an advantage and can start things earlier."

One thing is certain, Minardi will not be getting the revolutionary Ferrari semi-automatic gearbox.

As everyone else recovers from the shock news, Minardi will be working flat out to make the most of what can only be described as an incredible opportunity for a little team looking to break into the big time.

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