INTERVIEW

The battler from Faenza

Giancarlo Minardi has been trying to break into the F1 winners' club since 1985. He reckons everyone from the Romagna region of Italy is stubborn and will not give up. Motor racing history suggests that Giancarlo is probably right. The region is the home of the Italian motor racing industry and always has been. It was here that the Maserati brothers set up shop in Bologna; it was here that the Ferrari factory still stands. Lamborghini is in Modena and Dallara at Parma. There are the circuits too: Varano in the north, Misano in the east and Mugello to the south. And right in the middle is Imola.

Just down the old road from the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari is the sleepy little town of Faenza. The home of Minardi.

With such a wealth of racing history in Romagna Giancarlo Minardi's efforts have been aided by some very powerful friends. Enzo Ferrari himself had a soft spot for the ambitious Minardi from his early days.

But despite this the Minardi team has never been well-funded. Looking back on his eight seasons in F1 Giancarlo reckons that he missed the boat.

"All the teams which now have the support of major manufacturers are teams which were at the front of the grid in the days when everyone had Cosworth engines," he explains. "They were at the front and they got the deals. I came into F1 just when the Cosworth era was ending. You cannot break into that club now. If you are a small team you have to buy engines. It has been the same for the last six or seven years and it isn't going to change as long as the rules remain as they are. To win races and attract the support of a manufacturer you have to have a manufacturer behind you.

"If you look at the statistics the small teams nowadays do not score nearly as many points as they used to do a few years ago. It is about half what it used to be, so it is very difficult to make a good impression."

So far Minardi has had one chance to break into the big time. Thanks to some sticky Pirelli qualifiers and some brave laps by Pierluigi Martini at the end of 1989 the team had turned in some impressive performances. It opened doors and Giancarlo shocked the Grand Prix circus by announcing that it would be using - and paying for - Ferrari engines. It was the chance to sell the package to a big sponsor, but Minardi"s deal with Pioneer stereo fell through at the last moment and Pioneer logos mysteriously turned up on the factory Ferraris. It was a huge financial setback. Despite this the team finished seventh in the Constructors' championship, its best result.

"In the first four of five races our car was not working properly. It is bound to be like that when you make a dramatic change from a V8 to a V12. After that it was much more competitive. By the end of the year we were right up there in the top 10. When Pierluigi finished fourth in Estoril it was not because the other cars stopped, it was because the package was good. It was all the more impressive because we did it without a proper budget."

Sadly Minardi could not afford Ferrari V12s for a second season.

"We could have carried on with the Ferraris in 1991 but we would have needed 11 billion lire ($9m)," says Giancarlo. "Lamborghini offered us a good engine at a lower price. At the end of last year Lamborghini asked for nine billion lire so we decided to do the deal with Cosworth. We try to find the best solution from both a technical and a financial point of view. We cannot buy something if we do not have any money."

It is an interesting view in the modern world of F1 where a lot of teams seem to run on endless credit.

Minardi is like that. His is a team from the old school. Everyone enjoys going racing. The team is like a big Italian family outing. Older team members will tell you about the days when the whole team went from Faenza to Jerez in two minibuses: one driven by engineer Tomaso Carletti, the other by Sandro Nannini.

All Minardi"s men love racing. A good result is a bonus and there are wild celebration for every point scored. Giancarlo tells a story of when his team returned to Bologna after the Portuguese GP in 1989 on the same plane as the Ferrari mechanics. Ferrari had won the race, but Martini had briefly been in the lead. At Bologna airport there were crowds of delighted fans. The Minardi men thought it a celebration for Ferrari but were amazed to find it was in their honor. It would only have happened in Italy.

The funny thing about Minardi is that while it is quintessentially Italian, it is remarkably multi-national. It now has an Austrian designer, a French aerodynamicist, a Brazilian electronics engineer and a Japanese team manager!

"There are 69 of us," says Giancarlo, "and most of the people have been here a long time. Everyone knows everyone else and we get on well together. We are close. I live 20 hours a day at the factory. It is my second family."

It seems to work well. Even when a man of Gustav Brunner's experience arrived from being technical director at March, he fitted easily in with Minardi"s young technical director Aldo Costa?

"I"ve been very happy by the way in which the two of them have worked together right from the start," says Minardi. "We have managed to produce our new car as quickly as we have because they work so well together."

Now that the new car is built Minardi wants to get the season underway. What is he hoping for this year with Ford engines, Christian Fittipaldi and Fabrizio Barbazza?

"I want us to do better than in 1992," he says. "I don't want to have any specific limits or targets. We will see how it goes. Beta is a very good sponsor but there is never enough in F1, is there? We need more. And money is very hard to find now."

Experience has taught Giancarlo to be cautious and to work quietly away towards success - just as Frank Williams in the early 1970s when he was the joke of the F1 paddock.

Like Frank beneath the pleasant exterior Giancarlo is tough as old nails. When Williams screwed up and failed to lodge his entry on time, Minardi refused to sign to let Williams race. It was Giancarlo's chance to force change - or at least discussion."

"We must bring down the costs by at least one third," he argues. "We need restrictions on the number of engines and tyres allowed. We need to have less testing. We should ban spare cars. These are all kinds of measures which could cut costs. The big teams do not have to pay for tyres or engines. The small teams have to pay for everything. We are spending far too much and we can never catch up. I've been saying all this for a long time but no-one listens. Now they have had to listen."

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