Forza Faenza

It was one of those friendly gatherings you rarely see in the modern Formula 1 era, when people were present because they wanted to be there and not because the were obliged to be.

It was Sunday night in Estoril. We were gathered under a wind-blown awning, drinking a few beers and generally mulling over life, love and the universe.

Outside in the gusty blackness, the Mansell/Senna/black flag rumpus was working itself up to a fine old frenzy.

What a difference a piece of canvas can make. Inside there was a guy from McLaren, a happy Ferrari man, some folk from Lotus and me. It felt a bit like being in a foxhole in No Man's Land, avoiding a barrage and not bothering to shoot at each other.

In the course of this get-together, everyone around the table expressed their delight that the Minardi team had led the race - if only for half a lap.

It might seem a little strange in the dog-eat-dog world of F1 that people can wish good fortune on others, but in the case of Minardi, it really does exist.

There is a massive closet Minardi fan club in the paddock. Everyone loves the underdog; to see the little guys sticking two fingers up to the big guys and making them squirm.

Before the race, sitting with a driver - not a Minardi driver - we toasted the success of the little team from Faenza with cups of the glorious, thick espresso coffee that the team's coffee machine churns out at all hours of the day. It's the kind of coffee that makes you dizzy - a couple of sips of heaven.

The Minardi coffee machine is possibly the most popular machine in the Formula 1 paddock - if not the best designed. Around this venerable contraption, people gather to chat and gossip in a homely-environment.

The Minardi motorhome is not one of those scary mobile land-based facilities with dark-tinted windows, leather seats and satellite links to numbered accounts in the Cayman Islands. It's an ingenious van with awnings pointing out in all directions, under which the chef is always hard at work. You don't feel afraid to venture in.

Having fallen out with the new management at Ferrari over the Mansell/Senna black flag business, the heavy-hitters in the Italian press have been banished from the sacred Ferrari awning and now take their coffee with Minardi. Things are more simple with there.

The Minardi boys are friendly, polite and honest. For them being present in an F1 team is good, being successful is amazing, but keeping your feet on the ground is most important. A few races back the Minardi coffee-machine broke down. It is no exaggeration to say that more mechanics were working on this than on the cars - and they were supervised by Giancarlo Minardi himself. The priorities seemed just about right.

Giancarlo gives the impression of being a world-weary, but benevolent, leader. He doesn't tell lies (which is most odd in F1 team manager circles) and he has an unusual idea about contracts. When you read that a Minardi driver has signed a contract it probably means he has shaken hands with Giancarlo. From his point of view, he is happiest if his drivers get on well together.

Giancarlo knows all about struggling and while he still needs money for next year, he is hoping to keep Luis Sala alongside Piero Martini. They were team mates in F3000 before moving to F1 and they work well together.

The present competitiveness of the team is a combination of many things. The Pirelli tires are good, Martini is now able to show the skills which have been hidden in the past, everything has gelled at the same time.

The Minardi team seems to have fan clubs in most countries visited by the F1 circus. No, I didn't believe it either, but I keep bumping into fan club members while visiting the coffee machine.

The British GP was Minardi's finest hour until the recent Iberian Peninsula events. Flying home that night, on a plane with the Ferrari men, the Minardi crew arrived at Bologna Airport to find crowds of celebrating race fans. Mansell's Ferrari had finished second, Minardi fifth and sixth. The Ferrari men slunk home, while Minardi and its fans had a party in the airport.

What is the secret of this popularity? Why do people cheer the team along or secretly hope it does well?

Personally I don't understand it, but I know I feel the same way. Lovers of the underdog have had a bumper season this year. Everywhere young heroes are charging into F1 and some of the hard luck stories of the past have been given happy endings.

Take Martini, for example, Pierluigi had an awful time in the first Minardi season, back in 1985. It nearly destroyed his career. The bright star of European Formula 3 in 1983 was quickly forgotten and had to go back to F3000 to rebuild his career. The teams which once shunned him are now looking again.

There are times when F1 seems like a monster, devouring its children and spitting out the remains. It's very much a consumer society.

There are more deserving cases than there are seats available, inevitably careers go to the wall. Thus, there is always the temptation for youngsters to grab at anything when they are struggling to make it into F1.

It is inevitable that there will be victims of Formula 1's voracious appetite for the latest whizz kid.

The only big news is today's news. Where was JJ Lehto a month ago? In the middle of a frightful F3000 season. Now he is a name on everyone's lips. Remember Julian Bailey? Did he not regret jumping into F1 with an uncompetitive car? It was a risk which didn't work out. Would he do the same in the future?

"It's better to be driving a shitbox than not driving at all," Julian said earlier this year as he was hanging around, looking for an F1 seat.

What anything?

"Anything," he replied.

It's a risk, of course, but like junkies taking a chance and injecting themselves with dirty needles, racing drivers are willing to take big risks to get where they want. There are seldom second chances. Martini had one, Roberto Moreno too. It took the Brazilian a lot longer. The first chance came at Zandvoort in 1982 when Roberto did a one-off for Lotus. He failed to qualify.

"It took years to get over that," he muses now, "It's very hard to make F1 people change their minds about you. I don't know why I ever did that Lotus thing. It was crazy. If you look at it, very few of the drivers who tried to go straight from F3 into the ground-effect cars made it."

Take Tommy Byrne for example.

"Tommy was ***king good," said Eddie Jordan the other day - in his own unique way.

We were chatting and discussing, in a totally arbitrary way, who would still be in F1 next year and who would get fired.

Eddie, of course, knew much more than he was letting on and was fishing for any further information I might have stumbled across. We came up with a list of 12 drivers "on the bubble", and then divided that number by three to allow for the innate conservatism of the mainstream team owners.

It is better, they figure, to rely on known talents rather than take a flyer on a young hero. What they forget is that there is a world outside F1, where drivers show their talents long before ever getting close to a Grand Prix car. Leopards rarely change their spots.

If Ivan Capelli is having a bad year now - and his reputation is waning - through poor reliability, he hasn't forgotten how to drive an F1 car quickly. But the world has forgotten he can. Yannick Dalmas was very good at every stage of his career and that talent hasn't just evaporated.

Perhaps that's why people like Minardi. It is not the off-the-shelf, "we are very professional because we can tell good lies" type of team, it has been tempered by struggle and is built to last. Minardi may not have designer labels, but the team will be going long after the flashier types have retired to the Caymans to spent their ill-gotten gains.

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