GLOBETROTTER

In praise of the improbable

Formula 1 stories are all too often linked with less than savory dealings and people who have fewer morals (and less charm) than the average clam so it is always nice to be able to report on the good guys when they do well.

The Australian Grand Prix of 2002 was a nice event in this respect, notably because of the success of Mark Webber and the Minardi team. Minardi is one of the most popular teams in Grand Prix racing. It is the underdog and at every race track around the world underdog lovers are there with their Minardi flags waving. People like to associate themselves with the little guys who battle against the monstrous corporations at the front end of the grid. They are sportsmen in an unsporting world.

Improbably, there is value in doing this. Marketing men out there will tell you all that Minardi has a brand value way in excess of its results. If Minardi was ever really successful on a regular basis that support would evaporate but everyone (apart from the team's immediate rivals) are delighted when Minardi gets a point or two.

Christmas comes rarely in Faenza.

Giancarlo Minardi enjoyed some memorable moments but despite everything he never gave up. Even when he lost control of the team to people with money he remained the manager and the inspiration. He was there in Melbourne to enjoy the success after 30 years of struggling along.

Giancarlo's first team was Scuderia del Passatore in 1972 named after a local Robin Hood-like figure, it survived a few years and then became Scuderia Everest (thanks to a condom company with an improbable name). This organization was the first Minardi-owned team to run a Formula 1 car as Enzo Ferrari, who had a soft spot for Minardi, lent him a Ferrari 312T in order to evaluate young Italian F1 racers for F1. It was a short-lived program because Giancarlo Martini (a youngster who is lost to history) demolished the car on the warm-up lap for the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch in 1976.

The Minardi team went back to F2 (with Ferrari engines) and in 1980 took the decision to build its own cars for F2. One of its early drivers was a youngster called Michele Alboreto. Another was Sandro Nannini and in the years that followed the team ran a string of rising stars. Minardi entered F1 in 1985 but it was three years before it collected its first point, scored by Pierluigi Martini (the nephew of the car-destroying Martini mentioned previously) at Detroit in 1988.

In 1989 the team became the main user of Pirellis and there were some remarkable results in 1989. Martini and Spaniard Luis Sala finished fifth and sixth one splendid day that summer and when the team flew home to Bologna on the plane with Ferrari, there were crowds of fans cheering them at the airport terminal.

Later that year Martini qualified on the second row of the grid at Jerez and in Australia (where Martini scored another point) and in 1989 Pierluigi achieved the amazing result of qualifying on the front row (alongside Gerhard Berger's Ferrari) in Phoenix and later in the year concluded a deal to use Ferrari engines in 1991. But there was never enough money although the team scored a couple of fourth places that year. After that times were hard and points became increasingly rare. The European GP of 1999 provided the team with its last score when Marc Gene finished sixth at the Nurburgring.

After that there was nothing and at the start of 2001 Minardi passed into the hands of Paul Stoddart. A fan above all else, the Australian aviation magnate decided to keep the factory in Faenza open and rather than asset-strip the place as most people in F1 would have done he uses his fleet of jets to fly people and parts backwards and forwards between Italy and his base at Ledbury in England. Toyota has been through the team in Faenza and a lot of Minardi's most experienced staff have been poached but Stoddart plans to keep the same structure in place until it no longer makes sense. Eventually he may move F1 operations to Britain but he will always keep the Italian factory going, perhaps running the Minardi F3000 team.

Stoddart is a dreamer but at the same time he is a realist. His aim this year was to score a World Championship point and he did not think it would be that likely to happen. But a few flying cars, a breakdown or two and some good steady driving from Webber gave him two points in the first race of the season. It was a decidedly improbable result.

The paddock rejoiced with him as Stoddart is well-liked. Unlike many others in the paddock he is putting his money on the line rather than squirrelling it away in offshore bank accounts.

I saw him after the race, a little red in the face and looking rather unkempt from having been sprayed with too much champagne.

"This is my moment," he said with a huge smile, "and I am enjoying it."

Stoddart is not like the rest of them. His ambition was never much more than to be a team owner and have a good time. He said last year that if he scored a point with Minardi he would have achieved his goal and would be happy to sell the team. We will see. When people get into F1 they tend to broaden their horizons and their ambitions.

Next door to him in the pitlane is Tom Walkinshaw's Arrows team. Walkinshaw is a very different animal to Stoddart and in Melbourne the two men clashed over whether or not Tom could create a new team from the bits and pieces left over from Prost. Stoddart felt passionately about it and fought hard to stop Tom.

The irony now is that Stoddart's ambition in F1 is fulfilled and the thing to do now would probably be to sell the Minardi team to Walkinshaw (or whoever it is that he claims to be representing).

Now there is an improbable tale...

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