Tempers flare as F1 team bosses scrap over money

Formula 1 team bosses Ron Dennis and Paul Stoddart got into a fair old war of words during the Friday afternoon press conference in Montreal over the so-called F1 fighting fund. Sir Frank Williams was also present but refrained from comment, saying that the whole thing was "a set-up" and that he did not intend to discuss F1 business transactions in public. It was cry also heard from Dennis and Eddie Jordan, but both were sucked into the dispute. Stoddart had gone into the meeting, expecting to be supported by Jordan, who is also struggling this year but the Irishman was unusually quiet and at one point Stoddart remarked that Jordan had clearly been "nobbled".

Stoddart was not invited to a meeting of team principals which took place just before the press conference, presumably to make sure that everyone was in agreement over their reaction to Stoddart's claims. As a result the Minardi boss started off the conference believing that the others were not going to turn up and he was already explaining his actions when the other team principals arrived. Several other leading figures in F1 snuck into the hall to hear what was said with Bernie Ecclestone and Jaguar Racing boss Tony Purnell amongst the viewers.

Stoddart was clearly unhappy with his fellow team principals and the atmosphere in the press conference was highly-charged as Dennis justified the failure of the teams to pay money which Stoddart said had been promised in an agreement made in January. Dennis said this was provisional on rule stability. Stoddart was unusually careful to appear measured and positive but in the end he became frustrated.

"Talk is cheap," he said. "Nothing is being done. I am totally disillusioned with several of the people sitting around me."

Stoddart said that the Minardi will survive the year but not in its current form unless more money arrives soon.

The fighting fund was proposed by Dennis at a meeting in January at Heathrow's Hilton Hotel. It was clear soon afterwards that the agreement was not being carried through and when Stoddart threatened to go public in Melbourne Stoddart was asked to a private meeting with Dennis in which, Stoddart claims, it was suggested that if he kept quiet he would be supported. Stoddart says that he feel let down. Dennis denies that he has done anything wrong but no money has been forthcoming.

Stoddart knows that going public with the issue is probably the beginning of the end of his F1 career but he says that he feels responsible for the Minardi employees who will be out of work if the team is forced to close. His budgets were based on commitments which he feels were made but have not been honoured.

There is an added dimension to the fighting as it comes at a time when the FIA is trying to protect the small teams by pushing through cost-cutting measures. It is arguable that the control of the sport is at risk because without the small teams the manufacturers will take over and the fear is that if they do they will then turn on one another and price each other out of the market.

"We saw Prost go and we saw Arrows go," Stoddart said. "You will see at some point in time if things don't change Minardi will go. Who's next? Jordan? You won't need to worry about GPWC soon because in the not too distant future that may be all that you have got left."

But Dennis argued that no-one had given him any charity when he was fighting to set up an F1 team

"This is a tough competitive sport and if you cannot take the heat, get out of the bloody kitchen," Dennis said. "I understand Paul's position but he is damaging Formula 1 by his actions and I love Formula 1. We do not have a soup kitchen in Formula 1. There have been huge brands come and go in Formula 1, Brabham, Lotus and many more. It's an inevitable ebbing and flowing. No-one gave me a handout and I climbed from a humble background to being responsible for a competitive team."

Stoddart said that he did not want to bring the issue to the attention of the world but felt that he had no choice because of the intransigence of McLaren, Williams and Ferrari. He added that he has the qualified support of BAR and Renault and full support from Jordan, Jaguar and Sauber. Toyota is not involved as it has no claim to any of the money involved.

It was clear after the press conference that Stoddart was deeply unhappy with Jordan, who had been expected to support Stoddart's call for help.

The washing of F1's dirty linen in public is not in itself a good idea for it casts the sport in a negative light but it may help to solve the problems which have been bubbling away beneath the surface for many months.

"If he thinks he has a case," said one leading F1 figure, "Stoddart should take them to court and sue them."

It may come to that. Stoddart seemed to be very well prepared and willing to talk about details while the other team bosses refused to get into any detail. The GPWC, which the big teams represent, say that one of its major aims is financial transparence in Formula 1 but this was clearly not being displayed at the press conference.

The irony of this seemed to go over the head of all of those present...

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