FEBRUARY 8, 2001
European-Minardi boss determined to shine in Australia
He translated a youthful passion for cars into a small fortune from buying and selling them at auction in his native Australia. He then found the margins were even better in the aviation business to turn a small fortune into the kind of money you need to go racing. Now he is risking it all buy buying into a team which habitually fills the back of the grid in Formula 1.
Whilst the rest of the field has been launched and are now as ready as they'll ever be to go to the other side of the world, Stoddart has bought a multi-million pound problem. He will be chain-smoking his way through many sleepless nights in the countdown to Melbourne as the chassis are completed, the engines are installed, the right driver found to partner Fernando Alonso - himself an F1 rookie - and sponsorship relentlessly sought.
It's a situation few people would willingly take on for the proverbial million pounds. To spend several times that amount to buy yourself such a nightmare scenario after a career which, up until now, has smacked of entrepreneurial opportunism and an uncanny knack of closing a favorable deal seems more than a little out of character and you can't help but wonder why.
"Minardi was the only team to need what we have to offer," says Stoddart. "Before I went to Faenza I'd heard all the stories and expected to see something not really in keeping with modern F1 and I was surprised. It is a dedicated and motivated workforce who produce tidy designs and work well. I'm not complacent but I don't feel we have the worst engine in the pit lane. There's no doubt we'll have to work hard, but we've set ourselves good goals and it would be good to qualify well."
At the time of writing the new European-Minardi PS01 had yet to be completed although - and Stoddart is proud of this - it passed the new FIA crash tests first time. If the car gets even the briefest of shakedowns it will be a minor miracle. The timing is so tight, however, that there is a very good chance that European-Minardi will miss the chartered flights upon which the rest of the Formula 1 world will be heading to Melbourne at the end of the month.
One thing Minardi can count on, though, is the 100% backing of Stoddart's European Aviation airline. It has already proven invaluable in bringing European Racing's F3000 base in rural Herefordshire, England, closer to the little Italian team in Faenza. Even now there is a Boeing 737 ready and waiting on the tarmac with its crew fully briefed on how to get the team to Melbourne in a hurry. Perhaps nothing could be more fitting for the Melbourne boy to return home with his own F1 team in his own aeroplane, and Stoddart is anxious not to disappoint Minardi's swelling ranks of Aussie fans.
"The support from and feeling for us from Australia is massive," he says with justifiable pride. "It's really quite warming that Australia has adopted Minardi as an Australian team so quickly, and standing on the grid at Melbourne, particularly for someone born and bred in the city, will be a very emotional moment for me. I'd like to think people appreciate the effort it will have taken to get to Melbourne in such a short period of time. I know, though, that Rome wasn't built in a day."
The expense and effort it will have taken to reach the first round would put a big dent in anyone's plans for the forthcoming season. To a team without much in the way of backing it would almost seem suicidal, so what will Stoddart be doing to ensure that the PS01 develops through the rest of the season?
"We have a modest budget this year, and it depends where you operate on the grid what the costs are. If we don't get enough sponsorship I will have to fund it, as painful as that might be. If any title sponsors who want to come to F1 pick up the phone and call me they're very welcome. At the moment we have one sponsor who's driver-related. We have no second driver yet and I want that sorted in the next 10 days."