It must be strange to be Paul Stoddart. Starting from scratch he built up an airline out of a bunch of promises and an unlikely deal with the Australian Air Force, made a bit of money and then became in effect the ultimate Formula One fan of his time when he bought the remains of the Tyrrell organisation after the embryonic BAR stripped out the rights to compete in the series and little else, putting Uncle Ken out to pasture and turning off the lights in the factory as they left. Which meant that he had the ever aging equipment, without the ability to actually use it to go racing. Not long afterwards he was sitting in his new facility in Ledbury when he read that Minardi, the underfunded but much beloved team built on a dream and little else by third generation racer Gian Carlo Minardi, was about to pay the ultimate price for the past few years of financial mismanagement by their owner, Fondmetal's Gabriele Rumi. Sensing a way into Formula One Stoddart swooped, and against no competition at all he made the deal. The good news was he was now in Formula One – the bad news was it was with Minardi.
And at the end of 2000 that was about as bad as it could get.
"I think it's fair to say Minardi was finished," Stoddart grimly recalled of his leap of faith from the relative safety, typhoons notwithstanding, of his office behind the Japanese pits on the final race weekend of yet another long year for the team. "They had no engine, they had six weeks and three days before the start of the Melbourne Grand Prix, and when I first arrived in the factory there was a reduced workforce of very loyal but totally demotivated people who were all convinced that the door was going to close. There was a wooden mock up (of the chassis) with the wrong engine bolted up to it. It was a pretty daunting task.
"The fact that I remember it was six weeks and three days is because I probably remember every single day of it, but having said that we did what people said could not, and would not, be done. Nobody gave us any chance of arriving in Melbourne, and it was close – (Fernando) Alonso's car arrived there having done one 150km shakedown, and poor old Tarso (Marques)'s car we actually bolted together in the pitlane in Melbourne, and it had never even turned a wheel until Friday running! I don't ever want to go through that again, but I think it's probably fair to say that Minardi wouldn't have survived to the end of 2000 if I hadn't come along."
Undoubtedly Stoddart saved the team from oblivion, and spent the next few years constantly dipping into his own pocket to make sure they stayed on track. Although he arrived too late to enjoy the team beating BAR in their debut year (although undoubtedly it put a wry smile on his face), he has been able to help Minardi beat famous racing names like Prost, Jordan, Arrows and Jaguar on occasion over the ensuing years, despite having a fraction of their budget (as well as managing to outlive all bar one of them, so far). And yet the only recognition some fans give these achievements is to state "the bloody Minardi's are getting in the way" when their red compatriots shape up to lap the men in black on race day, without once considering that their sheer existence is more than a little miraculous.
Minardi wouldn't exist now if it hadn't been for Stoddart's wallet and, despite the quiet affection most aficionados have for the outfit, the team principal seems to get no respect for this. On the other side of that coin, were it any other team that he found in such a mortally wounded state, the results would have been terminal; when you've skated on thin financial ice as often as Minardi have you learn to tread lightly. Racing is the pheromone that floats in the air in Minardi's home town of Faenza, one that the locals breathe deep; it would take more than having no money to stop them doing what they live for, what they love.
Massimo Rivola, Team Manager (seven years at Minardi): "We have the most challenging job in the paddock - I'm not joking! It's something that makes everybody in the team proud, and if you consider the budget and the number of people employed you can really see what we are able to do. We used to say never give up, and we saw those other teams disappear from the grid, so it's really something that is like a very good gym - you train and feel ready to do something, anything, and we are. We have very few people to do the tests and the cars and the marketing and the logistics and everything, and obviously it's very difficult for the people outside; they cannot understand our efforts to survive, so they can't understand why we are slower than the top teams; but we know exactly why. I can't say exactly what would happen if we had the other teams' budgets, but I can say for sure that if the other teams had our budget they would not be able to stay alive! "Minardi is a group of people with a real passion for the sport, a real love of cars and Formula One obviously, and let's say a proper team – one hundred people where everybody knows each other and if I finish my job I can help someone else because it helps, and at the end of day it's nice to have a beer together, so why not? If I help you now you will help me next time, and I know that this doesn't happen in all the teams - when a team is very big it is very difficult to manage, because people will do just what they are told to do, nothing else - but here it's very different."
Minardi are the tenth best motor racing team in the world, and closing in on number nine – they just have the misfortune of racing solely against the nine that are bigger, better. If you put Minardi up against the brightest and best from the IRL, Le Mans, CART, Nascar or any other championship you could care to mention the Italians would make them hurt. The level of facilities they have is, if not second to none, then at least tenth.
"Yeah, it's all there," Stoddart smiled. "When I came to Minardi one of the biggest things I changed was that they were making about thirty five percent of the cars in house and subcontracting the rest out – we increased that rapidly to about seventy percent, and it's probably edging towards eighty percent of the car now made in house at the factory. Our carbon shop is fantastic, and our machining and fabrication shops are adequate; you don't see all the new million dollar machines, but the ones that are there do a perfectly good job, and of course the strongest thing any team has is its workforce."
Fabiana Valenti, Press and Accounting Departments (five years at Minardi): "You know, this is my first experience in Formula One, and I can't compare the job in Minardi with a job in any other team, but I am quite sure that the job in Minardi is much better than anywhere else, at least for me. I am very proud to work with Minardi, and if I had the chance to go somewhere else I wouldn't go, actually, because this is a family – everybody's got a nickname, everybody's got the possibility to improve professionally because everybody has to be able to do more than one job. The energy is always so much, you can feel the passion - you can breathe it. I am quite sure this is not just a job for the people who work in Minardi." Take a tour of the Minardi factory on a crisp autumn day and you begin to see Stoddart's point. While the facilities are light years away from the grand structures of Ferrari, McLaren or Renault, almost everything that you could need to design and build contemporary Formula One cars can be found on site, albeit in smaller numbers than the big teams.
Renault have five stereo lithography machines available – the machine that allows CAD designed parts to be downloaded directly from the designer's computer and built, layer upon layer, by a laser etching the rising resin level, with the resultant piece to be utilised in wind tunnel tests – Minardi have just one, along with a similar machine which carves foam blocks into computer designed shapes to aid with carbon composition. Renault build seven racing tubs a year, Ferrari build nine, while Minardi has to make do with just four. The big teams have almost unlimited use of autoclaves, the industrial machines used in bonding the various layers of carbon fibre together for the car's bodywork – Ferrari even have a portable autoclave available at most European races – Minardi have just three autoclaves, small, medium and large, and a usage roster.
Renault have all of their car manufacturing facilities on one site in Enstone, and it's an impressive sight to take in. You drive through the surrounding countryside and along a lengthy gravel driveway, far from prying eyes. Walk through the front door, past the half size model of the latest car, and the white collar work is all done behind the receptionist – public relations, accounting and marketing to the right, or turn left and you pass Flavio Briatore's grand office on the way to the large, open plan designers room, which has around fifty designers at a time working on their individual projects in one of two shifts a day, surrounded by the offices of the various section heads. Downstairs is the blue collar work, the machines that cut and mold and press and bond, all revolving around three bays with the latest race and test cars are set up and ready to roll, all on a floor so spotless you could eat off it if you were so inclined. The wind tunnel is just through the doors and across a lane, removed from the building so as not to disturb the occupants, with their colour coded resin models awaiting the penultimate test. The entire compound is focused on the chassis only – the engine is designed and built in Viry Chatillon, France.
Minardi's factory isn't quite so grand. In the middle of an anonymous Italian industrial site and across the road from a poultry factory and a brewer, the office would be easy to mistake for a warehouse but for the team's newish logo on one of the pre-fabricated walls. In the reception there is a coffee table with the old logo and colours prominently displayed, along with a collection of trophies and mementos lining the stairwell from the team's pre-Formula One days – Minardi had a tremendous record in the junior categories as well as other classes of racing, including a truck once built for the Paris/Dakar race. They were, and are, a racing team, in all that that entails.
Up those stairs you will find a small corridor lined by offices, but the lines of demarcation aren't clearly defined – in a team the size of Minardi, everyone does at least two jobs (there are only 114 employees, whereas Ferrari is well past a thousand) – press and marketing and accounts are all jumbled together and lit by desk lamps fabricated from used brake discs, with one end of the corridor leading to the design room, a collection of ten or twelve desks with their occupants peering up in surprise at seeing a visitor rather than a team member, the other end remaining as ever the office of once owner, now Muse, Gian Carlo Minardi. If he is in the factory when a guest comes to visit, he asks that they come and say hello at the end of the tour.
Downstairs the three chassis are in their racing pit set-up – the same rig that the team use at tracks around the world is also used back at the factory – and flowing wide around them are storage areas for the various spare components, the bits and pieces that form the cars. Directly below the design room are the computer aided casting machines whirring away, fabricating yet more parts. The team outgrew the building that has been their sole home a couple of years ago, taking over the lease of the other two buildings on their side of the block to house two of the autoclaves as well as the carbon fibre department and various other design areas. The floors in these buildings, while clean, are tiled–functional, but in stark contrast to the sterile facilities of their competitors.
Minardi don't have a wind tunnel of their own – the outlay to have one designed and built is currently beyond them. They make use of Lola's facilities as and when they need to, presumably at a discount provided by current boss Rupert Mainwaring, the former sponsorship hunter for Minardi. Former employees of the team tend to stay on good terms even after they leave, although not that many of them actually do go.
Andrew Tilley, Chief Engineer (three years at Minardi): "The good thing about Minardi, I suppose, is it's a small team so everyone works together very well, and people are very much involved with all aspects of the work – it's not as departmentalised as the big teams. A lot of that is necessity – we have eighty or so people and everyone has to pull together, and when we come to the races the factory is pretty much empty. Obviously that makes it very difficult, because everyone has to work very hard, and it's difficult to achieve a good result with the small resources we have relative to other people. Everyone wants to help the team survive – I worked here getting on for ten years ago, I was close to the people I worked with at the time, and a lot of those people are still here - I sort of felt that I owed them a favour when I came back (Tilley worked as Race Engineer for Jean Alesi at Sauber, as well as holding positions at Lotus, Benetton and Jordan) three years ago. And I'm still here. "(Minardi's strength) is the ability to achieve what we do with a very small resource – if you look at the budget we have available, the number of people we have available, I think we do a very reasonable job – we are snapping at the heels of Jordan most weekends and they have a more competitive engine, more resources, their own wind tunnel, and a lot more people. So the strengths are in the quality of the people we have, and the way that everyone works together, and works hard."
Of course, every racing team works hard; every racing team is there to compete against each other with the aim to beat the others. The teams in Formula One have moved so far ahead of every other series due to the advances made in testing and manufacturing equipment at their disposal, and the reason that these advances came into existence is the vast sums of money thrown at the sport in the last decade. In the 1996 season, Ferrari, who had been struggling for some time and had just brought the two-time World Champion Michael Schumacher onboard with the aim of turning the underachievement around, were alleged to have a budget of $100 million for the year – in 2004, reports put their budget at four times that figure.
Formula One seems to have ignored the worldwide economic downturn of the last few years in the hope that it will go away, and certainly a number of the larger teams have come up with budgets that defy logic. "I think a lot of people were looking at Formula One at the end of the nineties and saw it as an incredibly valuable franchise business that was a sport first and a business second," Stoddart noted grimly, "but unfortunately post 9/11 and post the year that I took over a lot changed in the world, and a lot changed in Formula One. Unfortunately we went into a recession, we had the horrific events of 9/11, and it rapidly became a business first and a sport second, which is quite sad.
"There's been a lot of goings on over the last four years that have made the off-track action sometimes more interesting from a public point of view than the on-track action, which is quite sad. Minardi obviously had its best season with me in 2002 when I think everyone in Australia felt that we had won the Australian Grand Prix, and we also finished ahead of a works team that had a budget that was probably some forty times our budget, which is one of the things that you can be proud of at Minardi.
"But I think not only are we one of ten teams at the pinnacle of motor sport in Formula One, but also I'm very proud of our job with the drivers, because a lot of the value that people don't see in the small teams, the Jordans and the Minardis, is the drivers we bring through – we had a record at one of the Grands Prix last year where eight of the twenty drivers were Minardi drivers past or present. Those are the kinds of statistics that speak for themselves, and it's the true value of the small teams – it's not just the drivers, it's also the engineers, the mechanics, etc. that all come through the ranks – they've all got to start somewhere, and Minardi give them a chance to start.
"Of course we'd like to be further up the grid, but unfortunately in today's mega league of budgets it's a bit of a Catch 22 – to get more sponsorship in order to be faster you need results, and to get those results you need the sponsorship, so it's a Catch 22 situation. But having said that we keep trying, and Minardi is now the fourth longest surviving team in Formula One, after only Ferrari, McLaren and Williams in that order, and that's something to be pretty proud of. We look for the day that finally the commercial agreements are sorted out, and that'll probably be at the end of 2007; at some point we'll be able to give ourselves a decent budget and go out and see what the potential of all these dedicated people really are, which is something more than we're seeing at the moment."
Paul Jordan, Commercial Director (two years at Minardi): "I've had the fortune or misfortune to work for the bigger teams, the BARs and the Benettons and the Jordans, and I think corporate politics can sometimes get in the way of racing as we have seen, and are probably experiencing at the moment. That's only a personal view, and I think I fit better to a more entrepreneurial led organisation, which I had with Eddie [Jordan] and I now have with Paul. But it's tough - it's almost impossible to secure additional sponsorship, but we do, and we seem to continue to do that. "In plain commercial salesman speak you get more for your dollar (with us), so if the entry point is x with Ferrari and it's y with Minardi, and it's not a criteria that you're at the front and with a winning team, then one would suggest you can get a lot more for your dollar with Minardi. If you had a product that was being launched and you wanted some international, pan-European exposure, and were building your programme around Formula One and not necessarily a team, then I'm sure we could deliver a good return for them. It's still difficult finding those companies, but moneywise this year we've had the best year Paul's had in terms of getting the revenue in, so maybe we're doing something right.
"I also think that if you look back historically Minardi has introduced some key sponsors – Telefonica and Mild Seven are two that I can think of immediately – and a sponsor needs to be educated as well as drivers do, as well as everybody else. There's an argument that we could be seen as an academy as such, although we haven't been as successful as we have been in the past!"
The cars are so close to each other now, are so similar given the fixed dimensions laid out in the sporting regulations and similarities in measuring and design tools, that the differences come down to money, and who can spend it in the best manner towards a common goal of having the fastest car. It's a race that Minardi have no hope of winning – on the track conditions could contrive to help them to a good result (Stoddart still continues to believe that Jos Verstappen would, at the very least, have brought home a podium finish if he had stayed on the track in last year's chaotic Brazilian Grand Prix, for example), but money never falls from the sky no matter how much you might wish for it.
"In terms of what other people have in budgets we're achieving probably 97% on less than 10% of the budget," Stoddart smiled ruefully, "so someone's got it wrong somewhere. People will say 'yeah, but you're last so therefore you've got it wrong' – probably somewhere in the middle is the truth – we don't always want to be last, we're just locked into that at the moment because of the budgets and the way the distribution of wealth in Formula One is so geared to the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but one day there'll be a change to that, and it will probably be at the end of 2007. It'll always be easier for a team like Minardi who, if they get a bit more budget, can spend it wisely and show some serious performance increase. It's much harder if you've been used to having $400 million and someone takes $100 million away - that's where you struggle. So I long for the day when we have another $20 million to spend it sensibly, and someone else has a cut of maybe fifty or a hundred million to bring them back to some kind of a reality check.
"I know exactly where I'd spend it – we'd be incredibly thrifty with what we do because we know the areas that need money, particularly aero and wind tunnel time. We know the improvements we would make, and we know how much it would cost to do it. The reality is we would only beef up certain areas of personnel – most of the money would be spent on the car, and on certain aspects of the car that are currently starved for money when you have a small budget.
"The facilities by Formula One standards are without doubt the least in the Formula One grid – Minardi is the only team that doesn't have its own wind tunnel, we hire one – and Minardi is the smallest in terms of numbers of personnel at about 114, and in facilities, but we also have the facilities in the UK, and if you put the two together then it starts to look a bit more sensible. And the facilities in the UK are already producing the Minardi two-seater engine, and did produce the 2001 engine, so if we had to we could produce the engine in the UK next year. But it works."
So maybe it is strange to be Paul Stoddart, but he doesn't seem to be complaining too much; he's taken a lot of hits in his time in Formula One, but mostly he rolls with the punches and keeps coming back up. Sure, he knows that without the budgets enjoyed at the other end of the pitlane he's unlikely to move up the grid, but at this stage still being in the show is a success in itself. And if the money comes, he's got a plan in place to make things a little easier, to make the cars a little faster, to let the team compete a little more successfully.
And mostly he knows that, should it come together, the team will make the most of any chance that comes their way. "The fact is that Minardi is just full of passion, the people love to come to work, that's a difference, and at the end of the day we're incredibly proud of our driver record and what we've done over the years. With over 300 Grands Prix, we're the fourth oldest team in Formula One, and also without question we are still the people's team – if you ask people what is your second favourite team they will say Minardi, because we're the team that everybody would like to see have a good day.
"And every now and again we have one."
Sidebar: The View from the Garage
In the garage they move like a well oiled dance troop, choreographed to perfection; one mechanic puts on the new OzJet stickers as the tyre mechanics roll on around him. Gimmi Bruni has his helmet waiting for him on a cooling fan as he arrives; he lifts it and puts it on as one mechanic removes the fan, switching it off and hanging it above the third car as another one removes the rolls of tape it was sitting on and clears them away.
As the start of the practice session approaches everyone moves as one; everything has to be done at once, and they make sure that it is. They carry the large starter motors with a practiced surety around the onlookers at the rear of the garage, sliding them home with a clunk into the back of each car, and the ground vibrates when the engines start, the air rich with sweet, orangey smelling fuel as you feel the wind of the exhaust. The cars roll out, one after another into the sodden gloom outside; the mechanics clean the floor and get ready for their return.
The tyre warmers are in hand as they roll the car back in, the stinking smell of hot brakes and rubber filling the air as they do; smoke filters from within the rims as they put the tyre warmers back on the steaming rubber. Everything is plugged back into the overhead rig; the bodywork is taken off and wiped dry before being returned to its rightful place.
They check everything all the time – tyres, engines, components – the grey hairs in the middle around Bas Leinders, watching the younger men around the other drivers. Race engineers talk constantly to their drivers, starter motors constantly attached to the cars, just in case. And then they wait for the weather.
Bruni sits in his car and talks animatedly to his race engineer about something, who then speaks calmly into his mouthpiece before two mechanics bring out a new rear wing from behind the pit. The wing is changed in under a minute, the old one put out the back with the other spares, along side the unused engines and suspension units in a room that doubles as host to the telemetry computers; cramp but functional. Every other piece of space is filled with tyres, in and out of their warmers.
Two days later, before the start of the race, they go through the same process again until their duties are discharged with a roar of an engine that you can feel in your guts. After the cars have left, the mechanics stare at the pitlane; they can't see the track, but they keep staring anyway, nervous tics to the fore; one constantly flicking his nose with his pen, another tapping the workbench with his fingers.
They swear a lot – they're mechanics, they're racers – it's a bleeder valve for emotions set on high. They touch each other constantly as though for reassurance, all hands and movement, bumping into and excusing themselves continually. They bump into each other now, it seems, so that they won't do it when it counts.
Pitstops from inside the garage are an explosion of noise and movement. They take no time at all, seemingly less than when you are watching the action on television from home or even from the media centre, and all you can see is a blur of black and red from the noise producing machine in front of you, sat squat with violence. It makes your heart race just standing there – it's a mystery how they all get out of the way in time, of their own car or the others sliding past in the pitlane.
But they do, and they grin broadly as they move back inside, back to where the action is on television rather than in their own hands. And they wait for another chance to come around, another chance to get it right again.
Ford Motor Company's decision to withdraw from all Formula One activities, namely selling the Jaguar team and engine maker Cosworth (or shutting them down if there's no buyer), has an effect on more than just the employees at Milton Keynes. After all, just a couple of weeks before Ford's announcement, Minardi and Cosworth signed a new engine deal for 2005, that will see Cosworth provide Minardi with latest-spec engines. Like the Jordan team, which also relies on the Ford-subsidised engines, Minardi have now found themselves caught in uncertainty and apprehension over their future existence. But of the three teams in question, Minardi seem to be the team most likely to survive - perhaps because they already have a vast arsenal of engines at their disposal, perhaps because team owner Paul Stoddart is the master of improvisation and staying afloat. Take his latest move, for example: at the Chinese Grand Prix last weekend, the Australian circulated a letter to all other team bosses, as well as FIA president Max Mosley and commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone, proposing a solution that will allow Minardi to survive and leave Formula One with one less team to worry about.
According to Stoddart's suggestion, Minardi would run next season with the current 2004 package - that is, both engine and chassis design - ignoring the various regulation changes expected to pass for next season. This, according to Stoddart, would provide Minardi with a year to heal financially but won't, at the same time, pose any threat to the rest of the teams. Put simply: if Minardi is currently around five seconds a lap behind Ferrari, and if next season all teams are expected to slow down (through restricting regulations) by three seconds, then Minardi would still be slower than the others, just not drastically more slow than they are now.
Whether this suggestion would come to pass, remains to be seen. So far, other team owners have not ruled it out - it seems no one wants to see another team shut down, and everyone is aware of the fragility of Formula One as a whole. And Stoddart is taking full advantage of this awareness.
"Ford and Cosworth didn't fail Formula One, Formula One failed them," Stoddart explains. "We're not, for whatever reason, doing a good job of running this sport, and Ford's decision has actually cut to the bone in Formula One – I think for the [third] largest manufacturer in the world to say 'enough' doesn't really send out the right type of story.
"So I've more or less requested the other teams, and in fact Bernie and Max, to leave us out of it now. Because we have an engine for next year - I first of all do believe that Cosworth will be successful in finding a buyer, and therefore my existing contract I'm sure will be honoured. But in the event that sadly they didn't find a buyer, I have no hesitation in doing what I did in 2001, and obviously we are already making contingency plans to run our own engine in 2005.
"So Minardi will be there [next season] no matter what. However, having said that, I do feel that we can't take a chance on going the wrong way with the chassis [design], so I am saying 'guys, look, if it helps, leave us to run the 2004 car' – well, it won't be the 2004 car, but to the same regulations [of 2004] – and it gives us a chance to recover from what's obviously going on, and it gives us a transition year.
"Because for everyone 2005 is going to be a kind of transition year: we know there are new regulations coming in 2006. So I'm saying that it's a bit too late to argue over the engine situation, and you can't possibly legislate for what's going to happen; we don't know how long it will take for a decision to be made, and what we don't have is the luxury of time. Time is our biggest enemy – it's too late for us to react to major problems like this.
"It probably affects Jordan more than it does me, which is why I'm trying to help by saying Minardi has a solution. We need an agreement for that solution to be implemented - let us not be part of the problem and people can put their focus on finding an engine for Jordan and hopefully for Jaguar if Jaguar is sold. And hopefully it will be Cosworth for all three of us, but you don't know right now that that's going to be the final outcome.
"So what I've been trying to say is, 'guys, I'll put my hand up and try and find a solution that guarantees that Minardi will be on the grid, and then Minardi is not an issue and you can put all your efforts on finding a solution for Jordan and Jaguar'. I think it makes sense but we'll see – I haven't yet had feedback from everybody, but I have to say that at this stage I haven't had any negative feedback, so it's early days."
DC: The Formula One Commission still hasn't made a final decision on the regulation changes and what kind of aero, tyre and engine rules will be in place for next season. How does that affect Minardi?
Stoddart: "Well, the Formula One Commission can't meet until October, and then the new regulations need the approval of the World Council. But whatever the decision on the new regulations are, things have changed since these regulations were mooted and put forward.
"Furthermore, these changes were brought in under safety regulations and the stated figure is three seconds – it's quite obvious that Minardi is already more than three seconds off the pace, sadly, so therefore in a kind of a way we're already where they want it to go, so all I'm saying is I know it creates a two tier system, but it should run like that for one year and one year only - a transition year, so that we can have a chance to get ready for the 2006 regulations - give us a break."
DC: And you've got sixty odd engines, I think...
Stoddart: "We've got a lot of engines, but we wouldn't be using those, I don't think. We estimate our engine pool as being a pool of about 23 engines, but you don't work on that, you work on how many engine lives will you burn up in a season, and Minardi will burn up fifty engine lives in 2005, so we'd be doing fifty rebuilds. We've costed it, we know exactly what it will cost us, it's not an issue – we just need someone to agree to let us get on and do it."
DC: The obvious question, and it will probably come from the sharp end of the grid, is how can we run a two tier system? How can we have everyone running to one spec and you running to another?
Stoddart: "There is that argument, and I understand it. But we already have a two tier system – it's called a budget. We have the 'haves', and the 'have nots'. Let's just turn this around another way – let's just say that nobody agrees to this, then what's the likely outcome? The likely outcome is Minardi will be okay, but we would be seriously off the pace, which is not in the interests of safety, it's not in the interests of Formula One. So I would say it pretty much is a case of force majeure.
"Now, what are the other possible solutions? Well, we had a plan, and we still have a plan, for our new [Cosworth 2005] engine to be as competitive as it possibly can be. But if we don't have decisions, it's a bit much to expect a smaller team to actually turn around in January or February when they are getting ready for the start of the season in March if we don't know what we're actually putting in the back of the car. And we don't quite know, even at this stage, what we'll be running in terms of regulations. It's tricky – it's a lot to ask of a small team; the bigger teams have more budget and have probably already built parallel programmes to go whichever way.
"And in fairness, I don't want to labour on this because we pretty much all know what the regulations are, and we were before the [Ford] announcement all heading in a certain direction, and hopefully if there's a quick answer on a buyer then maybe all this goes away and we go back to Plan A, which is run the TJ engines, which we are contractually signed up to do, and we build our 2005 car. My argument is, if this drags on for too much longer, we won't have that option – that option will be taken away with the passage of time."
DC: Aren't Cosworth well under way with the TJ programme anyway?
Stoddart: "It's already there, it's done – it's not under way, it's done."
DC: So they've just got to build it now
Stoddart: "Correct, and there's no rocket science in that – it's already developed. What they have to know, and where we need absolute clarity, is whether they're building an engine that is expected to last for one race weekend or two race weekends.
"There is already a movement in the paddock; four manufacturers, I believe, have said that they are in favour of a one race weekend engine, and there are at least two or maybe three engine manufacturers that are in favour of a two race weekend engine. And I respect that, because everyone is entitled to their opinions, but it doesn't help the independents, because we're not able to influence this much. We have a vote, of course we do, but we're not an engine manufacturer so it's very hard for us to say whether it should be a one race weekend engine or a two race engine weekend; that is something the engine manufacturers have got to agree with Max Mosley.
"In the absence of agreement, Max will legislate - he is a regulator, and at the end of the day he is independent - and people will have to decide whether they are going to agree or not. The trouble is, it's going to be a tough one to win, because whichever way it goes we're going to have unhappy people, and unhappy people tend then to withdraw into their own little environment and plan for the future, and of course any plan to help out the independent teams goes out of the window whenever there is already argument and dissent amongst the manufacturers. We're almost a byproduct of the problem. We aren't the creator of the problems, but we do get caught up within the solutions."
During the interview, a Williams employee drops by the Minardi motorhome to tell Stoddart that Frank Williams and technical director Sam Michael have spoken about Stoddart's proposal and have given each other their thoughts. The Williams emissary tells Stoddart his team bosses are now waiting for feedback from Patrick Head, who himself did not travel to China.
"It's a tricky one," Stoddart continues afterwards. "You've just seen another answer, and that'll be a yes, but it's very hard to see where the real solutions are at the moment, because this news [about Ford] is actually devastating. And then we get into the next thing that no one really wants to bring up yet: if Jaguar is not sold, there will be nine teams in Melbourne - eighteen cars - and then Formula One's got a problem. If we have sixteen cars, we've got a bigger problem. If we have fourteen cars, we've got an even bigger problem.
"Then you get to the 'well, let's run three cars' – that sounds simple, but it's not. First of all, you need the FIA's agreement because currently in the regulations it's not very attractive to run a third car as it's not going to score points and it's really just a mobile chicane. Could that be changed? Yes, but again you need the FIA's agreement to that, and the governing body may not necessarily be agreeable to that! Certainly we've got Max, whose been very adamant in the past that if and when the situation ever arose, then we would follow the procedures that effectively mean that you ballot the teams, and whoever's number comes out has to run the third car.
"Then you have the school of thought that says seven good teams are better than ten with some not so good, but the very next question that comes up is, which manufacturer wants to put its hand up to be last, last and last? Because that's the beginning of the end, and I defy any manufacturer to sit there year after year and be last. If, of course, on the other hand you take the opinion that, well, we'd only be last for one year and we'll spend our way out of it, then you'll start an arms race here second to none, because whoever's last will spend another fifty or a hundred million and off we go again, and you'll start an upward spiral that will be almost uncontrollable until the next manufacturer says, 'I've had enough of this, I'm out of here'.
"So we don't want to belittle the intricacy of actually trying to sort this out, because it's not an easy problem – if it was easy it would already be sorted out. But you have a lot of interests here, and the best thing that can come out of all of this is that Jaguar finds a buyer, Cosworth finds a buyer, there are ten teams in Melbourne, and everybody's engine deals are honoured.
"There is now the other problem that if Cosworth is going to be a commercial entity, and it's no longer subsidised, then it means that Eddie and I - and maybe also Jaguar under new ownership - could actually be expected to pay for engines a price that we already can't afford. And you come back to the GPWC, the agreements on traction control and various other things where we actually say well, in reality we were promised commercially affordable engines back in April 2003, it didn't really come, we were promised all kinds of things that haven't actually happened, but then the money has to come from somewhere to fund all of this.
"What holds the key to more money? A new Concorde Agreement? Because currently we all know that the teams don't receive a lot of the money in Formula One – it's not that the sport doesn't have money, it's just where the money goes! So the whole thing is much more involved than people realise; it's a real tangled web, I'm afraid to say."
DC: There is a rumour that the deal you made with Ford Cosworth may not carry over to whoever buys Cosworth – is that true?
Stoddart: "No, it's not true. I've been very lucky, I've had a fantastic relationship with both Ford and Cosworth over the years, and I have nothing but respect for them. my deal is actually with Cosworth Racing, but I think it's fair to say that the relationship there is strong enough that I'm sure we would find - no matter what the situation - a negotiated settlement.
"I cannot see a situation where Ford, Cosworth and Minardi would fall out – we've been too strongly aligned in the past, and I have nothing but the best wishes for them, I totally understand what they've done, and there's not one ounce of anything other than good things to say about them. I can't see anything that's going to change that, because I am lucky in a way - there are no shareholders [in Minardi], there's only me, and I know what my feelings are to Cosworth and to Ford, and that's not going to change."
DC: You probably feel sorry for all the guys working there
Stoddart: "I do, totally. A lot of them are my friends, and I just want them to find a buyer."
DC: In spite of the fact that you've got this brilliant relationship with Cosworth, everything is up in the air. Have you spoken to any other engine suppliers at all?
Stoddart: "Because I have such a good relationship with Cosworth, I have not spoken with any of the other manufacturers seriously. Obviously in the longer term - maybe 2006, maybe later than that – I do believe that engines in Formula One are going to have to be free. And let me clarify that: nothing in life is free, but one of the biggest barriers to enter into this sport is the cost of engines, and one of the biggest differences between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' is that the 'haves' are backed by a manufacturer, and they not only get the engine for free but also get vast sponsorship backing from that manufacturer.
"Competing against manufacturer-owned or supported teams is nigh on impossible – we just can't get near the budgets. However, if in the long term those manufacturers had two teams, or had an interest in a second team, then life gets a lot easier for the second team, and the second team can fulfill quite a valuable role for those manufacturers. They can bring in younger drivers, that's the classic one; they can share technology; or they can share testing responsibilities, if there's a serious ban on testing, as has been so much discussed.
"Then we're getting into almost junior teams, and it's probably a bit too early to discuss that, but longer term the one thing I do agree on with Bernie is that the days of non-manufacturer teams being able to survive on their own is limited. There's no doubt that after this Concorde Agreement expires, if the manufacturers don't take an interest in the non-manufacturer teams, then it's going to be very difficult to see where the appetite will come from for the independent teams to actually want to go back in again – it'll be very tricky."
DC: So what does that say about the future of Formula One? One of the biggest questions is, has this almost killed off the future of Formula One?
Stoddart: "Well, no, I think you've got to look at it in a different way: if you could find one manufacturer, any manufacturer, who could stand to be last and last, I'd be very surprised – the answer is no. So therefore if that's the case, the independents will always have life in Formula One – but being an independent in Formula One on your own is one thing; being an independent team in name and title but everything else being aligned with a manufacturer could make you credible in your performances, could help the manufacturer, and most certainly would make Formula One affordable.
"Let's not get too caught up in the myth here: if we end up with a cheaper to produce engine that is lasting longer than it did before, then the Research and Development costs - which is where the vast amount of money goes – those costs will be amortised, they're going to be spent anyway. If you're making fifty engines or a hundred engines, there is a defined cost that it is not that great, and at that point if you also cut down the testing, then to be absolutely honest you end up in a situation where a manufacturer could actually save money by supporting a second team with an engine.
"I know what my engine lives are next year - they are fifty engine lives, that's all I will burn up. Now, if you asked any manufacturer, what's an extra fifty engines on your budget next year? If they're honest about it, they'll say it's a very small amount, because they'll blow that many up on the dyno.
"So if you get the costs right for them, it makes supplying a second team economical. Add the fact that this manufacturer has a young driver programme - and most of them do, if not all of them - so you are able to race your young drivers at the junior team. And teams like Minardi and Jordan have proven that we're where the drivers come from anyway, they are far better to do a year in.
"We're able to help them in other ways as well. So it does actually stack up – even financially it does stack up. But you've got to get over the current mindsets in Formula One of 'I don't want to help my neighbour', and that's the problem – how can I help a competitor? Well, you're not actually helping a competitor, you're helping yourself, because without your competitors you're racing yourself, and if you're racing yourself no one's interested."
DC: Well turn it around, then; what's the future in Formula One for independent teams, if new teams are not coming in? No one wants to come in to prop up the back end of the grid, and surely neither do you or Eddie...
Stoddart: "Correct, which is why you have to align in the longer term with a manufacturer. You're never going to get a spending cap - you might get some technology caps but they'll be hard fought over, and those with money will always find ways around them. So in a perfect world, in the longer term - though probably not until after 2008 - you probably want a manufacturer with their own name on the team and a supported independent which is running with their engine or some of their technology.
"Just look at the days when Jaguar gave the same specification engines to Arrows: at that time, [then Jaguar boss] Niki Lauda said 'I actually want them to beat me because that means we're not doing a good enough job'. If your technology transfer is actually good enough, you'll create competitive teams that in their own name and in their own right on their day can have a very, very good time. It was only last year that Jordan won a race, and we need to remember that. Lucky as [that win] may have been, it happened – there are a lot of manufacturers that have yet to win a race.
"So we've really just got to sit back and look at it – it's not all over for the independents, but in today's market, with today's spending, it's a very brave independent that comes into the sport without an alignment with a manufacturer."
DC: You say there is never going to be a spending cap – why is that?
Stoddart: "Because you can't stop somebody spending their own money. You can - as indeed the FIA has tried to do - limit the areas in which you can spend the money, but you can't tell any company, be it Mercedes, Ford, or BMW, that they can't spend their money, you can only ever tell them where they can spend it. Were you to turn around and say, 'right, the teams have got to have a wage cap of this, it's got to have a drivers cap of that, car build cap of whatever' - all you would be doing is you would drive the expenditure into third party companies that are making the components that are then sold at a loss to that team to fill that criteria; you're just cheating yourselves.
"Formula One is the cutting edge of technology – you're not going to restrict it – but we've got into the league now of super spends, what I call the 400 million budgets that are ultimately unsustainable. The manufacturers are the first to say they want to cut the price. Agreeing amongst themselves on engine specifications will in itself drive the spend down, agreeing on the life of an engine will in itself knock down the number of units – the big one they're yet to touch is a proper agreement on testing, and they will struggle with that, because while there are two tyre manufacturers in Formula One it will be incredibly hard to drop tyre testing, and if you don't stop tyre testing you will never stop testing."
DC: Finally, you said last month, in Spa, that you are already starting to build a new car. Are you still doing that?
Stoddart: "Yes. We've not suspended it, but we definitely slowed down the significant expenditure until we get some clarification, because as I said earlier, we can't afford to go the wrong way, so we'll just have to wait and see what's goes on over the next few weeks."
DC: But even if you get an agreement with the other teams and the FIA to run to the 2004 regulations next year, you will still build a new chassis?
Stoddart: "Oh yeah, exactly – it keeps the factory happy!"
To make anything from a Minardi drive you have to be a realist about your situation. Mark Webber had some backing from Renault, but he knew that he would have to impress in his year with the team in black to continue his career. Fernando Alonso knew likewise, but had a Renault test drive to fall back on. Jarno Trulli impressed, and secured his future when he was loaned to Prost to replace Olivier Panis after the Frenchman's accident in Canada. Giancarlo Fisichella worked and worked and scored a Jordan drive; Justin Wilson did similarly but the Jaguar drive didn't stick. Gianmaria Bruni (pronounced as it looks; his nickname Gimmi is pronounced Jimmy) knows his place in the pecking order. "I think that if they (the other team's bosses) need anybody then for sure the first team they will look at is Minardi, because they have lots of records behind them." Which didn't help last year, of course. "I think they just didn't have the really talented drivers there last year," Bruni reflected on a warm Saturday afternoon after his first ever Formula One qualifying session in Australia.
"They had Jos (Verstappen) who was 32 years old, and they had (Nicolas) Kiesa who, okay, was a good driver but nothing that special. So I think this is why they didn't choose any drivers from Minardi last year."
Driving for Minardi is unlike driving anywhere else; you might be in the big game and in front of the other team bosses, but generally you don't have a car that can showcase your talent. To really impress at Minardi you have to do extraordinary things with the car, and Bruni has started that process well; a problem in qualifying in Australia necessitated a start from the back of the grid, from where he overtook three cars on the first lap and moved up to 15th before the first stop.
Bruni has been taking the fight to the other teams, and comprehensively thrashing his teammate. There's not much more you can do as a Minardi driver.
But sitting in the relaxed Minardi paddock Bruni was holding court, talking to anyone who came over between his briefings with the team's engineers, and looked forward to racing with the Jordans, discussing the improvements much maligned Bridgestone have made in the off-season and considering the difference between Romans and Romagnols.
DC: You've actually driven on a Grand Prix weekend last year as the third driver in the private test sessions - how much of a difference is it from that to being a race driver here this year?
Bruni: It's okay, but we are not at those tracks; it's a brand new track so it is different. Compared to them (points a thumb towards the rest of the paddock) we don't have much experience because we've only done three days testing this year, and if you take the time there plus Friday here it's like one and a half days testing for me, so I don't have a lot of experience, but I feel fine.
DC: But it's a big step up from being the third driver.
Bruni: Yeah, of course it is, because you have think about set-up of the car rather than just set a quick time or testing a part; it has to help what you will do in the next few days.
DC: How much of a change has it made to your life?
Bruni: Of course a lot; now I will be away for 18 races this year, and last year after a 3000 race I was coming back where I was living. But this is Formula One, and if you want to be in Formula One you have to do these things. It's what I love.
DC: Your experience with the team means you are in a good position to dictate set-ups ; is Zsolt (Baumgartner) looking to you for this, or is he going his own way?
Bruni: Yeah, we work together, and move forward together, but I have a little more experience with the engineers, so they listen a little more to me obviously, as we've been working together already for one year.
DC: And of course you speak Italian, they speak Italian...
Bruni: No, they speak English, and English is fine because I've lived in England for three years and have been giving English feedback since Formula Three.
DC: Are you still based in England now?
Bruni: No, I'm based now in Rome but I spend a lot of time in Faenza where the factory is. It is fantastic, though, because the mechanics there speak Italian, and they're so funny!
DC: They are Romagnol (Faenza is in Emilia Romagna, near Ravenna) after all; everyone knows they're a bit weird!
Bruni: Yeah, they don't like me at all! But you can say it's better than me being Dutch or Danish or whatever!
DC: And the food is good at least.
Bruni: Yeah, the food is great!
DC: What do you do when there isn't a race on - do you go and hang around in the factory?
Bruni: Yeah, yeah, and training, which is like three hours a day, but the rest of the time I take a little rest and have some fun with the engineers.
DC: How is your fitness level now? There is a big difference between Formula 3000 and this.
Bruni: No, I think 3000 is heavier than this one; it's a very physical category but here is one and a half hours, there is only fifty minutes, so it's another half hour, forty five minutes race. Physically 3000 is much, much harder, but for me it's not the biggest problem to race; in 3000 there is no power steering. In Formula One the only thing more heavy is the neck, and the other things like arms and shoulders 3000 is much heavier.
DC: Are you up to 100% of where you have to be for fitness in Formula One?
Bruni: Yeah, I think so. Well, nobody is 100%; always we want to improve, like we want to improve the car, so I still want to improve to be totally ready for this.
DC: What do you think you can get out of this year?
Bruni: I think I can get lots of experience of Formula One, and maybe get some points for the team.
DC: So what can you do as a Minardi driver to impress the team bosses further up the grid?
Bruni: What I did up to now; just doing the best times I can make with this car and the other things can come easy. Obviously, I think the team are fantastic people, and the only thing they don't have is the money, but I think in the future if we are able to improve the handling of the car we will be able to do something.
DC: So who is your benchmark, who do you compare yourself to mentally at the moment as a target?
Bruni: Well, one of the Jordans, or both of them; we have to think that we have 80bhp less than them and have the handling the same as last year, the chassis is three years old and from Mark Webber, who was driving the same chassis (laughs). It's hard if you think about they have 870bhp and we have 790 or 800 in qualifying... I think maybe the top teams can look at that and say 'oh, what's going on here?' I'm just trying my best every time I go out and maybe we can improve the car and move up; you never know.
DC: Has anything been done to your engines to cater for the new engine rules, or are they the same as last year?
Bruni: No, they are the same as last year but just less revs, to do the miles.
DC: So it's a 300km engine; you're just not working it as hard?
Bruni: Yeah! (laughs)
DC: Is that situation going to change over the year?
Bruni: We hope to, we hope to; maybe in the middle of the year we will swap to the Jordan engine, and it is the same as the Jaguar, I don't know. I hope to, really, because it is 80 horsepower more, and that is like a second around here, or Spain, Monza - it's like a second.
DC: So what has to happen for this? Is it just a case of money, or negotiations?
Bruni: I don't know this one; it's nothing to do with me. All I can say is if the car has understeer or oversteer or some problem, but nothing really about money or politics.
DC: Leaving really bizarre races like Brazil last year aside, do you honestly believe that Minardi can score points this year?
Bruni: You never know; two years ago I wasn't driving and now I'm in Formula One, so you never know in motor racing. It's all passion here (at Minardi), and today I was in front of Jordan and these guys were so happy, so it's not a bad thing for me; I didn't make qualifying, and maybe I would have been in front of one Jordan car, and for them it's amazing to be in front of a car that has five times the budget.
MG: Bridgestone seems like they have a good tyre this year?
Bruni: Yeah, yeah; they've been working very hard, and I think here they have very good tyres.
DC: You were on last year's tyres in effectively the same car - how much of an improvement has there been in the tyres?
Bruni: A lot, more than half a second just on the tyres.
DC: So pretty much all of the time savings this year you have is from the tyres?
Bruni: Well, yesterday on low fuel I did 1.28.8, and last year they did 1.30.2, so it is almost 1.5 seconds better. So there is the tyres, and maybe working the chassis the right way.
DC: One thing I have wondered is what is to stop you running a 300km engine here, because if you go back ten spots (on the grid) you're still in the same position.
Bruni: I don't know; we have thought about it, but it's not my decision really - end of story.
David Cameron: I'm just following up on the finances, on Bernie and the fighting fund. Where does that stand at the moment? The last time I spoke to you you hadn't signed the contracts.
Paul Stoddart: We still haven't signed a contract, which isn't an issue because we've been doing a lot of work behind the scenes on the association with the Bernie name - I don't think I need to say a lot more really. It is enough for us, and if you add to that the so-called fighting fund is now more aiming towards making sure that engines are available at commercially affordable prices for next year. It's quite clear that Jordan and I have got through this year - we've had a few bits of help, but no fighting fund as such - we've had a few things happen that have been in our favour, and Jordan have too to be honest.
So although the famous fighting fund never actually occurred clearly all teams - there's no point just distinguishing Minardi and Jordan - are through for 2003, so our focus now is on 2004 and what transpired on the 15th of January 2003 with those famous words "the ten million euro engine", which was backed up by the FIA team owners and team technical directors meeting on April 29th at Heathrow where what I would say consideration was given in exchange for commercially affordable engines, and that consideration was the retention of traction control and all of the good things that came out of that meeting.
Both Jordan and I and anyone else - let's not exclude Peter [Sauber] in all of this: yes at the moment he's fine, but you know, there'll come a time - where the engine being the biggest single expense for an independent team needs to be at a commercially affordable price, and that's where I think it's heading in this direction. There have been good signs of cooperation from various quarters; not just the GPWC but Bernie's been doing some work behind the scenes as well; you'll see that those words, "commercially affordable engines", will be honoured in 2004, and that is almost your fighting fund in effect.
DC: Have you or anyone at the team actually spoken to Mercedes about the engine deal?
PS: No, and I think there's a lot of confusion about the Mercedes engine deal. Because Professor Hubbert and Ron Dennis were the two instigators of the cheaper engines for the independent teams that has been directly linked in many cases to Mercedes being a customer supplier, and Mercedes through Ilmor could, I am sure, supply an engine, and they may well decide to do so.
Minardi have not spoken to them - we are perfectly happy with Cosworth and we will stay with Cosworth for the foreseeable future, and I think we are blessed to have perhaps the best engine working relationship with our supplier in this pitlane. All our own staff are ex-Cosworth staff, and there is a tremendous atmosphere in that relationship, a really bond, a really nice relationship. I ain't going to change that - that's not to say that we wouldn't have a good relationship with someone else, but when you're happy with something why change it - if it ain't broke, why fix it.
DC: So you've got an engine deal?
PS: We have an engine deal for next year - it's already in place - it was actually signed in Hungary. But what we don't have yet, we have a deal but we don't have a specification. This is not down to Cosworth, but we haven't decided what specification we want, and that will depend on which way we go with the car for next year and on the finalisation of the run programme for next year - there are still discussions about that and it might be changed, and that will have a dramatic effect because of the single engine rule. What I can tell you is that Minardi is running a Cosworth engine, and that is already signed for 2004.
DC: How does the differences in specification work? Isn't it a whole new engine?
PS: No, it's almost menu pricing - Formula One engines are unique beasts, but they do have more flexibility than perhaps is known. Under certain set of circumstances an engine which perhaps is in an existing car today, be it a Jordan, a Jaguar or a Minardi, could quite easily become a single race engine for next year - it is just a case of amending certain parameters in the engine. It's a direct trade off - you trade longevity for max horsepower and max rpm. Which comes back to what I was telling you that we need to know what the format is for next year, so we can see what a race weekend is in kilometres before we decide what engine type we are going for, and that's why while the deal is agreed the specification isn't.
DC: So effectively you could run an existing engine?
PS: One of the families of existing engines has the possibility to run as a single race engine, but it's a trade off - what we are trading is power and rpm. If it's an acceptable trade off it may well be through, as a hypothetical situation, re-engineering one of the existing family of engines we could find that we have no worse than what we've got now, and we're happy with what we've got this year, but with an engine that can do more kilometres. So this is why I stress that although the decision for running Cosworth is already done, the specification of engine is not, which is why we haven't done a big announcement because until we can define the specification and can have the engine sitting next to us you don't call a press conference. We've been consistent all through the year and I've said always that we'll run a Cosworth engine in 2004.
DC: Just to go back to the money side of things, has the proxy fighting fund been received?
PS: The smaller amount? Well, it wasn't directly from the teams, but we have got that. The money that was agreed to be paid, and let's just go back to January 15th to the original fighting fund, and there was no secret about it, was originally eight million dollars to Jordan and eight million dollars to Minardi. It didn't happen. There are monies floating around, some of which have found their way to Minardi and Jordan, which were monies that say Jordan would claim were rightfully theirs, but it doesn't matter what the reasons are - smaller amounts have found their way.
But also, and I can now only really speak for Minardi, our own position has improved quite a bit in the second half of the year. In other words we've had very much more support from our sponsors which has been great, we've brought in a test driver on Friday mornings which we didn't have in the first half of the year, and we've done a driver change. So clearly the combination of all of those things has improved Minardi's fortunes quite a bit, and we no longer have to worry about the end of the year.
DC: Have you got the money from Bernie, or is that still pending?
PS: No, that's our fallback safety fund if we need it, and we don't at the moment.
DC: Are you looking at a date for signing?
PS: We have an in-season date, which if we were short of money we could complete at a minute's notice and be okay throughout the winter getting ready for next year. So we've sort of got enough options now that we can go whichever way we want to.
DC: So as it stands it's a next season thing?
PS: Well no - it could be more described as a winter thing. The whole deal with Bernie was predicated on keeping ten teams in Formula One - when the chips were down Bernie was there. So what you're really looking at here is the situation where through association with Bernie our fortunes have improved to the point where we're still being able to stand on our own two feet.
However we're also aware that we don't want to have to go through another year like this so we're making sure that we are doing things, we're talking to investors, and we're talking to different people to make sure that next year is not a repeat of this. So if along the way we needed to get money from Bernie or a direct investment from Bernie then that would be available. So basically we have options, and that's really the difference from now and Canada - we had no options, whereas now things have changed quite a bit.
DC: Are you looking at things like sponsor deals for next year, driver deals for next year...
PS: Right now - in fact right now literally! (looks over to another table of people in the motorhome)
DC: Anything that you can actually say about it?
PS: I think the best way to say it is to generalise it, because it would be unfair to name individuals because we're speaking to so many. A point not to be lost - today, and indeed tomorrow's Grand Prix, eight drivers - 40 per cent of the field - either drove with us or is a current driver. Eight - a bit of a story in that. And if you have that kind of a track record where so many of your drivers go on to bigger and better things then it all of a sudden makes you a very attractive proposition - if you're a driver and want to get into Formula One, or you're a young driver's manager and want to get your driver into Formula One, then Minardi [is the better option], and no disrespect to Jordan or any other team.
At the end of the day our track record speaks for itself - Minardi is the place to start your career because people don't expect you to perform miracles but if you do, by God they take notice. So it's the best place to do your apprenticeship, simple as that, which means if I told you I had twenty names I wouldn't be exaggerating, if I told you I'm in serious negotiations with five I'd be spot on, and if I told you I expect to announce one in the next few weeks I wouldn't be lying. So more or less we are the place to come if you want to get your foot on the first rung on the ladder, and I'm quite proud of that really.
DC: We missed you in the press conference yesterday...
PS: I can't wait to see a transcript of that - I told Graham (Jones, Minardi press officer) to get me a copy of that - apparently it's about that thick! (indicates two inches with his fingers) I'm a bit pissed off actually because they told me it almost rivaled my one in Canada, and I'm very upset about that because I thought I had the most famous two points scored in Formula One and the most famous press conference in Formula One, so I'll be very upset if Ron's upstaged me - I'll be very, very pissed off! (laughs)
DC: Well I think yours is still better, but theirs is a bit longer.
PS: That doesn't matter - I don't care how long it went if they were just waffling about tyres - at least I had some serious issues that had people on the edge of their seats - they didn't have Bernie standing there crossing his arms, and they didn't have the other team principals taking seats in the stalls, so I think I've still got the record for that one!
And I'm not against that, I've got to say - my attitude with things like that is that we ought to be more open. I'm probably the exception in this paddock - I'm the only one who will tell it like it is - and if people want to hear it then great, if they don't then tough. At the end of the day what they get is what they see, it is how it is and that's the end of it. I sort of reckon the public love it to be honest - they like the truth, they like to know what goes on behind the scenes to a certain extent because they love the sport. I only wish that Canadian press conference was broadcast actually - it would have made for some good drama TV as Eddie said - that's about the only true thing he said all day!
DC: We had an mp3 of it on the site and people loved it - they all wrote in and said how amazing it was - I only wish we could have run a video of it!
PS: Yeah, you needed the video of it to see the body language as well - you needed Ron's jacket coming off, the rain pissing down outside, the sweat pouring down, the shuffling in the seats, EJ knocking the microphone over trying to see what was in my papers - it was bloody good I've got to say! People are interested in all aspects of this sport - we're lucky in that respect - and I don't think it hurts. You wouldn't want to do it all the time because people would think you're a bunch of wankers, but occasionally when there's a hot topic, a real gutsy type of topic, I don't think it hurts to sort of tell it like it is.
"If you're not in Formula One people forget about you, that's for sure," Jos Verstappen noted as he settled into his seat in the Minardi motorhome on a mild Saturday afternoon after qualifying in Austria. And he knows what he's talking about - the amiable Dutchman's Formula One career was almost destroyed at the start of last year when he was unceremoniously dumped by Arrows in favour of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, despite bringing home the team's only point in 2001 and having a solid contract for the year to come in his back pocket.
Verstappen's reputation as a prickly character is entirely at odds with his actual demeanor, and I was surprised at the laidback attitude and geniality of a man who could so easily have become bitter by the hands he's been dealt over his career. His path in Formula One has been daunting - he entered the sport in 1994 at the age of 22 as teammate to the soon-to-be-World-Champion Michael Schumacher, a difficult enough task for an experienced driver let alone a young rookie hoping to make a name for himself. The two drivers became fast friends, and the friendship endures to this day despite the younger driver being dumped by the team at the end of the year.
Over the ensuing years Verstappen has driven for a succession of low order teams, and a career total of seventeen points (ten of which were earned in his debut year) seems scant reward for eight years of effort. But driving for teams like Simtek, Arrows or Tyrrell doesn't allow a driver too many opportunities to shine. So it was easy to see why he grabbed at the lifeline offered to him by Minardi at the start of this year.
"I wasn't [in F1] last year, because of circumstances that happened, and I had to be in Formula One if I wanted to still have a career in Formula One. And this was a good opportunity," he explained, his pale blue eyes shining with delight as he discussed the start of his latest comeback in the sport that he loves.
It's all that he's got, and he's been trying to make the most of it. Verstappen has a strange reputation - he's portrayed as being aloof and moody, and yet in person he is self-effacing and relaxed, joking throughout the interview and easygoing with any enquiry. He's clearly adapt at handling the media, as you would expect after all his years in the game, and he knows when to talk something up and when to keep his mouth shut and smile. And he smiles a lot, secure in the knowledge that he's got at least one more roll of the dice this year.
The Minardi drive is a dual edged sword, in that he gets to show his abilities in the most popular racing series in the world, albeit in a car that doesn't allow him to impress in any great manner. A Minardi drive can allow a driver to move up the grid, as Jarno Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella, Fernando Alonso, and Mark Webber can attest, but it seems that the only way to do so is to completely dominate your teammate and hope that the car is good enough to outqualify some of the opposition occasionally. For Verstappen, this isn't happening.
Arguably Verstappen was brought into the team to act as a mentor for Wilson, and the pair seems to be working together well. "Working with Justin is really good," Verstappen verifies. "We don't have any secrets, and the relationship is just really good. We are special to each other, and I think Justin is a very talented driver. He deserves to be in Formula One, that's for sure." The affection for his young English teammate was clear to see in his words and actions, and it's in marked contrast with some of the drivers he's been paired with in the past, which on occasion led to strained relations in the pits at his former teams.
But the problem that both Verstappen and Wilson face is that they seem to be equally matched, and this isn't going to help either of them move up the grid. Verstappen knows it - the first rule of motorsport is beat your teammate, and right now neither driver is coming out on top. It doesn't help that there are always a number of small problems which cut into the already limited track time available to them both. "Yeah, like today" he agreed. "People always watch and they say 'oh he outqualified him today', but I missed half an hour of practice and couldn't set up the car for qualifying. Normally when that happens you don't have any chance to compete with your teammate in qualifying, and so I didn't beat him at all you know. In the smaller teams I think it's hard to compare the drivers."
At heart Verstappen is a racer, and when talk turns to the car his eyes light up and he leans even further across the table to share his thoughts.
DC: How has the engine been?
JV: The engine is fantastic - I think the engine is the best Minardi has had for a long time. On the engine side we're very very happy - I think the relationship between Minardi and Cosworth has been fantastic. The engine has been really good for us.
DC: You started on older tyres at the start of the year - have you gone to the new ones yet?
JV: We don't know - we don't know what we get. I know the compounds we have no one else has, but I don't know why.
DC: So Bridgestone isn't telling you?
JV: No, not really - we don't really get (long pause) we get information, but not as much as we'd like. And it would be nice if we could choose the tyres, but then as well we need to go testing, we need to find what tyres are good for our car, and we haven't done any. So it's a bit hard for us, and a bit hard for Bridgestone to know what we need, and what we don't need.
Which is a bad situation to be in, and it certainly no help to a team fighting against the other teams, who are running on bespoke tyres. I wondered if it was part of the deal the team did with Bridgestone, but Verstappen countered that as he wasn't there when the deal was done he no way of knowing. It's clearly a sore point within the team, and one that isn't being discussing it in public. Whatever the reason the switch to Bridgestone had nothing to do with Verstappen's links to the Japanese giant (he tested tyres for the company for a year prior to their entry to Formula One); Minardi switched from Michelin prior to the driver signing with them.
And yet, none of this seems to be getting to Verstappen - he is probably the most outwardly happy driver on the grid, and a lot of this comes from getting back into Formula One against the odds. His sunny disposition can only help with the tough time he's had on his return. "It's been difficult of course," he notes. "Everyone expected us to be more competitive because we have a more powerful engine for this year. In the wind tunnel they thought we gained downforce as well, and we expected a lot from the tyres. Overall we thought okay we're going a lot quicker.
"But at the end of the day I think the other teams worked a lot harder, and they have a more competitive car. And you can see in the first four or five races the gap between all them (and us) I think is massive. So I think it's very tough." Minardi have never had the resources to push improvements on the car over a season, and the new testing deal limits them even more in this area than previous years. "It depends how much money there is from the sponsors," Verstappen stated. "I think it will be very tough to be honest. I think for every team to improve in the second part of the season is very tough, and I think for Minardi it's double tough." And he laughed at this, probably because he knows there's little he can do to improve the situation - he's doing all he can do in the car, and it's out of his hands.
The talk of sponsorship brought us to one of the main anomalies of Verstappen's career - he has one of the largest fan bases on the grid, but fans don't pay for drives; sponsors do. It's a point not lost on the amiable Dutchman. "They do, yeah" he acknowledged. "I must say the amount of publicity we've got this year is unbelievable. We work very close with the television station in Holland, and we try to create a good atmosphere and a positive story - if you're always negative, sponsors don't want to associate with you - so we try to build it up. At the end of the day it's good for everybody - it's good for the TV, it's good for the sponsors, and it's good for yourself - and that's how we want to attract sponsors for next year, to have a bigger budget and to maybe get another drive."
DC: Okay, I have two questions about sponsorship - one maybe good, the maybe not so good.
JV: You can ask anything you want (laughs).
DC: There's a rumour that two of the current sponsors haven't paid Minardi yet.
JV: Yeah, but it has nothing to do with my sponsors - my sponsors have paid, but how the situation with some of them is … very political.
DC: There was talk that perhaps Trust might put in some more money to cover the shortfall.
JV: That's true - they are discussing the possibilities. (Four days after the race in Austria Trust announced that they had agreed to become the team's principal sponsor for an unspecified increase in sponsorship, replacing Gazprom on the car).
DC: The other thing I heard is that there are potentially another two sponsors coming to Minardi - do you know anything about this?
JV: I must say we are working on something - the response in Holland has been really good, and people want to be part of it, and who knows what might happen.
Verstappen will celebrate his hundredth Grand Prix start in July at the French Grand Prix, which is surprising given that he's never been in a car that was able to place higher on the grid than sixth (achieved once, at Spa in 1994). Despite his age, this achievement makes him one of the senior drivers on the grid, although his results have been in a steady decline since his debut with Benetton. This isn't too surprising considering his rides, but it's not likely to improve his standing with the team bosses further up the grid. "Well I'm only 31 years old," Verstappen notes, "and I think as long as you're interested in driving those cars and you want to do anything for it I think you can easily drive until you're 36, 37 years. So we have plenty of time, as long as we have a good season. Because you don't lose your talent, but you need a good car."
The problem is that it hasn't been a great season for him so far this year, and given his car that's unlikely to turn around. "Yes, it's a bit disappointing at the end of the day," he noted resignedly. "But hopefully we can get enough sponsors together and can do something for next year, because I don't want to quit Formula One - I really like to drive those cars." Staying at Minardi is probably Verstappen's only way of remaining in Formula One, bar replacing an injured driver further up the grid, and it's what he and his manager are focusing on already. "We don't know - if they have a good budget, and if they do a lot of wind tunnel work, and if they have this engine or even a better one I think it's definitely our chance. And we're also looking somewhere else as well."
This last comment is given with a resigned sigh - it's the kind of comment a driver has to make, but looking in his eyes it's clear that the focus is on staying with Minardi; he's doing what he loves to do, and things could be worse. It's clear that the team is happy with him, and he is getting to play the senior driver after a year out showed him the alternative is not driving at all, so he's is making the most of his opportunity while it's here.
There are two categories of Formula One drivers - after retirement from Grand Prix racing they either retire entirely from motorsport (such as Damon Hill or Mika Hakkinen) or they keep racing as long as they can, wherever they can (like Jean Alesi). I suspected that Verstappen would probably fall into the latter category, and he agreed with me. "It depends what age you have of course," Verstappen noted, "and it depends on what you want to do of course. But I see myself … I must say I like DTM as a series, but it depends - if I don't get a drive next year then for sure I will drive somewhere else, but not in the States."
"I don't like the oval tracks," he continued, "I think if they were racing on proper circuits where you've got to brake and accelerate, I think that's racing, but at the oval tracks I don't see the point. I mean it's very popular in the States, and there's a lot of overtaking and close racing with high speed, but it's more show. And I don't like the show - I like the racing." So that rules the IRL out, but CART has positioned itself more as the American road racing championship. "Maybe, but there's still racing on ovals, and you can't step out just for the ovals."
"And I think as well I want to stay in Europe" he concluded, and it's not hard to see that his family life is at the heart of this decision - he is married now and has two young children, and a move across the ocean would cause more upheaval in his life than it would have a few years ago. But for now I let him go off to speak to some more Dutch reporters, smiling as he goes, and I can't help but think that Verstappen is as happy as he can be - he's still driving in Formula One, doing what he loves best, and no one could begrudge the genial Dutchman that small joy.
The Formula One television coverage in Australia is bad – anyone would tell you that, even Bernie Ecclestone. Races are rarely aired live, the majority of them being "tape delayed", normally very late at the night (or early in the morning, depending on your perspective).
When I lived in Australia, a friend of mine used to come over to watch the Grands Prix. Bad coverage or not, we didn't miss any. But we needed to find something to keep ourselves amused (and awake), and so we spent the races making fun of the commentators. Daryl Eastlake never seemed to know who the drivers were, and World Champion Alan Jones rarely had a good word for any of them. Strangely, though, one of the few drivers they both knew and respected was a young, up and coming Australian named Mark Webber.
Australians love motor racing, but few, if any, actually made it to the pinnacle of motor racing in the last couple of decades. Eastlake and Jones held enthusiasm for this Webber guy, and they would pass on any information they could about his burgeoning F3 career, as well as bemoan the fact that very few Australian companies were supporting him. It was inevitable that I became intrigued – so few Aussies make it to Europe, and most of them fall by the wayside - but with no other source of information, I never really had the opportunity to follow Webber's career closely and figure out how he worked his way through the junior ranks.
Fast forward half a decade or so, and Webber has made it into Formula One. As it happens, so did I – if only for a brief weekend at Monza, for the Italian Grand Prix, where I was assigned by Atlas F1 to interview Mark Webber. It was a chance for me to get to meet (with apologies to David Brabham) the first real Aussie hopeful since Alan Jones (or at least an opportunity for a couple of exiled Aussies to practice their accent).
The 2003 Mystery
With just a couple of races to go before the 2002 season comes to an end, next year's game of musical chairs is almost done, and yet Webber's whereabouts for 2003 remain unknown. For a while, he was a sure candidate for a Jaguar contract, with sources on both side stating the deal is all but done. Come the Italian Grand Prix, where Jaguar scored their first podium in more than a year, the deal didn't seem to remain viable.
Webber, though, doesn't look worried. "I know exactly what we're looking at, but I'm not going to tell you," he says, laughing. He does bring up an interesting option nevertheless. When I mention the possible teams – not naming any of them myself – he himself lists "Jaguar, Toyota, Minardi and Jordan" as possible options. Jordan? Where on earth did that option come from? He remains coy about any other details, and it's hard to tell with Webber if he just gave you a big hint or a big smokescreen. Oh well, if he does end up in a Jordan remember that you read it here first!
Webber's career is managed by Flavio Briatore – the flamboyant Renault team chief who took Michael Schumacher to his first two World Championships and has been attempting to repeat the coup with his own drivers ever since, among them Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso. The latter in particular has been crossing roads with Webber the last couple of years: Webber took his seat at Minardi while the young Spaniard took his testing role in Renault/ex-Benetton. Now, Alonso is about to become the racing driver for Renault and one could be forgiven for thinking that Briatore's interests are conflicting at times.
"I haven't seen a downside [to working with Flavio] at all yet" Webber responds. "I've got to perform, and no one's going to take me if I'm not performing, whether it's a team or a management, so I don't think it's a huge issue."
DC: Looking at Alonso, though, don't you feel that perhaps he's taking now the racing seat that could have been yours, had you stayed with Renault?
Webber laughs. "I could be ahead of him next year," he says, "so I'm not too disappointed."
DC: Last month you had Anthony Davidson as your teammate for a couple of races and while you still outqualified and outraced him, did you feel any extra pressure?
Webber: "Yeah, I suppose I was a bit of a sitting duck – he had absolutely nothing to lose and I did. He's the guy who comes in for his first few races or whatever, but John, my engineer, said to me: 'he's actually done more F1 testing than you ever had', so he's got a lot of experience in F1. He knew basically what everything did, and it was good for me to have somebody like that, and we still had to work hard. But it was good to come out of that battle on the right side of it."
DC: I find it interesting that all of a sudden there are a lot of people talking about Davidson, and he now seems to be in competition with you for the remaining drives next year.
Webber: "There are so many guys trying to get into Formula One, trying to take my position, Montoya's, Ralf's, Michael's, so week in week out we've got to perform. There are so many guys trying to come in, and I'm not getting up in the morning and thinking about Anthony Davidson taking my seat – I'm not really worried about it – it'll take care of itself."
2002 in Retrospect
Webber seldom looks worried about anything, and sitting in the paddock it seems strange to think of Webber as a rookie driver. Over the weekend I saw him talking to mechanics, sponsors, journalists and people up and down the grid, and he seemed so at ease that anyone who didn't know him would assume he had been a part of the circus for years.
Take free practice on Saturday morning, for example: I was standing in the Minardi garage, in-between Webber's section and Alex Yoong's, and while it was fun to watch the mechanics buzzing around the cars, moving tyres and machines to and fro, it was striking to note how unaffected Webber seemed to be by all this commotion. He sat calmly while everyone moved around him, talking briefly to his mechanic and then passing the remote for the television over before driving out in the pitlane to run some laps. The calm on his side of the garage was remarkable, and everyone there seemed to move more fluidly, more easily than on the other side.
The fact that Webber drives for Minardi - and not for Ferrari or McLaren, for that matter - makes little difference in the demands and the discipline which is required of him throughout the weekend. If anything, he has a much tougher challenge to face. "Well, sure there are goals that have got to be reached, but what motivates me is doing what we did today – extracting the best out of the car in qualifying" Webber explains.
"We've had some races where we've made the bigger boys have tough weekends, we've been racing with them and outqualifying them. But it can be difficult to get out and do a great lap and still be on the last row of the grid. That's horrible. This is a learning phase for me and a good stepping stone I hope. There have been a lot of great guys driving at Minardi and I hope that I can go on and do a couple of things that the other guys have done in the past."
DC: Obviously Melbourne – where you finished fifth and scored the team's first points in 2 years - was the high point of the season. But what other highlights have you had this year?
Webber: "Monaco was great – there were a lot of problems at the end of the race, but we were very competitive all weekend at Monaco. Magny Cours was another great weekend for us. I thought the Brazilian race that was good, Imola was good, Silverstone's qualifying… We've had a lot of good."
DC: What about the low points, then?
Webber: "We've had a few rough weekends. Barcelona was tough, of course – the wing failures – that was a really tough weekend of course. Spa, that was a nightmare, we had a lot of problems with the car. I was a bit frustrated with having to walk back to the pits all the time, but there's not a lot you can do about that personally."
DC: You've had an amazing reliability record this year. I think you finished eight races in a row – that's pretty rare.
Webber: "Yeah that was something that I also wanted to do. It's one of those things that I can take away and learn from, because in Grand Prix every race changes in itself and everyone's got to have that in their databank. So all in all we've had a very good reliability record this year, but the financial constraints the team has been under have made things very difficult."
DC: Has the search for monetary support affected your driving at all?
Webber: "No, not at all, not for me. Paul needs the money more than I do, in a way; he's got to run the team, whereas I've only got to run Mark Webber. So it's not a big issue for me. I've been paid by Renault this year to do my job, and I've done that, so I'm sort of over that stage. When you've arrived [into F1], you don't really need the big budgetary support that you need when you're trying to come through the junior ranks. It's a big problem - you haven't got it when you really need it, and you don't really need it when you've arrived and you've got a few sponsors behind you. Things change."
The Australian Connection
Webber has gone a hell of a long way from Queanbeyan - in rural New South Wales - to the lofty heights of Formula One. But the Australian link is likely to remain a strong one for as long as he is the only Australian driving in Formula One. Seeing him talking on Saturday afternoon at the Minardi motorhome with Ryan Briscoe, I wondered if he felt that he was representing the Australian drivers coming through the ranks.
"Yes," Webber replies. "It's been a long time since David (Brabham) was in Formula One, and now I'm in Formula One - I've been in Europe a long time, I know a lot of people in the industry - so I'd like to believe I can help Ryan. He's got some great people looking after him; he's got a Toyota contract in his back pocket, which is not to be sniffed at, as not many Aussies have had that at that stage of their career. The thing is you just learn, and at this stage (you need to be) making the right decisions off track as well. I probably am a bit of an old man when it comes to that." Needless to say, Webber is just 25 years old.
DC: With the Australian dollar being so weak, how hard has it been to get through the ranks with these budgetary problems?
Webber: "Very, very difficult. I think this is what is so hard for all the Aussies coming over. We have so much talent in Australia, but to make that step… The first 24 months, when you leave home, is so hard. And you have to work very hard yourself. Working, trying to earn pounds and make ends meet - it's nearly impossible. You have to work very hard, because there's no real 'free' drives at that stage.
"I was lucky that I had some support in the UK at that stage - in Formula Ford I had Duckham's oils, and they paid for half of my Formula Ford costs. Alan Docking helped me out a lot in Formula 3. So what I had to put in, what Australia had to put in… I don't think a lot of people would believe what it took coming from Australia."
DC: For much of your career you've had Australians around you – you mentioned Alan Docking in Formula 3, but there were also David Campese originally as management, and now Paul Stoddart at Minardi. It seems that being Australian also helped your career.
Webber: "Oh, absolutely! They were very keen to help me out, and I probably wouldn't be here without them. After Formula Ford, Formula 3 and then Mercedes I was at a very crucial stage in my career, and Paul basically gave me a free drive in Formula 3000, which is unheard of. It was a very lucky break for me."
DC: And now that you've actually made it here, do you think that will open some doors for the younger Australian drivers coming through?
Webber: "I think so. I hope so. Australia had one of the best Olympics ever, the country is on a high, although there's not oodles of cash rolling out of the place at the moment, and it's hard to justify giving a guy who wants to race cars half a million dollars on the other side of the world - it's very difficult for them to get their head around that. But I hope that with what happened in Melbourne, with someone up there hopefully flying the flag a little bit, it will help lots of guys trying to get to F1 who are very close, but also guys who are driving back in Australia now, that if you apply yourself and dedicate your life to it you can probably get there."
Behind a Championship Contender
Webber himself "got there" alright. The boy who once used to sneak into his father's Yamaha dealership to ride motorbikes, who watched F1 on television and said "I want that", who left home in his teens to live alone on the other side of the world – that boy is now respected by the fans, team owners and fellow drivers alike. "I just thought I'd try to take it as far as I could," he says, reflecting back.
DC: Has your driving style changed over the years, with the different categories of racing you've competed in - from F3 to F3000 to Le Mans to F1?
Webber: "I don't think so, mate. I think I've always been a guy who's liked the front end of the car to be working quite well. You have to change slightly for the different categories, but I've always liked a very pointy car - I don't like understeer - but I don't think my style has changed a great deal."
DC: You once said that if you took anything from being lapped by Michael Schumacher it was that you would watch the way he runs around a corner and try and emulate that. Do you think your driving style is similar to anyone on the grid in particular?
Webber: "It's difficult to say - I worked with Jenson and Fisichella last year, and Giancarlo and I have a pretty similar set up. Fisi is also someone who needs a very good front end on the car, and Jenson's a guy who likes a little bit of understeer, wants to have that to play with. You know, someone like Michael has a totally different car to what I've got, and he does some things that might be impossible because I've got a totally different vehicle, but still, sometimes you can learn off someone like that."
DC: Obviously it's easy to rate yourself against your teammate - Yoong, and Davidson when he was here - but how do you rate yourself against the other drivers?
Webber: "Well, you can only do that when you've got the same material. When I worked for Renault last year I was driving with Jenson and Fisi, but as they were the race drivers they knew the car and everything a lot better then I did, but it was a good year and I learnt a lot. Obviously this year it's Alex and potentially he's a little out of his depth.
"I have had races where I've been racing against other people - I've been racing Eddie [Irvine] this year, and that's where you say 'yeah, you must be doing okay'. At Imola, I was following around for the whole race a guy who's battled for a World Championship - how does that work?"
I've got no idea how that works, but I suspect that Webber will be around for a few years yet to find out.
Sidebar - Paul Stoddart: The Proud Father
I should have known better, really: anyone who wants to have a quick word with Paul Stoddart is asking for trouble.
First, the guy doesn't know the meaning of brief – I figured that I'll get a few nice words about Mark Webber for this feature, and given that Stoddart is the team boss I thought he'd only have about a minute to spare anyway. However, the first thing he did was get an ashtray and then he settled down and talked. And talked.
That leads me to my second point: if smoking was an Olympic sport, Paul would be bringing back the gold for Australia. Every time I saw him over the weekend he had a cigarette in his hand, which made me squirm in my seat, having given up myself only three days before.
Then, when I got home I found out my tape machine had crapped out, so I could only make out a tiny part of what he said. If this was anyone else that'd be a problem, but here's some of what he said, while he was leaning conspiratorially over the table towards me and fidgeting incessantly.
DC: You obviously had certain expectations of Mark at the start of the year – has he lived up to them?
Stoddart: "He's far exceeded them – the guy is, without a doubt, the rookie of the year. That's proven, that's the base, and hopefully he will go on to bigger and better things. I think he can win races and maybe even better than that in the right car at the right time."
DC: What do you think are Mark's strengths?
Stoddart: "I think Mark is the all-round package – he's brilliant at feedback, his ability to recall what happened at any given time in minute details is amazing. He's fast, and he's accurate."
DC: What were Mark's highlights of the year?
Stoddart: "Obviously it started spectacularly in Melbourne – you couldn't ask for better than that, and I think that those two points will go down as the two most popular points in Formula One history. A lot of things could happen in the future, but I don't think it could ever feel better than that.”
DC: And what was his low point of the season, then?
Stoddart: "I don't know about Mark's low point, but Minardi's was at Barcelona with the wing problems. I don't think Mark personally has had any low points, but if I was forced to pick one I guess it would be Silverstone, and only because we were running so well, with a chance to pick up some points, and the car let him down. At the end of the day he's done more than I could ever have asked him to do, and we've had a fantastic year. He'll never forget it, I'll never forget it, and the world will never forget those two points."
The thing about talking to Paul Stoddart is that you quickly forget you are talking to a team boss and think that you are talking to one of the most passionate fans you've met and arguably the most amicable boss one could work for.
You can ask him about anything, and he'll give you an answer – about his plans for next year ("We'll be announcing the engine deal in Indianapolis, and it's a very, very competitive package. Let's just say it was on the podium today"), about his relationship with Toyota post-Gustav Brunner's defection ("myself and Ove get on fantastically"), or even about Arrows' downfall ("it's really unfortunate – a lot of my friends are in Arrows, and I do feel really bad for them").
In the end I excused myself, as I felt he probably had better things to do than sit around and talk to me all day, but as I looked back he walked over to Mark Webber and clapped him on the shoulders, beaming like a father who is incredibly proud at what his son has shown the world he can do. I can tell you this much: if Webber does "win races and maybe even better" - as Stoddart predicts - no one in the F1 paddock will be cheering louder than Paul Stoddart, no matter what team Webber will be driving for.