Breakfast at Minardi

By Thomas O'Keefe, USA
Atlas F1 Senior Writer

In the piranha tank of Formula One, European Minardi are the minnows, but no one is predicting that the team that epitomizes pluck and passion on the pitlane will be gobbled up anytime soon.

Minardi at IndyIndeed, the team's longevity - Minardi entered their first Grand Prix 16 years ago in 1985 - and their incredible capacity to bounce back from a variety of adversities over the years has become their trademark and part of the team's identity. While better-funded marquee names in Grand Prix racing like Lotus, BRM, Brabham, Cooper and Tyrrell have gone by the boards, Minardi are still here, one of the only 12 race teams (including newcomer Toyota for 2002) that have the valuable franchise to run in Formula One. And interestingly, unlike most sports where the team in last place is treated with contempt and ridicule, the Minardi team has remained the darling of the pitlane throughout history despite being a backmarker most of that time.

And what a history it is. Over these 16 years, there have been a variety of chassis/engine combinations with which the team has experimented: Minardi-Ford, Minardi-Motori Moderni, Minardi-Hart, Minardi-Lamborghini and even Minardi-Ferrari. More recently, the team has continued to innovate despite its budgetary limitations, recently developing a titanium cast gearbox. And an impressive array of Formula One drivers were given their first shot by Minardi: Pierluigi Martini, the most beloved Minardi hero who drove for the team several times, the late Michele Alboreto, Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, Christian Fittipaldi and Luca Badoer, who went directly from Minardi to Ferrari as their principal test driver.

The high-water mark for Minardi happened almost 12 years ago to the day on September 24, 1989, when Martini actually led a race briefly - the 1989 Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril in his Minardi-Ford. Beyond that considerable (but singular) achievement, the results have been modest in the 269 Grands Prix in which the team had participated: 28 points overall, with three fourth-place finishes (Imola and Portugal in 1991 and South Africa in 1993)

Interestingly, Minardi's first points were scored at the 1988 United States Grand Prix at Detroit. The last points-paying race for Minardi is now more than two years ago at the 1999 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, where Minardi teammates Marc Gene and Badoer were both briefly running in the top-six positions. Gene held on to finish sixth to score one important Championship point that helped the team's travel money allocation for 2000. Most discouragingly, though, Minardi have the distinction of being the only team never to have had a podium finish.

But in January 2001, Minardi got their latest lease on life when Australian entrepreneur Paul Stoddart, whose European Aviation fleet of some 35 planes is one of Europe's fastest-growing regional airlines, rescued the Minardi team from its latest financial crisis. Like any good businessman, Stoddart has spent his first year of ownership taking stock of what he bought and tirelessly promoting the team in every way he can conceive of to lure more sponsorship to the team to help fund the $50-plus million annual budget it takes to keep the team swimming in the piranha tank, where top teams like Ferrari and McLaren have budgets in the $250-million range.

The "new look" jet black paint Minardi replaced the eye-popping lime yellow of last year's car. The shiny new transporters in the paddock at the European races, the new name "European Aviation" emblazoned on the sidepods and the recent announcement that an improved version of the Asiatech (formerly Peugeot) V10 engine is in the offing for the 2002 season (replacing Minardi's aging Cosworth V10), are all developments that signal that the new Minardi team means business.

Better still, the Asiatech engines come to Minardi at no cost, saving Stoddart a precious $25 million or so that fellow backmarkers like the Prost team have to lay out to an engine supplier.

The latest evidence of Stoddart's business plan is the announcement that he has thrown in his lot with the country of Malaysia, which, along with Indianapolis, is one of the newest Formula One venues. Petronas, the principal sponsor of the Sauber team, is also a Malaysian connection since Petronas is a state-owned oil company. Stoddart has recently hired Malaysian 25 year-old Alex Yoong as a driver, who brought Magnum with him as a sponsor, the Malaysian state-owned lottery, another cash injection to help the team recover its financial footing.

Along the way, Minardi has also developed a sub-specialty to earn extra capital by fabricating the crowd-pleasing European Minardi two-seater Formula One cars, of which there are now eight, that appear at special events. Another unique aspect of the Minardi team is Spaniard Fernando Alonso, who was barely 19 years old when he took to the grid for Minardi at this year's Australian Grand Prix, and has consistently turned in impressive performances among the Prost, Arrows and Benetton teams that are increasingly looking over their shoulders at Minardi.

Finally, Stoddart has shifted some of Minardi's operations from the team's traditional home base in the town of Faenza, Italy, to Ledbury, England, where European Aviation has a purpose-built 118,000 square-foot facility.

Bearing in mind the mercurial history of the Minardi team, Stoddart has tried to be realistic about his near-term prospects and has reduced all the complexities of running a Formula One team to three clear-cut goals: an 850-horsepower engine, a balanced budget by 2002 and a podium finish for his European Minardi team which, to date, has never tasted the champagne or taken home the trophies that come to those who make it to the top three. One thing for sure, when the little team from Faenza does eventually reach the podium, there won't be a dry eye or an empty champagne glass in the house.

On Saturday, at the United States Grand Prix, a visit to the Minardi garage during the two practice sessions before qualifying provided me the chance to witness the new professionalism at Minardi that will be a prerequisite to that long-sought podium finish.

At Indianapolis, the Minardi team luxuriates at its comparatively huge garage space; at some of the European tracks, the sizes of the garages become smaller as you go down the pecking order from Ferrari to Minardi to Prost.

The team has repaired the wing element on Yoong's Minardi PS01 that was dislodged during a spin in Turn 1 during Friday's first practice session. Notwithstanding his spin, Yoong was excited at the prospect of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"It is special being here, especially being in this place," Yoong said. "You just look at this track, and you think, 'Wow, it's nice being here.'"

And for me, it was nice to be sharing Saturday practice with the Minardi team, who stationed me around the spare car in the middle bay of the three-car garage. There I could watch both parts of the team function: One group looking after Alex Yoong's car and the other group focusing on Fernando Alonso.

I was not the only observers. A few other guests, including CART driver Max Papis, stood next to me, and more importantly, there were two FIA scrutineers in the garage at all times, checking the tires and watching the mechanics at work.

The spare car was set up for Yoong and was right next to us. Close up there are lots of tricked-up aero devices and cockpit details that are not captured by the TV cameras. Gone are the windscreens of yesteryear; all that remains is a small U-shaped piece of Plexiglas wind deflector at the front of the cockpit about three-quarters of an inch high and practically invisible. No room for windshield wipers.

Either side of the "tub," where the driver sits has a removable cockpit surround with "Pull" stickers attached, to alert corner marshals in the event of an accident to remove the surround to get to the driver.

Inside the cockpit, the steering wheel bristles with buttons and shifting paddles. Built into the chassis on either side of the driver's seat are rows of toggle switches on the left side to activate the engine, the brake light or a drink bottle, and dials and buttons on the right side for serious tasks like launch control.

Once the drivers get tucked into their cocoons with their seat belts cinched up tight, the assault on the eyes, ears and nostrils begins as the engine thunders to life.

Once the engine is running and the car is turned over by the engineers with the laptops to the driver with the steering wheel, the excitement of being this close to a Formula One car builds palpably as the final sequence of routine procedures unfolds in rapid succession.

The fan cooling the airbox is taken out. Electric tire warmers are stripped off the Michelin tires, and the heating cables are disconnected from the overhead gantry, which acts as a power source for several umbilical cords going to the car.

Then the car is dropped off the jacks, and the driver finally gets control and revs the engine just high enough to keep the car running, the red rain/brake light blinking on the rear of at the car. The noise is deafening and intolerable without ear plugs.

The driver next flips his visor down, and the red lights on the electronic steering wheel displays began to reflect and dance across the helmet's visor like red laser beams. One of the engineers who is particularly nimble then acts a traffic cop, backpedaling out of the garage to guide the car out onto the pit lane, facing the driver and checking for other cars. This is a man the driver must trust implicitly. When the driver gets the signal to go, he just lights up the tires and goes, no checking left or right, accelerating off in a cloud of dust and tire smoke.

We all take a deep breath when the garages empty out, and before we can do much more of that, the drivers are back, having completed an installation lap to check all systems and for leaks, in one minute 15 seconds.

In the early days of motor racing, drivers like Tazio Nuvolari could be seen waiving their arms and giving orders to the mechanics as they came into the pits. But Alonso and Yoong can barely move in their cockpits, let alone gesticulate, and they sit in stony silence looking straight ahead while the engine cover comes off, the tire warmers go back on, and the aerodynamic tweaks begin to make an improvement to the balance of the car, with one engineer making minute adjustments to the front wing with tiny tools. All the while, the engineers, mechanics and the drivers communicate on the team radio and by hand signals.

Then, after only two minutes, the air guns bark again, the tire covers come off, the revs come up, and these two young men blast out of the garage once again on their way to creating a resume of what will be their careers in Formula One.

When the day was done, Alonso had done the Minardi team proud by qualifying 17th, ahead of 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1997 Formula One World Champion Jacques Villeneuve in the BAR-Honda, both of the Arrows team cars and Enge's Prost. And although Minardi teammate Alex Yoong qualified in last place, it is only his second Formula One race and he, like the team itself, can only go up from here.

What a fabulous way for two guys in their 20s to spend a Saturday morning.

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Print Version

Volume 7, Issue 40
October 3rd 2001


Breakfast at Minardi
by Thomas O'Keefe

Phil Hill: Made in America - Part II
by Thomas O'Keefe

US GP Review

The US GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

Reflections from Indianapolis
by Roger Horton

McLaren's Sabbatical Year
by Karl Ludvigsen

The Last Hurrah
by Richard Barnes


Qualifying Differentials
by Marcel Borsboom

The F1 Insider
by Mitch McCann

Season Strokes
by Bruce Thomson

The Weekly Grapevine
by the F1 Rumors Team

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