Sunday May 13th, 2001
By Alan Baldwin
Toyota have nothing to fear from legal action taken against them by the Minardi Formula One team over the contract of technical director Gustav Brunner, a Toyota spokesman said on Sunday.
"We employed Gustav Brunner after he told us that he had resigned from Minardi and he could join Toyota," said spokesman Andrea Ficarelli at the Austrian Grand Prix. "We have obviously no reason not to believe this version."
Minardi, the team with the smallest budget in Formula One, have said they are suing Toyota, the world's third largest carmaker, after Brunner joined the Japanese team last week. Paddock rumours claim the Austrian has signed a three-year deal with Toyota worth 12 million dollars.
Toyota are preparing to make their Grand Prix debut next season and Brunner, despite Minardi not having scored a point since 1999, has a strong reputation for design flair.
His abrupt departure, only days before Sunday's Austrian Grand Prix, was a blow for Minardi and the team issued a statement on Tuesday vowing to pursue "all of its options in law against both Mr Brunner and Toyota".
They said Brunner had an irrevocable contract with the team as technical director until January 1, 2003. The Austrian has joined Toyota as chief designer.
Ficarelli said the opinion of Toyota's lawyers was that the German-based Japanese team was "not involved at all because, if there is a problem between Minardi and Mr Brunner, it is a problem that doesn't legally involve Toyota".
"Our lawyer has said to Minardi that he is available to help, if we can help in any way, providing they send us the evidence that there is a valid contract between Minardi and Mr Brunner."
"We saw a copy of the contract that Mr Brunner provided us and we have to say that Mr Brunner was absolutely free to leave the company based on the information that we have," added Ficarelli. "If Minardi have any more evidence, we are happy to see this."
Minardi owner Paul Stoddart, a British-based but Australian-born businessman who bought the team in January, saw it differently. He told Reuters in an interview that legal action had been started and he believed it was a clear-cut case.
"Basically we are suing both him (Brunner) and Toyota," he said. "I got a piece of paper on Monday morning, handwritten on a bank holiday on an open fax, that said he'd gone. Not 'I'm going' but gone. That is the first I knew of it.
"We started proceedings first thing on Tuesday. We intend to pursue it to the fullest extent possible. We have been wronged quite badly...as far as I'm concerned I want retribution for two things that were very wrong. One, what was done and, most importantly, the way it was done."
Stoddart said he was not deterred by the might of his opponents.
"It's a bit like David and Goliath really, isn't it," he said. "But the bigger they are, the harder they fall."
The team owner also said Minardi would not now want Brunner back because of the way in which he left.
"He had 150 friends, he's now got 150 enemies," he said.