The history books show that Minardi scored just 38 world championship points during a 21-year stint in Formula 1. Scratch the surface of those pages, though, and you see that not only did this little Italian team often punch above its weight, but the list of drivers it ran is as long as it is diverse: Alessandro Nannini, Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber and Anthony Davidson all raced for Gian Carlo, the founder and original team owner.
Fan favourite Minardi might have designed some good cars, and was even first to trial a cast titanium gearbox, in 1999, but poor financial backing always meant it had one hand tied behind its back. During its 21 years, though, 24 teams shut their doors, from AGS to Zakspeed. Minardi, despite its lack of results, was a survivor.
We’ve flown to Bologna to have lunch with the man himself and, as we emerge from baggage reclaim, we spot him, hardly aged, talking with a man who later transpires to be the ex-Minardi and now Ferrari lawyer. Greetings over, we head out to the car park where Minardi doesn’t notice the occasional second take from passers-by. Testing for 2013 has started and talk soon turns to Ferrari.
“Fernando’s season last year was quite astonishing,” Gian Carlo says as we pull out of the car park. It’s late February, snowing hard and we have decided to opt out of a lunch in central Bologna. The weather is getting worse, so we head around the corner to a small restaurant barely two miles from the airport. “When he raced for us, Alonso never qualified on the back row of the grid,” Minardi continues. “That was down to him, not the car. Our engineers would come up with a potential lap time and we knew anything below that meant the car was being driven well beyond its limits. Fernando did that, all the time.”
Soon we pull up to the restaurant and, despite the entrance looking like an industrial site, we are greeted by smiling waiters, pleased to see their first customers of the day.
“When you know the driver will always outperform the car, it’s a massive boost for the team,” Gian Carlo says after he’s ordered some acqua frizzante. “Fernando has always had a very good racing head on him as well, even when he was with us, when he first arrived in F1, he could visualise a race – he could see what was going on behind him as well as what was happening in front. Last year he drove qualifying lap after qualifying lap during the races. He seems to have a natural ability to do that and doesn’t waste physical or mental energy trying to do that every lap. You know who was similar? Alessandro Nannini. He smoked, he drank, he never exercised, but he had this amazing natural talent. When he was in the car it was just a big game to him, he had so much talent to spare. It’s the same with Alonso.”
Minardi nowadays looks after young drivers, which is fitting considering how many his old team nurtured. Clearly Alonso is the most successful, but Gian Carlo won’t be persuaded to admit he was the best he employed. “Yes, Alonso went on to win the world championship twice, but I don’t want to rank my drivers,” he says as some bread is put on the table and the sparkling water is poured. “We had more than 40 drivers in F1 and all of them were good, they were all determined and were all behind what Minardi was trying to do. Obviously Pier Luigi Martini raced the most for us, but he had two problems when he first started in F1. One was that he wasn’t prepared physically so he struggled during the races, and then the second was that he spent too much time at Minardi. He never evolved, he never moved up the grid. OK, he got on well with the team, but in terms of his career it wasn’t very good.”
The Minardi story had started many years before Martini made his debut with the new team in 1985, though. Gian Carlo raced under the Scuderia Everest Ferrari banner in the 1976 Formula 2 championship, but soon after decided to step away from the cockpit and in 1979 the Minardi team was born.
“Formula 2 was the best category out there,” he says trying to catch a waiter’s eye. “It was one of the best periods in my life as well. There were five chassis builders, four different engines and it was really competitive. It was a beautiful time, a perfect ‘waiting room’ for Formula 1. I did five years in the series and it gave us great experience because we were proper constructors. We weren’t just a team that ran a car like the new teams in F1 at the moment. That’s how we survived for so long. OK, we had our problems, but we had a very good technological base, which was created in F2, and that had a value independent of the results we got on the track. By our fourth year in F2 we were too big for the series, but F1 was too big for us. The step had to be made, though.”
The team initially planned to run Alfa Romeo engines, but the deal fell through and it used a Cosworth DFV for the first two rounds of 1985 before switching to Motori Moderni turbos. It achieved its best finish in Australia, where lone driver Martini was eighth – and last car running, four laps in arrears. He failed to last the distance in 12 of the 16 rounds and in Monaco didn’t make the grid at all. It wasn’t until 1988, when the team stopped using the Motori Moderni V6 and switched to a Ford DFZ, that things started to look up. That old power unit had taken its toll, with 27 DNFs in three years thanks to either engine or turbo failure. It was a punishing start to the team’s F1 career.
“I spent an amazing 21 years in Formula 1 and yes, there were difficulties, but there were beautiful moments as well as bad ones,” Gian Carlo says as the waiter arrives with two plates of tagliata di manzo (sliced beef). The difficult ones I don’t remember. The beautiful ones I do! It’s in the past now, there are no more tears.”
Throughout its time in F1, Minardi played the role of an Italian goldfish in a pool of English-speaking sharks. The fact Gian Carlo never learnt English meant he struggled in vital meetings, but nor did it help that Minardi lacked the clout of bigger teams. “In 1996 I was getting into serious financial problems, so I went to see the then-president of the FIA, Max Mosley. I told him, ‘We can’t go on like this, we will die, the team will be no more’. He replied, ‘If you haven’t got the money, then don’t go into F1’. Many teams left the sport during those years and, although they weren’t all because of Mosley’s attitude, it didn’t help.
“It was different with Bernie. He doesn’t speak Italian, or at least he never has to me, but he understands it just fine. At the Spanish Grand Prix in ’96 I was at the end of my tether. I didn’t have an interpreter with me because I didn’t want anyone to overhear the conversation I was about to have. I approached Bernie and said, ‘Listen, I’ve got problems and they’ll be even bigger when I go back to the office on Monday. I need to find $1 million. If we don’t, we’re closing up shop’. I told him that I owed the bank and he asked how much the entire debt was. I told him it was more than $4m. ‘Is that all?’ he asked. ‘Well, that’s not exactly a huge debt, is it?’ It was for me! ‘Fine, Monday morning I’ll send you a million dollars. When we get to the next race bring me a due diligence and we’ll sort it’. Sure enough, Monday morning at 9.35am the director of the bank calls me. ‘We’ve just got a payment for $1 million. Thanks very much’. I did worry that I hadn’t understood Bernie’s terms and conditions very well, so I got hold of him straight away to check! When we got to Canada I went to see him on the Saturday morning and Flavio [Briatore] was there. From that meeting on he was my business partner.”
That wasn’t the last of Minardi’s financial struggles and early in 2001 the team was sold to Paul Stoddart. The Australian had particularly vocal opinions about the sport and the relationship between him and Gian Carlo never really got going, let alone developed. “He bought the team off myself and [co-owner] Gabriele Rumi for one euro and then sold it to Red Bull [who renamed it Toro Rosso] for a huge amount of money,” he says between mouthfuls of tagliata. “I guess that’s one of the negative memories I said I didn’t remember. We never got on well, but could ‘live together’ so to speak. Even when he came to Faenza things were difficult and tempestuous. It wasn’t a warm relationship…”
As coffees are ordered, talk turns back to drivers and especially the lack of Italians in Formula 1. Minardi is trying to rectify that by helping youngsters, but it’s no easy task. “One of the big problems,” he says, “is that there are no sponsors. Every year there are fewer of them. There are lots of drivers, but they lack investment. The other problem is that Red Bull is Austrian – they offer drivers help in getting to F1, but not necessarily Italian drivers. You look to Ferrari, but they are only interested in experienced and successful drivers. Put it this way, the last Italian drivers to get into F1 [Fisichella and Trulli] got there thanks to Minardi.
“There’s a lot of talk at the moment about all the pay drivers in F1, but if a driver has a super licence then he’s good enough to be there in my opinion. We have the likes of Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen and then there are other drivers who will never win a Grand Prix. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be there. It’s difficult, though, because motor sport is so expensive.”
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Minardi is still passionate about F1; he watches all the races and tries to attend them “when Bernie gives me a pass”. He’s also got some strong views on the direction of the sport and believes the FIA should sit down with engineers from the major road car companies to get an idea of what technologies and strategies they intend to evolve over the next 10-20 years. If Formula 1 included those, more might be interested in entering the sport as engine suppliers. Their budgets for design and development could then be spent in competition instead of behind closed doors.
As he explains why F1 still needs to be the pinnacle of technology, it begs the question of whether he misses it. He pauses. “F1 has changed so much and nowadays you are either in it forever or you leave and don’t come back. If you are out for a year you lose touch. When I first left I had withdrawal symptoms, but I don’t miss it so much now. I wouldn’t change a thing, good or bad, from my time, I’ve no regrets. When I stop something, I stop. In ’85 I was at one of the races and it was freezing cold. I had a cough and wasn’t feeling well and my son said jokingly to me after I had lit up, ‘Go on, have a cigarette!’ I was smoking five packets a day then and just said, ‘Fine, I’ll stop’. My son bet me I couldn’t and so I went to the window, threw my cigarette out. I haven’t touched them since. If you put me into a competitive situation I won’t back down. I’m harder than you think, which might be thanks to my time in F1.”
Half an hour later, I am standing at the airport entrance wondering how he would fare in F1 today. He wouldn’t enjoy the technical restrictions or politics, but you can be sure that if the Minardi name were to return it would delight thousands. It might not feature at the forefront of history books, but it won’t ever be forgotten by a loyal band of fans.