Minardi’s miraculous F1 rebirth: ‘Even Fernando Alonso was building the car!’

F1

In 2001, Paul Stoddart took the Minardi F1 team from meltdown to Melbourne in six weeks. He tells James Elson how they created the beautiful PS01 and gave Fernando Alonso his grand prix debut

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Fernando Alonso at one with the Minardi PS01 - a car made possible by herculean team efforts

GILLES LEVENT / DPPI

“Six weeks and three days,” says Paul Stoddart, almost grimacing down the phone. “It was six weeks and three days from the moment I walked into that building in Faenza, finding just 40 staff and a little wooden mock-up of the car, to us getting the real thing on the grid in Melbourne.

“When we did it, there were grown men crying – bawling their eyes out in the garage.”

It’s 20 years this weekend that Stoddart and co managed to pull off one of the great F1 miracles, rescuing perennial backmarker Minardi from almost certain disaster, bringing them back into the grand prix world and creating one the V10 era’s most beautiful cars in the process – the PS01.

It’s a story that features a young Fernando Alonso building the car, an enigmatic designer resigning via a mysterious message and whole commercial airliners being chartered to deliver the odd component.

Speaking to Motor Sport about how he helped the team rise from the ashes, Stoddart says, “We were making it up as we were going along, but working 24 hours a day. It was not for the faint-hearted”.

The airline entrepreneur had been trying to buy an F1 team for years, but had thus been unsuccessful.

“It started it off with Tyrrell in ‘97,” he says. “BAR got the entry, but I got all the equipment, right down to Ken’s desk.

“‘For ’99 I went to Jordan and tried to buy 10 per cent off Eddie [Jordan]. That didn’t work out, but we had a great time! That’s when I started an F3000 team – which was very successful with Mark Webber.

“Next I tried to buy out [Arrows F1 boss] Tom Walksinshaw, but when we went in and did the due diligence, it was such a crock of shit that nobody would touch it with a barge pole!

“Then, just out of the blue, a phone call in December led me in the direction of Minardi, and the rest as they say…”

Minardi, even by its usual impoverished standards, really was at death’s door. Years of little to no investment had ground the team into the Tarmac, even if it had seen off a bevy of other low-cost rivals during a 15-year existence.

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Former Fondmetal boss Gabriele Rumi had gradually increased his interest through the late ’90s to the point of becoming Minardi owner and chairman, but terminal ill-health left him looking to sell.

The Italian team needed a saviour, and they found one in the beatific vision of Aussie aviation entrepreneur Paul Stoddart.

With six weeks to go before the start of the season, he agreed to buy Minardi.

Stoddart handed the team $4m before he’d even signed a contract, and once he stepped into the Faenza factory, could see why they needed the money so badly.

With only 40 staff left at the site in Italy, the team had nowhere near the manpower needed to build an F1 car – which currently existed as the aforementioned wooden mock-up.

Luckily, Stoddart had his crack F3000 team and a fleet of airliners to fall back on.

“It was a pretty challenging time. We had a [racing] facility in the UK with about 40 people there. There was probably only about the same amount left in the Minardi factory when I walked in the door.

“So we grabbed one of our planes and put all our F3000 staff on it.

“We told them they were going [to Faenza] for three weeks – they ended up there for six.”

The clock was ticking as staff worked furiously to turn the wooden model — a neat design from the mercurial yet highly-rated Gustav Brunner — into a fully-fledged F1 car.

AUTO - F1 2001 - AUSTRALIAN GRAND-PRIX 010304 - MELBOURNE - PHOTO: ERIC VARGIOLU / DPPI FERNANDO ALONSO (SPA) / EUROPEAN MINARDI PAUL STODDART / EUROPEAN MINARDI TARSO MARQUES (BRA) / EUROPEAN MINARDI

The Minardi PS01 is launched against all odds – Marques, Alonso and Stoddart (left to right)

ERIC VARGIOLU / DPPI

“We got as many rooms as we could into a little hotel called The Capitolina,” says Stoddart. “People were hot-bedding, doing 12-hour shifts to keep Minardi running 24 hours a day.

“At the end of your shift, you’d go back to the hotel and kick the other person out of your bed, and send them back to work. I was working close to 24 hours a day. It was not for the faint-hearted.”

There was also the problem of making the car go once it was built. For 2000, the team had used outdated Cosworth ‘JD’ engines, but with the withdrawal of Rumi’s money that had come to an end.

Stoddart went to Cosworth and its top man to see if he could get a better deal.

“I’ll always remember – I walked into Bernard Ferguson’s office, and he said ‘What the f*** do you want from me?’ – in true Bernard fashion!” remembers Stoddart.

“I have to say, Cosworth were ultimately fantastic. We did a good deal, good for them and even better for us.

“If it wasn’t for Bernard’s support, and indeed, everybody there throughout the years, Minardi wouldn’t have made it – they were true partners.”

The pair agreed a deal which saw the team supplied with updated ‘VJ’ Zetec-R V10s.

With the power unit sorted, Brunner redesigned the PS01’s rear-end for the fourth(!) time that off-season (due to engine uncertainty), but there was still much to be done.

Stoddart was calling on every man, woman and F1 driver he could find, as even a certain young Fernando Alonso found himself screwing bits onto the car as Melbourne drew ever closer.

“He was one of the few assets that came with the team!” laughs Stoddart. “We raced against Fernando in Formula 3000. I always remember in 2000 when he won in the rain at Spa – with such style – I thought ‘This kid’s got real, real talent.’

“When I reacquainted with him at Faenza, he said, ‘Paul, I will score you points’. If we were running on today’s point system, we would have done very nicely.”

Stoddart says the motivation for Fernando helping with the build of the car was clear.

“He took the interest in it for two reasons,” he says. “One was that he realised that if that car didn’t get to Melbourne, he wouldn’t drive.

“And secondly, the fact is that when you’re working so closely as a team with so few people, you really get to know what everybody is doing. It’s not hard to find somewhere to help.

“Even I built-up and screwed on a rear wing!”

Somehow, the team managed to get one PS01 assembled in time for a straight-line shakedown at Varano, but even that almost didn’t happen.

Stoddart emphasises just how close the project was to foundering – and the extreme measures he took to rescue it.

“We nearly missed the shakedown because of fog,” he remembers, “We needed two titanium exhaust brackets that were being manufactured in the UK.

“Sending a passenger jet to pick up two brackets sounds extreme, but you do what you had to do”

“During the day, the exhaust manufacturers kept saying, “Another couple of hours, another couple of hours.’

“In the end we sent a plane – empty – from Faenza to Coventry Airport, just to sit there and wait.

“The parts were supposed to be at Coventry Airport at 8pm at night and turned up at 3am. We put these two brackets on the plane and flew them back to Faenza.

“Sending a 126-seater passenger jet to pick up two brackets might sound extreme, but you do what you had to do.

“Failure was not an option. We were going to get to Melbourne no matter what.”

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As soon as the ‘miracle Minardi’ was on tracks, Alonso made obvious his potential

ERIC VARGIOLU / DPPI

Once the team had a car capable of running, all they had for comparison was an old F1 two-seater Stoddart used for his track day business.

“It was a pretty proud moment, as I was driving the two-seater and Fernando was in the PS01,” he reminisces. “I must admit to having a tear in my helmet as we were going up and down the straight.

“It was one of the proudest moments of my life.”

Somehow, the team made it to Melbourne for the opening round of the 2001 F1 season.

One car had done minimal running, whilst the car of second driver, Tarso Marques, arrived in bits.

“Poor old Tarso’s car, we built it in the garage in Melbourne,” remembers Stoddart.

Compounding the team’s stress, a spin in qualifying would mean the Brazilian missed the 107 per cent cut required for him to make the grid, but the FIA showed leniency to allow him to start at the back.

Alonso meanwhile was having no such troubles. The Spaniard was blistering from the start, managing to out-qualify Jaguar’s Luciano Burti and Prost’s Gaston Mazzacane, meaning he started in 19th.

He then pulled off an even more incredible feat in the grand prix.

“I always remember coming off the pit wall,” says Stoddart. “Fernando had come 12th in his first race – the car shouldn’t have lasted 10 laps.

“I walked into the garage, and there were so many people from the team crying, grown men bawling their eyes out with just pure exhaustion and pride.

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“It was a pretty special moment, I have to say. The whole lot of those people gave 110 per cent, and then some.”

So, with that herculean effort, the team were up and running, but not without further incident.

Charismatic design guru Gustav Brunner had been leading the way for the Faenza squad – right up until Stoddart went into the office to find a strange and quite unwelcome message.

“I went into the office on May bank holiday, like the sad f***er I am,” he chortles.

“I walked past reception and found a message on the fax machine, thinking ‘That’s odd.’

“I picked it up and it said: ‘Hi Paul, this is Gustav. Sorry I have bad news for you. I have joined Toyota. Thanks.’

Stoddart says he slightly regrets his reaction now, but it certainly came straight from the heart.

“I called [Toyota team principal] Ove Andersson and read him the absolute riot act!

“I said ‘How dare you f***ers! You’ve got all the money under the sun, spending billions of dollars, and you have to go and steal my engineer?! No notice, nothing, he just walks out?!’

“My accountant said: You’ve turned a useless engineer into the best sponsor we’ve got for the year!’

“I went a bit hard with poor old Ove, who I had a lot of respect for, a lovely guy.”

As ever for F1 hustlers, Stoddart still managed to turn it to his advantage.

“Anyway, we worked it all out and got some money for him. As my finance director in Italy said: ‘Don’t be worried. You’ve turned a useless engineer into the best sponsor we’ve got for the year!’

With their short to medium-term future secure, the team could try and focus more on track. There’s a particular PS01 memory which stands out for Stoddart.

Japan was the one,” he says. “In those days, we still had Sunday morning warm-up.

14 Oct 2001: Minardi driver Fernando Alonso of Spain puts his car through its paces during the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix held at Suzuka in Suzuka, Japan. \ Mandatory Credit: Clive Mason /Allsport

Alonso channeled rage into “53 qualifying laps” Suzuka

Clive Mason / Staff

“Fernando was going to Renault. Traditionally when you have a driver leaving, you take all the fuel out of the car in practice and let them do a couple of glory laps.

“I’d already said yes to it, but there was a miscommunication and his race engineer overruled me.

“I saw Fernando in the paddock, and he was seething. I told him ‘Mate, do your talking on track in the race’.

“What followed was 53 laps of pure qualifying. I’ve never seen such a focused drive in all my life.

“The bottom line is that every time Fernando drove the PS01, he got 110 per cent out of it. Let’s face it, the car was a dog, but Fernando made it respectable.”

Whilst 2001 was a incredible year for the team, Stoddart would go to lead the team to more famous moments, from Mark Webber’s ‘podium’ in ‘02, to the ‘05 double points finish at Indianapolis and taking on the might of manufacturers when the independent F1 teams were on their uppers.

In 2005 he sold up to Red Bull, securing the jobs of those who worked there as the team morphed into what is now AlphaTauri.

“Red Bull were fantastic,” says Stoddart. “They honoured every commitment in the deal. They kept the factory as I asked in Faenza, and they invested millions in it.

“I’m proud of it and proud of the way it went, because a lot of people that worked for me 15 years ago are still there today.”

Stoddart still feels close to the team that was reborn through his intervention, watching on as they’ve scaled heights surely thought to be unthinkable as Minardi.

“When Sebastian [Vettel] won at Monza in ‘08, I was bawling me eyes out, because I very much felt it was still Minardi.

“Even this year, when Gasly won again at Monza – you just feel like you’ll always be part of it.”