Interview with Paul Stoddart

Following is a transcript of a telephone conference between Minardi Formula One team principal Paul Stoddart and Australian media on Friday, December 6, 2002, arranged by the Australian Grand Prix Corporation. Host's Introductory Remarks Good...

Following is a transcript of a telephone conference between Minardi Formula One team principal Paul Stoddart and Australian media on Friday, December 6, 2002, arranged by the Australian Grand Prix Corporation.

Host's Introductory Remarks

Good evening to Paul Stoddart in England and good morning to everyone around Australia. We thought it an opportune time to speak to Paul who, of course, is the expatriate Australian businessman who has owned the Minardi Formula One team for two years now. Minardi gave Mark Webber his start in Formula One this year, and what a start that was with fifth place at the Foster's Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in March. Looking at it from the outside, though, and from this distance, it seems to have been a very tough year for Minardi. The team has not only survived, but now appears to be working flat out to front up again in Melbourne in 2003. So we thought it a good time to speak to Paul and, Paul, thanks for joining us. As usual, everyone on line will be invited to ask questions in turn and we will give early priority to our radio news friends, who we know may be limited for time. Radio guys, if you need to ask two or three or four questions to get a package together, do so. You might just flag that when introduced, but before we do that, Paul, perhaps you could just give us a snapshot of how 2002 has been for you and how 2003 is looking.

Alex Yoong.
Photo by Minardi Formula 1.

Paul Stoddart: As you said, 2002 started off in the most fantastic way. I think not only in Australia, but in the world as a whole, those two points and that memorable fifth place will go down in history as the most popular fifth place in the history of Formula One. Mark could not have expected a better start to the year and, frankly, there is no better place than Australia that it could have happened. The rest of the year was tough. I'm pleased to say that Mark did richly deserve, and did succeed in getting, the rookie-of-the-year award. We went to hell and back again during the year with various financial battles with (Arrows team principal) Tom Walkinshaw and a general lack of money in Formula One; however, we've survived all that and as you rightly said in your introduction we are ready to fight on in 2003 and looking forward to Melbourne.

HOST: Let's to go questions now and radio news first, please.

Q: Paul, what will be the story at Albert Park next year?

PS: I highly doubt that we are going to be able - I hope we can - repeat what we achieved in Melbourne in 2002, but I suspect we will be there, we will be happy to be competing again, we will have the most competitive engine and performance package that Minardi has had in its 19-year history, and couple of young new exciting drivers for the public to cheer on.

Q: So that's a realistic chance that you will be competing then?

PS: It's guaranteed, there is no question now. Things have changed substantially for the better in the past few months and there is no doubt whatsoever that we will be in Melbourne and we just can't wait.

Q: And what about the drivers that you hope to have?

PS: I know one of them now, and I think I know the second one, but much as I would love to tell you, and I would love Australia to be the first place it's announced, contractually I just can't at this moment in time. What I can say is that one of them is a new rising star, I hope, in Formula One and we have got a track record with (Fernando) Alonso in 2001, and of course with Mark this year. We are looking forward to continue that, (and) bring another young driver into the sport.

Q: There is some talk that slick tyres may be brought back at some time in the future, possibly next year. What are your thoughts on that?

PS: Highly doubt it. The problem we have with slick tyres is that Formula One cars have been developed, and they are the leading edge of technology, particularly in the automotive field, they have been developed so much over the years that slick tyres on their own would allow us to get to speeds that would seriously compromise safety. As much in all as we would love to see them, it would have to be part of a package where it reduced the aerodynamic forces on the car so as to not increase the speeds beyond the current safety limits.

Q: Does it get any easier for you having the first year out of the way?

PS: I've got the second one out of the way now and I'm afraid it doesn't; Formula One is truly a challenge. You get good days, like I had in Melbourne, it's the proudest day of my life, but you get an awful lot of bad ones, I'm afraid, that go with it.

Q: Paul, just to follow on from that question. You talk about challenges in Formula One and it's getting harder to cope with them. Will it get increasingly harder, do you think, financial constraints and all that?

PS: I think so. I think really what we are looking at here is the question, perhaps, is can the private teams survive, and to be honest I don't know. There are three of us left in Formula One now, we have seen two go in the last 12 months. It's not easy. The world as a whole is not perhaps as easy a place to gather sponsorship from as it was in years gone by, but we are fighting as hard as we know how.

Q: Is the popularity of the sport waning at all?

PS: I don't think it is. We have had in certain markets a slight decline in TV figures, but really overall we've got new markets emerging. We've got a Chinese Grand Prix in 2004, we've got a Bahrain Grand Prix in 2004. I think the sport's growing, but only time will tell.

Q: Any hard feelings about Mark Webber (switching to the Jaguar team in 2003)?

PS: No. Mark and I are true mates and we discussed his future. I would love to have had the ability to guarantee Mark a very competitive package for 2003, but at the time we had to make the decision. I didn't know whether we would be competing in 2003 and, to be honest, Mark will back this up, we made the decision for his career; the most important thing is he goes on to represent Australia as a Formula One champion.

Q: How do you think overall the confidence of Formula One is going to be? There will probably be some tough times ahead, but is the worst over?

PS: I don't think the worst is perhaps over yet, but I do think we have made a lot of responsible decisions in the past few months since the end of the season to move Formula One forward in a positive way. Much speculation was said about what we should and should not do - talk about weight penalties, talk about all kinds of things - but I think the package of modifications that we put through was the most sensible and it will take Formula One forward in a more exciting way for the viewers and, let's face it, we have got to look after the viewers, we have got to look after the people that get up at 3 o'clock in the morning to watch Grands Prix in other parts of the world on TV, those that come out in rain, hail or shine to see us, and I think we have tried to address that. Yes, it will be tough, but we will all get through it, I think.

Q: The alterations that have been made recently to the regulations to try to make it more entertaining, and perhaps to try to cut some of the costs, seem to be playing around at the edges. Paul, do you have any ideas as to what could be done to get some big lumps of cost out of running a Formula One team and also to make the racing more entertaining, less predictable for the public?

PS: Yes, to be honest, one or two of the ones, or one in particular, that got through - which was the Friday testing session - was my idea, but I think it was very, very hard to find a balance between taking it too far to where it wouldn't be Formula One. Many series around the world race standard production chassis and engines and, really, is that Formula One? And the answer is no. You need to have the technical challenge. But you are absolutely correct; it comes at a phenomenal cost. In Australian dollars there is at least one team that is going to exceed three quarters of a billion Australian dollars of budget next year.

Q: It's not Minardi?

PS: I only wish. No, basically there is some phenomenal amounts of money involved in the sport. But we had to do something that would address some of the costs, and we've done that, and we had to do something that would spice up the sport a little bit, and I believe we've done that. To have made radical changes, and believe you me we have a lot more packages - we only met this week to introduce more for 2003, more for 2004, it's a gradual change, I believe, going in the right direction, because if we had done it radically we risk turning a lot of viewers and popularity of the sport away.

Q: In terms of pay drivers, we have heard that one of your potential drivers you are hoping can bring along a couple of million pounds. Will both your drivers be pay drivers?

PS: I think it's perhaps wrong to call them pay drivers. What we have is a situation where because of the amount of drivers that don't actually have anywhere to go next year, and I had at one point 21 names on my list of very talented individuals, we made no secrets of the fact that we needed budget to guarantee that we were going to be competing in Australia and every other event next year. We made it clear that no driver would get a seat in the team unless they were able to bring substantial sponsorship to the team. That is a vast difference between somebody who has to bring money to get his drive - I'm talking about guys that are fully talented and worthy of their seat but they are having to bring sponsorship because we have a commercial need.

Q: Does that mean that Mark Webber was a year ahead of this sort of drastic requirement that you have in the team now?

PS: Let's face facts, guys, Mark is Australian, I'm Australian, we are mates, Mark was a special case; I wanted to bring on the next Australian driver. He was worthy of that position and he, as people well know, had a free drive and I'm proud of that and it couldn't have been given to a greater guy.

Q: FIA president Max Mosley hinted that perhaps in 2003 there might be fewer than the current entry of 20 cars, and I guess he was hinting that some of the private teams might struggle with budget. Your thoughts on that?

PS: I think, actually, he was a little bit naughty, but I think he was actually referring that there might be less than 22, and of course that was the fact with Arrows not being granted an entry so there are now only 20. I would like to think that there will still be 20 at the end of the year but, yes, there is some very, very tough times ahead; nobody is making any secrets of that.

Q: Just following that up, do you have mixed feelings not having Uncle Tom (Walkinshaw) around?

PS: Not very mixed from my point.

Q: Thought you'd probably welcome the fact that it would be two more cars on the grid?

PS: Have we got somebody from The Australian (newspaper) there (on line) by any chance? You may remember the headlines that were in The Australian on the Friday morning after I had my little press release (in Melbourne) last March so you all know there is no love lost between me and Tom.

Q: Just as a matter of interest, on that, was Tom Walkinshaw at the meeting of Formula One team owners this week?

PS: No, he was not.

Q: Two questions, one very specific. What's the status of the Friday testing, in your view, and have you spoken to other team bosses; are we likely to have it. Secondly, given all you have been through, given all that lies ahead, is Paul Stoddart's enthusiasm undimmed?

Paul Stoddart.
Photo by Mark Gledhill.

PS: I'll answer the first question first. The Friday testing was my one and I have a commitment from one other team, certainly, and three others possibly, so I would say, yes, it is going to go ahead. I think it's incredibly important for you guys as journalists, as well, that we have more to write about on the Thursdays and Fridays. Australia is lucky because it's a fantastic Grand Prix and it has a support program that is second to none and every part of the whole weekend is interesting, but at some of the Grands Prix not much happens on a Friday and the press do really struggle for things to write about. I believe that bringing local talent in, bringing test drivers that would never, ever have had the opportunity to be seen in front of the world's media, and indeed their home media, is a very important part for the future, and I really hope and believe it will work. The second part of your question: there are tough times ahead, I made no secret of the fact that we have struggled. This year we are slightly better off, perhaps, than we were last year, but it's still an uphill battle. The long-term future for private teams is that I think they need equity partners or manufacturers, because we just can't compete with people that have got budgets 10 times our budget.

Q: Just following up from what you've said about equity partners and manufacturer arrangements: what is your engine configuration for the next season and are you actually looking or in talks with anyone - for cash injections or with manufacturers for a permanent relationship?

PS: No, first of all, our engine package is the most exciting, as I said earlier on, that we have ever had in the 19 years of history of Minardi; it's an engine that is obviously a Ford Cosworth, it is an engine that was on the podium in Monza this year, and it gives us incredible horsepower. We are talking about a 70-horsepower increase over the engine we had last year and we are really, really genuinely looking forward to using this engine. And, of course, Cosworth is a company that is near and dear to our heart, we know them, they know us, and it should be a tremendous relationship. As far as equity partners and manufacturers are concerned, no, we are not in talks with any manufacturers. Yes, we would like to be. We run on the leanest, meanest budget in Formula One and it would be an asset to any manufacturer, but that's their decision, not mine.

Q: How many times this year did you think that you had had enough? Were there any times when you thought this is just too hard?

PS: Yeah, I think really Canada was my low point when Tom (Walkinshaw) circulated a document around saying that the Minardi TV money ought to be divided up amongst all the rest. It's been a tough year, there is no doubt about that, but then I have to tell you - I know I'm repeating myself - but that moment on the podium in Melbourne with Mark [some time after the official podium] was the proudest moment of my life and it really got me through an awful lot of dark times that were to lie ahead.

Q: We have seen reports that you have sold European Aviation. Is that correct?

PS: No, I haven't. What we were looking to do, sadly, and it really is probably a result of the economic situation since post September 11, 2001, in airlines is that we are looking for a sale of the airline, not the aviation part of the company. I don't think we are alone in that. Unfortunately, airlines suffered very badly - or many airlines, as you well know from Ansett and other very popular names - have suffered big time since September 11 and we are no exception.

Q: Has that made it even tougher with the Formula One side of things?

PS: It's been financially a year I would rather forget, yes. Traditionally, the airline would be a good sponsor of the Formula One team. That wasn't possible this year and, to be honest, what's happened is I bought a Formula One team at the height of Formula One and the airline has taken a big hit since September 11, like many others, but that's life and we will get through it.

Q: Are you confident that you can make it through next year?

PS: There is no question about that. As I sit here now talking to you we've got probably 75 per cent of our budget in place, and for this time of the year that's not bad, but bear in mind our budget wouldn't even pay the food in some people's teams.

Q: You said earlier that in the last couple of months things had changed substantially for the better. I was just wondering if you could outline exactly what's changed that has made the outlook brighter?

PS: Basically when we went through the season getting to a conclusion in Suzuka we had prospects for 2003 in terms of sponsorship and drivers and budgets, but there was nothing really firm and luckily - and I say luckily because these things can go either way - in the last few months we have managed to bring on board some very good sponsors and we feel quite confident that 2003 is now looking far less painful than it did in Suzuka.

Q: Is the team fully self-funded from sponsorship or are you or European Aviation having to chip in to keep it going?

PS: At the moment, for 2003, unlike 2002 and 2001, where I had to make substantial contributions, 2003 is looking like it's 75 per cent funded - and at this time of the year that would leave me to hope that we will end up 100 per cent funded.

Q: With regard to the Friday morning practice sessions, you want to use local drivers and last time we spoke you mentioned you wanted to approach James Courtney. Has that happened, or are any other Australian drivers on your list?

PS: I have had a phone call from James' management and what we are looking at - I have to be honest, guys, we make no secret of this, we are looking to get revenue out of Fridays, and I've spoken to James' and other people's management about Friday deals. The way it's shaping up at the moment is that we will most likely take a test and reserve driver who will participate for some of that period at all 17 Grands Prix and we will take local drivers, where available with budget, to compete in also those Friday morning sessions. For my own personal reasons, I really hope that we get some contribution from Australia to support another Australian driver, but I can't keep doing it on my own.

Q: Are the days of the Australian driver over now, given the lack of support that you had from Australia for Mark?

PS: No, I hope not actually. I hope it goes the opposite way. I hope that through my mine and Mark's commitment we can show what Australians can do, because I know what they can do, you guys know what they can do, but there's been a gross lack of support from commercial Australia, or from companies within Australia commercially. I have never, ever figured out what that reason is. I really, really haven't.

Q: Have you got any ongoing Malaysian sponsorship and, if so, is that contingent on a Malaysian driver. There was some suggestion last season that it may have been?

PS: It obviously is contingent upon involvement in the Malaysian motor sport industry, which we have committed ourselves to. Effectively, there is still an ongoing program of finding the next Alex Yoong, but I hope - we haven't finalised our deals with Malaysia - but I would hope you will see Malaysian support on the car when we get to Melbourne and I would hope we are still involved with them because they are incredibly nice people and they did us proud last season.

Q: There are reports that you might have a Russian test driver or test drivers - and obviously that's linked to sponsorship in that country?

PS: Yes, that's true. One of our new sponsors, Gazprom, is effectively the national gas company and energy company of Russia and contributes an enormous amount of the Russian GDP and, yes, we do have a Russian test driver (Sergey Zlobin) - we did have for the last four months of this year, and he is continuing on in that program throughout next year.

Q: You mentioned a further package of changes - more rule and regulation changes to the sport?

PS: Yes. Basically when we had the meeting that produced the Friday testing and the new qualifying, etcetera, etcetera, we said at that meeting that we would have a technical meeting on December 4 that would aim at actually reducing costs and setting out a format to implement those regulations, which we have now had. Out of that has come what we can actually change for 2003, particularly in cost reduction, and there are a few areas that we can look at. And that will be made public probably in the next seven days, but because most people had already built their cars and set their designs in concrete for 2003 we were in danger if we went too far of actually increasing costs and not decreasing it, so a much broader range of measures aimed at cost savings will come into place for 2004 and then again much broader in 2005, when we actually change our chassis for the first time in terms of design.

Q: Can you give us some indication of what direction those changes might take?

PS: We have agreed at a previous meeting this year when we brought in the one- engine rule that we would maintain stable chassis regulations for 2002, 2003 and 2004, so the kind of things we are looking to bring in in 2005 may be changes to brakes, changes to refuelling, perhaps changes or standardisation of tyres - and, sorry, I should have said wheels. At the moment teams make different sized wheels although the tyres are broadly the same, but a lot of money goes there. There are many areas on the car where standardising or putting a regulation in place to say that everybody uses this specification or this type could actually save millions and they are the kind of changes we are looking at. For 2003 it was a tidy up and a few things, like not as many wet weather tyres, so there is not a big expense there, and a few other things we can do on chassis but not a lot. But 2005, of course, is completely different. It's going to be wide open and we really might be looking - it's too early to say yet, but - at some rather radical things for 2005.

HOST: This Friday testing business is rather intriguing, and you mentioned before that you would like to run your nominated test driver plus perhaps another driver from the country where the event is being held. Are the rules in place if this gets up by December 15 for that to happen, and would that actually mean that you could use four drivers in that two-hour session - your two race drivers, nominated test driver and perhaps one other?

PS: Basically you have got three cars available. Also, the most important thing about this Friday situation is it allows the use of a test or T-car, a third car, and clearly it is just that, it is a test, so there is no restriction on how many drivers you can have. If you wanted to do three cars in two hours, put six drivers through, each of them having half an hour, you may do so. The whole idea is to give the press an awful lot more to talk about, give the smaller teams or the teams that choose to take this method of testing a slight advantage because it will be having two extra hours track time, and I think most of us will mix between our race drivers and it's going to be particularly important for drivers that have never driven (on GP tracks), new drivers that have never driven on a circuit before, to go out and get valuable track time that they couldn't get any other way, together with showcasing some local talent or talent from another country that perhaps would never have been seen by the world's media.

Q: When you get beyond your two race drivers and your nominated test driver, where is the "super licence" situation at in terms of if you get a driver from Italy or Spain or somewhere who perhaps doesn't have much of a profile, perhaps quite young, is he going to need a "super licence" to participate in a Formula One test?

PS: No, he's not because the standard rules apply, which are that if a holder of an International A which, to be honest, if they are not holding an International A they shouldn't be in the car anyway, and then thereafter requiring the team principal's permission - so that's the current testing regulations that we operate under. Because this is a two-hour test session and not linked in terms of regulation to the Grand Prix weekend then there is no requirement for a "super licence".

Q: Any issues perhaps with the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, in that some of the experienced drivers might be a bit wary of having what they might consider to be young "loose cannons" coming in in every country for two hours on a Friday morning.

PS: None whatsoever. It's exactly what happens now at tests. Many teams test several drivers, particularly at the end of a season. Some of them win those drives through competitions like the McLaren Young Drivers' Award. We also test drivers that are winners of other championships - a), to see what they're like but, b), as a reward for having won the championship. It's nothing new. What we are looking at here is bringing it into the public domain to give these guys a chance and a bit of a profile and to give you guys (media) something to talk about on Fridays.

Q: What chance do you give this Friday idea of getting up, because clearly you are in favour of it and there are suggestions that Jordan are in favour of it, and in fact will need it because of budgetary considerations, but it looks as though it's going to depend on a Sauber or a Jaguar or someone like that also supporting it to get the three teams to get it through? Or is there a prospect that the FIA and perhaps Mr Ecclestone's organisation, Formula One Administration, might clamp down on the testing at tracks that are on the (world championship) calendar as a way of pushing it through?

PS: There is already a serious clamp down on tests (at tracks) that are on the calendar, and one of the biggest advantages, as I said before, is the fact that many drivers never are able to drive on a Grand Prix track. Take Melbourne, it's not open any other time of the year; the same can be said for Monaco; the same for the States (Indianapolis). These are all places you can't currently test on, so there is a big advantage to teams that choose this method of testing. Let alone from the budgetary savings, there is actual technical reasons to go for this and I think you are going to find four, and maybe even five, teams take up this proposal.

Q: On this testing thing, isn't there a risk that the income that you might get from the drivers who are testing might be negated by the damage they do to vehicles?

PS: Very, very valid point. If the insurance companies out there are listening, we would be welcoming proposals. On a serious note, we do look at this but you have to remember we are not talking about putting people in the cars who aren't capable or aren't responsible. Of course, I'm sure one or two of them throughout the year are going to have a serious off, but we all have that in testing as well. A lot of it is about disciplining a driver that this isn't just your moment in time, you have a duty to yourself and to the team to be responsible and act responsibly - and in the main that does happen.

Q: Is this the sort of place too where you might do feature test drives in the sense of people like Mick Doohan or Valentino Rossi?

PS: It's not something that has been mentioned and I have to say it's not something I've thought of. Really, I think not, because it's still a test and we are still trying to look at people and, no disrespect to Mick or to anyone else, but what we're looking for here is to bring people forward that we might want to use in the future, that they may want to show that they mightn't have been terribly successful in a particular car they had driven before, but a lot of people adapt to Formula One far better than they did in other formulae, and vice-versa. Sometimes somebody you think is going to be a champion doesn't excel in Formula One, so it's a good chance to get that out in the open where everybody can see it. It won't just be the team principal who is actually conducting the test. Every other team principal will see it as well, and I think it will give these kids a big chance.

Q: In other words, Minardi puts on a test to help McLaren and Ferrari have a look at a young guy?

PS: It could be like that, but rest assured nobody is getting in the (Minardi) car before they have signed a contract. It's not just me saying that, it's everybody else. So if Ferrari or McLaren want a young hot property then obviously there will be a fee to pay.

HOST: In the context of drivers who may have had a rough trot in one formula on the way through and then perhaps shining in F1, what do you make of Mark Webber's new teammate, Antonio Pizzonia, who seems to have done very well in all categories except Formula 3000 for some reason. His form there seemed to be rather modest, and yet he seemed to be very highly regarded as the Williams test driver. What do you make of him and what chance do you give him of doing well in F1?

PS: Exactly what I just said. Some people do not excel in a particular formula, and Formula 3000 has brought it home to a few people over the years, because it's a particularly hard car to drive. I think Antonio will probably do a very credible job. I have had the benefit of speaking to Mark and he rates him quite highly, so I think you will see a very credible performance but, putting my own team hat on for a sec, it's another rookie and for me that's good news because it's people like Antonio that will be actually looking to challenge from the very first race.

Q: How close was it (Minardi folding) during this year? If Tom Walkinshaw had been successful in stopping you getting that television money, would you have been able to make it through or would that have been it?

PS: I think that would have been it. I made no secret of it in Melbourne, when it first raised its head in the Phoenix situation, that that money was fundamental to our survival. I don't think there is anybody that thinks we would have got through, including me, because I know the position, had we not got that money.

Q: With the other team bosses in pit lane - and it's a pretty cut-throat world, but - does it feel immensely satisfying when you're going to arrive in Melbourne to prove them wrong by being there for your third event in Melbourne?

PS: No, I think we have to be fair here. I had enormous support. It would be very unfair for me to sort of name and shame, as they say, but we had fantastic support from the vast majority of team bosses and I'm really proud to say that, and the one or two that perhaps supported Tom's position I think at the end of the day I don't believe there is any sour grapes. I think we are down to 10 teams now, we need to make sure it doesn't go below 10, and I think there is a genuine spirit of co-operation amongst all the team owners now to make sure that we take the sport onwards and upwards.

Q: Talking of Formula 3000 again, there was a guy who at the beginning of last season hardly any of us here in Australia had heard of, but he had a very good season for his very limited experience in Formula 3000 - Rob Nguyen, the Brisbane-born Vietnamese driver. Do you know anything about him and have you had any talks with him, and do you know what his plans are for this coming year?

PS: Again, his management contacted one of our people, it wasn't me personally, earlier on in the year. I personally haven't had any contact and, yes, as you say, he did a very credible job but, no, I don't honestly know what his plans are at the moment.

Q: For the Friday testing, is there a cut-off date by which you and the other teams have to let the FIA know, so that we will know whether there will or will not be Friday testing?

PS: Yes, it is December 15. But I'm not quite sure when the FIA is going to publicise it. We as the teams have to nominate December 15, and I for one have already done so.

HOST: Minardi, as we know, is based at Faenza in Italy, but your racing operation traditionally has been at Ledbury in England. Are you going to continue to operate in the same way as you have this year, or any thoughts of relocating the team to Ledbury, or what's the story there?

PS: No, to be honest, when I first bought the team I thought perhaps after a couple of years I might relocate it to England just from a logistics point of view, but I very quickly discovered that the best asset that I bought was the actual workforce. They are so dedicated and so professional, and there is absolutely no chance of us relocating from Faenza; we've got a dedicated team of people that produce miracles on the budget that they are given and I wouldn't change that for anything.

Q: On this business of budget you mentioned for one team, was the figure in US dollars?

PS: Three quarters of a billion Australian dollars, probably a touch more. It's just over $400 million US. And it's not one team.

Q: If they don't squander their money, if they don't make major mistakes, albeit some of that budget is going on areas that won't produce car performance, but a lot of it is going on areas that will, how on earth will somebody with your budget, as you say a fraction of that, ever get any closer to them?

PS: Makes you wonder, doesn't it? There are times in our press releases this year when I have said things like, 'I'm really proud of Mark for having only been two seconds off pole position', and people probably read that and just discount it, but if only they knew how true it is. For a budget that is less than 10 per cent of many of our competitors, to actually turn in performances week after week where we were only a couple of seconds off the pace, I think we win the Grand Prix Championship every year for the best value for dollars spent.

Q: But isn't it in the interests of you, and the teams all through the field in Formula One, and therefore of the public too, that things be done where budget doesn't count for as much, where driver ability and team experience and so on can play a bigger part and get you closer to them?

PS: I think I'll give you a job as a supporter of Minardi! But, unfortunately, yes, that would be a perfect world. But the world is not perfect. You can't take it away from people that have had the ability to go out and get these mega budgets, because good luck to them. Yes, they have support from major motor manufacturers, and in some cases merchant banks, but in our case we just do the best job we can and, I suppose, in true Australian tradition we battle on. But I am really proud of what we achieved this year, ninth in the championship, and, as I said before, those two points in Melbourne quite genuinely, it's not just me saying this, have gone down in the history of Formula One as the most popular ever scored. That is something me and Mark can be very proud about. Ongoing, we've just got to keep fighting and get the most amount of money we can and make sure we spend it in the best possible way.

Q: What do you see in terms of McLaren, Williams and any other team getting any closer to Ferrari in this coming year than they were in the past year?

PS: I think they are going to try, there is no doubt about that. And I think if you ask Williams and McLaren, they will both tell you that they feel they are well on the way to catching up. I had the privilege of being driven by Michael (Schumacher) in the back of one of our two-seaters last month, and having done seven laps with the best driver the world has ever seen, or ever likely to see, I don't think they have got a chance in hell. But that's my opinion.

Q: Is that where you put Schumacher? The best driver ever?

PS: Without a doubt. In fact, it was so bad or so good - whichever way you want to look at it - that I had to drive the car the next day and I felt totally inadequate even getting into the thing.

Q: Just following the question before last on the difficulty of your team and other private teams matching it with the likes of Ferrari, Williams and McLaren, will the rules coming on in the next couple of years allow teams on a smaller budget to get a little more competitive, a little closer to those teams?

PS: Yes, it will and I think it's fair to say that teams like Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, etcetera, we are not going to take anything away from them because it's not their fault. You can never, ever knock excellence and professionalism, and whether that's in the money stakes of getting the budgets in, you have to give credit where credit is due. They have done a fantastic job. We haven't done such a good job. But I do believe in the next two to three years we are going to see a significant improvement in the fait of the smaller teams, because there are clear measures coming through that are designed to help us in terms of budget and to, also, I think, and I firmly believe we will see a renegotiated distribution of the TV money in the next couple of years, which will also help the smaller teams.

Q: To follow on what you just said, Paul, about seven laps behind Michael Schumacher in one of the Minardi two-seater cars, and you did an appraisal of him. Firstly, how did this come about that you were doing seven laps behind Michael Schumacher in one of your two-seater cars and, secondly, did he do any appraisal of your car?

PS: Yes to both. Let's go back to the beginning, and it has a very Melbourne-orientated flavour this. When we scored those two points everybody saw we were all in tears, but basically Ferrari pulled me and Mark in as we were coming back off the podium into their garage to just say, 'Well done and congratulations, etcetera', and Michael at that point - I jokingly invited him to our party that night and he said: 'Yeah, I'll come, I'll bring my wife'. And he did, true to his word. He actually had another function he was supposed to go to. He didn't go to it, he came to our party. And so did 660 other people from the pit lane, from every team in the pit lane - it was that popular. And that night we were just sitting at the bar talking and Michael's wife, Corinna, said to me, 'I would love to feel what it's like to be in the car with Michael', and I said, 'Why don't you? We will do it at the end of the year'. And it was the best kept secret in Formula One, when you consider all the media attention we had throughout the year. Nobody knew right up until the day we did it. And we did a whole day. Michael put his wife, he put (Ferrari team chief) Jean Todt and many other Ferrari people through, and the car did over a race distance. And I think I can only summarise it like this: Michael at the end said, 'Thank you'. He gave me a little memento and he said, 'Thank you', written on the side of it, 'for a most fantastic, really reliable and fast, underlined, car'. And I will tell you now that Michael Schumacher "qualified" a two-seater Minardi within 107 per cent - and those of you that understand exactly what that means will know what I'm saying. And that's why no one is going to beat him.

HOST: Great story, Paul. Was Mark Webber being released from the second year of his Minardi contract to go to Jaguar, a team own by Ford, related to you securing a Cosworth engine, which is made by a Ford company?

PS: Not in financial terms. We had been negotiating with Ford since July because we were fairly sure that Asiatech were not going to continue, or if they did continue they were going to continue without us. And Ford was a logical choice for us - we had very many friends, as I said earlier. The final considerations on Mark were to protect his future. At the time I had to make the decision, which was the weekend of the Hungarian Grand Prix in August, I could not at that time look Mark in the face and say that we were going to be on the grid in Melbourne. As I say, I took a tough decision, and it was tough for him as well because we got on fantastically, he loved everyone in the team and they loved him, but at the end of the day, guys, where would I be if I had hung on to Mark selfishly and then screwed his career up? It's not my style. We did what we had to do. And to answer your question directly, no, we did not get any financial compensation.

HOST: Do you think there was any risk at any point this year, that if Minardi had fallen over, that Mark Webber could have been left without a drive next year, or was he always going to be picked up by someone?

PS: In talent he always deserved to be picked up, but Formula One is a very, very funny sport. If you are not in the right place at right time you really can miss the boat, and equally if you are in the right place you can be set for life. There were times when I had to consider whether or not to hold Mark to his second year, where I really knew, hand on heart, that if I had taken that decision and then not been able to compete that all the other drives may well have been taken. And that would have been, perhaps not the end of his career, but he may have had to have sat out for 12 months. And that was not the plan. We want to see Mark Webber winning races and maybe going on to bigger and better things.

HOST: You mentioned before about how there are now 10 teams, 20 cars, Arrows seemingly gone now. Do you see any prospect in the next couple of years of new teams? Formula One is obviously in a rocky patch at the moment, but there was some talk about a sheik from Dubai who is known to us in Australia through his assaults on the Melbourne Cup horse racing carnival. Do you think, even if they didn't take over Arrows, that an entity like that could perhaps bob up with a new team?

PS: Let's take this opportunity to clear something up. With Arrows, I sincerely am genuinely sad to see the end of Arrows. Let's forget Tom Walkinshaw for a minute, but Arrows the team was full of some very good and competent and very nice people, as indeed was Prost, which was the other team that failed in the last 12 months. Never good to see anybody go. To answer your question directly, sadly, no, I don't see any hope of anybody coming along at this moment in time. I think if anybody was going to come into the sport they would probably attempt to buy shares in, or indeed control of, one of the three private teams, but a new entrant now would be facing a very, very serious uphill battle and would probably be far better off to buy a competing team than to try to start one from scratch, for all sorts of reasons, none the least being the Concorde Agreement.

Q: You mentioned earlier that you weren't in discussions with any vehicle manufacturers. You said that the alternative for long-term survival is hooking up with an equity partner. Is there any serious prospect, or what chance is there, that Minardi will acquire a serious equity partner in the next year or two?

Family picture.
Photo by Flavio Mazzi.

PS: Chances, I couldn't say. Are we in negotiation with one at the moment? No, we're not. Would we like to be? Of course, we would, if we thought those people could take the company further than I could, because really what I'm looking at is, a little bit like Mark's career, the long-term survival of Minardi is my most important priority. Hopefully that will be with me in control of it, but if I see a financial opportunity where the team's future is assured then I would have to take that decision if and when that opportunity came along.

Q: You talked about some drivers struggling in different categories. We saw Ryan Briscoe have a bit of drama in Formula 3000 this year. Do you think he will find form again and go on to be a Formula One driver?

PS: He could well do. Come back to what I just said when I was answering one of the questions a minute ago. An awful lot depends on luck and being in the right place at the right time. I never judge a driver particularly by one drive alone. I'd like to rather look at what they've down throughout their career, because there will always be some particular formula where they did not excel. So we really ought never write a driver off just because of one bad performance in one particular formula, and I do think any of these guys have got incredible talent, but you need a little bit of luck as well.

Q: Another young Aussie doing well is Will Davison. Do you know much about him?

PS: I've heard of him. I've not had any direct contact, but we have got, as Australia always does, we've got tremendously talented individuals coming through. Again, and I'm sorry to beat the old drum, but let me just take this opportunity to cry out to the Australian corporate arena and say, 'Hey, guys, come on, support some of these people because Formula One takes money'. I got Mark there, and Mark's talent got Mark there, but if we want to see in years to come another Mark Webber we have to get people behind these young guys.

HOST: Formula One is obviously the reverse of football, in which you have to go out and spot the talent. It seems in Formula One the talent comes to you.

PS: In the main, yes. That's not to say we are not out looking. Giancarlo Minardi has a tremendous eye for talent and has a tremendous track record in finding it. And he is always looking in areas that perhaps I'm not even aware of for the next superstars. But it's a combination of both. Sadly, we have to come back to money again, but it is true that in many cases undeniable talent goes unseen or unknown in the public eye because the poor kids don't find the sponsorship to get them up on to the ladder.

HOST: You mentioned Giancarlo Minardi there. Can you just clarify his position in the team as it is now. He was recently described in a wire service report as the managing director. We wondered if that was a mistake or whether his position has changed a bit during the course of the year, and that perhaps he is a bit more involved than we may have thought?

PS: No, his actual truthful position is he is a director of the company, and his responsibilities as director include that of general manager of the Faenza factory. And that's where the confusion of managing director perhaps comes. But he is also in charge of driver development and he fulfils the commercial role in certain territories - Russia being one of them. So he does a great job and fulfils a multitude of roles.

Q: What has been his response to what you've done with his team and achieved with his team in your two years?

PS: Anyone that saw his face in Melbourne on that famous day will know the answer to that. He's incredibly proud. Nobody makes any secret of the fact that if I hadn't come along Minardi would have been consigned to the history books. Giancarlo is well aware of that, but we have a tremendous respect and a friendship for each other and I can honestly say, hand on heart, we really have worked as a team and it's been good for both of us, I think.

HOST: It seems a bit of a miracle to be able to make the takeover and everything to be so harmonious; it's a bit like having a divorce, then remarrying, and keeping your first wife as well.

PS: You can sort of say that, but you have to remember Giancarlo is a bit of a master at this. He's almost like Henry VIII! I think he's had six "wives" so far in terms of various team owners. And he is still being the one steadying force that's seen them all through. So he's been a bit of a survivor.

HOST: We have had a pretty good run, so we better not keep Paul too long. Are there one or two more questions somewhere? No. We've silenced them!

PS: I think that was a tremendous conference.

HOST: If that's the case, thanks very much again, Paul, for joining us. As always, great to chat to you and great value. The guys all appreciate that. Certainly there is plenty to report on, write about, out of what has come out of today, so we really look forward to seeing you in Australia again in just a few weeks. All the best for Christmas and the New Year. All the best to everyone in the team and thanks very much for making your time available. And thanks to everyone else for participating.

PS: Thanks everybody.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Antonio Pizzonia , Michael Schumacher , Mark Webber , James Courtney , Alex Yoong , Valentino Rossi , Paul Stoddart , Will Davison , Ryan Briscoe , Rob Nguyen , Mick Doohan , Sergey Zlobin , Jean Todt , Tom Walkinshaw
Teams Ferrari , Sauber , McLaren , Williams , Minardi , Jordan