- Jul 23, 2014
Ten years ago, a team prepares for its twenty-first season of Formula 1. Their team has seen the rise and rivalry of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, all the way up to the dominance of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari in the new millenium. They had outlasted no less than thirty-six different constructors who went extinct over the last twenty-one seasons, including legendary teams like Tyrrell, Brabham, Benetton, and the original Team Lotus.
This team has seen none of that success in their time. They've never won a championship, a race, a pole position, or stood on the podium. They stand no chance of doing any of that this year either. Their drivers are two unheralded rookies, one of whom won't even finish out the season with the team. Their sponsorship is bare-bones and mostly paid out of pocket by the team owner, their cars saddled with weak engines that are bound to blow up, engineered on a shoestring budget compared to the bottomless pits of manufacturer money from the big teams that dominate the landscape. And it shows when their cars turn up near the bottom of the standings, as they have for most of the last two decades.
How is it then, that ten years after they closed their twenty-first and final Formula One campaign, that a team who never won anything in such a long span of time can be remembered so fondly as they are today, instead of, you know, being written off as miserable failures like they would in any other sport?
Because the legacy of Minardi F1 Team is not defined by their zero wins, poles, fastest laps or podium finishes, or their paltry 38 points scored over 345 races, or by never finishing higher than 4th in a race or 7th in the Constructors' Championship. Their legacy is their struggle just to make it to twenty-one years as Formula 1's perennial underdogs, and their long-lasting influence on Formula 1 that reaches the mightiest teams in the sport that still lasts today. It is championship-caliber celebrations that were more than warranted for what would seem like minor accomplishments. It is a list of former drivers and engineers who have succeeded in the highest levels of international motorsport, and even as the youngest of those drivers head into the sunset of their careers today, they still continue to rewrite the record books.
They were accessible, friendly, hospitable and gracious in a time when Formula 1 had become generally cold, corporate, and highly restrictive. Not to mention they had the best coffee in the paddock, according to popular legend. Could you imagine how wildly popular this team could have been if they had survived long enough to race in the age of Twitter, Facebook, and the entire glut of social media that drives F1 today?
They fought for the survival of Formula 1's smallest teams, including themselves, on a weekly basis in a time when Formula 1 became a murderer's row of factory-run juggernauts. They weren't afraid to butt heads with F1 supremos like Bernie Ecclestone or Max Mosley. With the news of Manor Marussia F1 Team's revival against all odds, from bankruptcy to a potential shock return to the Australian Grand Prix with at least one of their drivers already named, that fighting spirit of the Minardi team becomes even more relevant today. Even Giancarlo Minardi, founder of Minardi, admires the fighting spirit of the present-day minnows at Manor, and has been saddened by recent attempts to bar their entry for 2015.
Like Manor, Minardi had cheated certain death. When purchase offers from Telefonica and Fondmetal each fell through by 2000, Giancarlo Minardi had now sold his team, founded as a Formula 2 team in 1979, but failed to secure a buyer. They were certainly gone for good. Then, Australian aviation mogul Paul Stoddart swooped in to secure the team's future at the eleventh hour. From there, the team hastily re-engineered last year's chassis to comply with new regulations for 2001, and Stoddart struck a deal with Flavio Briatore to allow one of Benetton's star prospects to race in Formula 1 for the first time. And as the season went on, 19-year-old Spanish rookie Fernando Alonso immediately made an impact with his blistering pace, recognized as a top performer in his rookie year even in a pointless campaign.
The two-time champion Alonso, who now races for McLaren Honda, heads a list of exceptional Formula One drivers who had raced for Minardi at one point. Mark Webber replaced Alonso as the lead driver at Minardi the following year, and went on to win nine Grands Prix in his career, all with Red Bull Racing. Italian front-runners Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, and Alessandro Nannini all went on to win races in Formula 1 after beginning their F1 careers at Minardi. The constant driving force for most of Minardi's first years was Pierluigi Martini, who spent the bulk of his F1 career at Minardi, recording their first points finish in 1988, their only lap led in 1989, their only front-row start in 1990, and their joint-best finish of 4th on two occasions in 1991 - as he drove for Minardi from 1985 to 1995.
To say nothing of Minardi alumni like Anthony Davidson, Gianmaria Bruni, Marc Gené, Pedro Lamy, Justin Wilson, Christian Fittipaldi, Stephane Sarrazin, Gianni Morbidelli, and Olympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi, who all enjoyed their greatest successes in racing outside of Formula 1, or drivers like legendary Ferrari test pilot Luca Badoer, Jos Verstappen, and the late Michele Alboreto, whose stints at Minardi represented as their last competitive drives in the sport.
And how fitting is it that Jos the Boss's son, Max Verstappen, will begin his F1 career at Scuderia Toro Rosso, the team that now operates out of Minardi's old headquarters in Faenza, where the elder Verstappen drew his career to a close.
But to say that Toro Rosso and Minardi are the same team would be like saying that the current Nurburgring Grand Prix circuit is just as respected as the Nordschliefe, just because it was built on the same property. It would be like convincing jilted fans of a relocated pro sports team like the Seattle Supersonics or the Montreal Expos that their successors in Oklahoma City and Washington D.C. are the same team, when their current idenity bears zero resemblance to their predecessors.
True, Toro Rosso are based in the same facility, their name is a nod to Minardi's Italian roots, they have ushered in some exceptional talent of their own over the years, and they aren't exactly favored to win every Grand Prix Sunday. But Toro Rosso benefits from the healthy backing of the Red Bull Racing empire, and Toro Rosso can hand-pick the top talents from Red Bull's Junior Team to fill any driving vacancies that come up when the big team from Milton Keynes comes calling. Minardi rarely had the backing of a title sponsor, unlike many other teams they rarely benefited from even a shred of the millions of currency notes that big tobacco threw at the sport. There were no junior teams or driver academies from which Minardi could be loaned young talent. They had to find unconventional means to scout what many would consider to be unheralded drivers.
The Academy Award-nominated movie Moneyball chronicles the saga of Billy Beane, a general manager for a small-budget Major League baseball team who adopted methodology based around advanced analytics to find value in easily discarded players in order to build a winning team on a meager budget. And while Minardi and Stoddart never had the benefit of early sabermetrics on hand, just the time-tested methods of testing times and engineering feedback, they did discover a wealth of talent that would have been snubbed by much bigger teams.
For instance, Alonso had driven just twenty-six races in single-seaters before his F1 promotion in 2001 (three more than the sum of Kimi Raikkonen's pre-F1 career), and in his only season of Formula 3000 as a teenager, he struggled until finally winning at the finale in Spa-Francorchamps. Trulli moved up after just two full seasons in single-seaters, directly out of German Formula 3. Webber had never won a championship in any category before reaching Formula One, and spent three seasons stagnating in F3000 prior to his promotion. Fisichella graduated to Formula One not out of Formula 3, but directly out of the Alfa Romeo touring car team in the previous incarnation of the DTM series. Then there's the story of how Justin Wilson finally made it to F1 - he was left out in the cold after winning the F3000 title in 2001 simply due to his colossal height, until Minardi finally came up with a car that could comfortably house his 193 cm frame two years later. He then raised the necessary funding to secure his first F1 drive by selling stock in himself.
And while he never raced for Minardi, Paul Stoddart was still massively impressed at the rapid pace of a 19-year-old reigning champion of Italian Formula Renault 2000 who had posted truly competitive times in his very first F1 test in the winter of 2004. In time, the team figured, he could be a Grand Prix winner, the first from his country in fact. Which is exactly what happened in 2012 when this young driver - now identified as Lotus F1 Team's Pastor Maldonado - won the Spanish Grand Prix. Before that, the PDVSA sponsorship, and the unsavory reputation as Formula 1's crash master that has been accumulated in the last decade, Maldonado was just another untried and untested F1 hopeful who immediately acclimated to the speed of the V10-era F1 cars just as Alonso did before him.
Minardi weren't just innovative when it came to scouting talent either, but in the area of chassis construction and technical innovation, they were so sorely underrated. Minardi's designs were always considered to be extremely efficient and capable given the paltry budget they had to develop and design each of their chassis. When front-to-rear interlink suspension (FRIC) systems were banned from Formula 1 in mid-2014, it officially blacklisted an innovation that was pioneered not by Ferrari, McLaren, or Williams, but by Minardi technical guru Gustav Brunner in the Minardi M193. Aldo Costa was one of the key designers of the sublime Mercedes-Benz F1 W05 Hybrid that dominated Formula One last yearb, but from 1988 to 1995 he was honing his craft with Minardi, designing some of the team's most successful entries - such as the Ferrari V12-engined M191 that netted the team's best result in the Constructors' Championship of 7th.
But time and time again, if the budget wasn't holding their cars back, it was the poor luck of constantly being saddled with weak, aging, and otherwise unreliable engines that were far behind the curve of their rivals. They were among the last teams to run the remainder of the aging Ford Zetec and Ford Cosworth engines, several years after they became outdated. Other engine deals with Lamborghini, Hart, and Asiatech fared little better. Things could have been different had Minardi not been leveraged out of a works Mugen Honda engine deal in 1995 by Ligier, but the team fought on stubbornly, as they always had.
It would be an untruth to say that all of Minardi's gambles on young drivers paid off - that's why they're gambles, after all. By the time Tarso Marques returned to F1 in 2001 as Alonso's first-year teammate, he was 25 years old, and all the promise and potential he seemed to have five years ago as a 20-year-old rookie had evaporated, his speed never materialized at the top level. (He still makes an awesome custom low rider.) Esteban Tuero, who debuted in 1998 at just 19 years of age, lasted just one erratic season before he suffered a neck injury that would end his F1 career, cutting off any and all potential for improvement. Annoyingly, his failures to acclimate to F1 at a young age continue to be the default expectation among fans for teenage drivers that have succeeded him.
And while the team resisted the temptation to take on pay drivers better than most of their peers at the back of the Formula 1 grid, they did have to do the dirty deed every now and then. The likes of Giovanni Lavaggi, Gaston Mazzacane, Alex Yoong, and Channoch Nissany made every one of the current crop of F1 pay drivers look like a reincarnated Ayrton Senna in his prime. In the off-season before 1998, Minardi could only afford to offer Tom Kristensen a six-race contract, even after he had won the first of his record nine 24 Hours of Le Mans. But even then, whether it was Minardi or Stoddart in charge, they always guaranteed at least one seat for a truly deserving talent every season.
And it bears repeating that every occasion that Minardi scored points, especially over the last decade of their F1 lifespan, was truly worth celebrating.
Eighteen months after shattering his legs in a testing accident in Silverstone, Pedro Lamy picked up a single point in the attrition-wrecked 1995 Australian Grand Prix by finishing sixth, off the lead lap and running behind the slowly detonating Ligier of Olivier Panis, capping off a remarkable comeback story just to get back to Formula 1. It's still unfair that the most popular clip of Lamy on YouTube is a practice session spin from that weekend titled "Worst F1 Driver".
In the 1999 European Grand Prix, hearts were broken all over when Luca Badoer, running in an impressive fourth with 16 laps to go, broke down in tears at the side of his stricken Minardi M01 which had itself broken down with terminal gearbox failure, his first points - maybe even a potential podium finish - stolen away through no fault of his own. In the closing laps of a chaotic, rain-afflicted melee, teammate Marc Gené had to hold off title contenders Mika Hakkinen and Eddie Irvine to try and secure Minardi's first points of the '99 season. Hakkinen's McLaren eventually went through to finish fifth, but the rookie Gené had just enough in his car to hold off Irvine for sixth place and the last point to be awarded. And on that day, Minardi, the smallest team in Formula 1, beat the racing dynasty that is Ferrari. Think "Buster Douglas beats Mike Tyson" when you read that last sentence.
Fast forward three years. Mark Webber is running fifth in the closing laps of the Australian Grand Prix, it's his home race, as well as that of his team boss Stoddart. He fights to resist the pressure of Mika Salo, lead driver of Toyota - who arrived in Formula One with prior success in sports cars, IndyCar, and the WRC, and had hoped that wielding the largest budget in Formula 1 would guarantee instant success. To add another wrinkle, it was Toyota who had poached Brunner from Minardi the previous year. On the last lap, Salo spun off trying to pass the Australian rookie, and that helped secure a popular fifth place result for Webber on his debut, and the first points for Minardi in the Stoddart era. And on that day, Minardi beat the automotive giant Toyota, which set the tone for the latter's disappointing eight-year tenure in Formula 1, after which they exited the sport with so little fond memories of their time spent.
And then there's my favorite memory of actually seeing a Formula 1 race in person, the day that Zsolt Baumgartner finished eighth in a chaotic United States Grand Prix in 2004. Remembering screaming and shouting in celebration, running up and down the bleachers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in celebration as a fourteen-year-old Minardi supporter, perhaps one of the few of this breed at the Brickyard on that day. My favorite team got in the points and I lived to see it happen before they were consigned to history. They did picked up points at Indianapolis again the following year, but it was hardly a cause for celebration given the circumstances, and Stoddart was happy to let the world know of his displeasure, by responding when asked if he was happy with the points, "Not in the slightest." And having seen that race in person as well, I would completely agree with Mr. Stoddart.
You can also throw in Jos Verstappen's provisional pole-setting lap at the 2003 French Grand Prix, which marked the only time in the team's history where a Minardi stood atop the standings in a qualifying session, even if it only counted for setting the qualifying order the next day when normal services resumed.
It was this sort of genuine overjoy for the smallest of triumphs that had been missing from Formula 1 for many years after Minardi went away. Takuma Sato wheeled his Super Aguri to fifth place in Montreal seven years ago, but in a year's time both Sato and Super Aguri were out of the sport. Jules Bianchi survived the chaos and a cynical time penalty in Monaco to finish ninth last year for Marussia, their first points after four years of trying to break through. The driver will sadly never race again, and the team is now re-branded, but trying to fight on under a new identity. As the costs of racing skew to the favor of the biggest teams and to the detriment of its smaller outfits, there is a risk that these genuinely heart-felt moments may disappear from Formula One forever.
One day, Fernando Alonso will drive his last Formula 1 race, and all of Minardi's driver alumni will be retired. Aldo Costa will design his final brilliant chassis, and nobody who designed Minardi's legendary cars will have input in an F1 chassis to be designed in the future. But the influence of Minardi will be felt for many years to come. Their fighting spirit still resonates as strong in the minds of fans who saw them compete as it did in their twenty-first and final season. In a sport where failure is guaranteed in five years or less for the majority of Formula 1 constructors who have entered, Minardi survived over two decades, overlapped so many changes of the guard among the driving fraternity, and saw sweeping changes in technical innovation and regulation from the first turbo era of 1985 up to the end of the V10 era of 2005.
If I had to answer the question "Why Minardi?" today to justify why I still consider them my favorite team, why I wear their team T-shirt during every race...it would be that they were genuine, honest, and so very relatable to the majority of Formula 1's fans, which explains why only the coldest-hearted front-runners didn't have a soft spot in their hearts for them. They had the heart of a fighting champion that could not be mass produced in a hundred assembly plants, they were introducing the world to drivers and engineers who would reshape the landscape of motorsport all the way into the present day and beyond. They were not failures for going twenty-one years without a victory. They were a success for persevering in an ever-changing Formula 1 for twenty-one years, when so many other teams had folded they stood tall and defiant as the sport itself became engineered to put them into extinction.
And I don't think I'm all alone in thinking this... am I?
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