Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, May 6, 2000

Minardi Acts To Move Up Or Move Out

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - After 15 years in the sport, the Minardi Formula One team has had enough of life at the back of the grid.

The team with the lowest budget and the last one without the support of a major car manufacturer or super sponsor, it is gearing up to either move with the times or sell out.

The old-style, artisanal team has never won a grand prix, but it will have a moment in the limelight at the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona on Sunday thanks to its two Spanish-speaking drivers -- Marc Gene, a Spaniard, and Gaston Mazzacane, an Argentine -- and its principal sponsor, Telefonica SA, a Spanish telecommunications company,

''Formula One has changed a lot in the last few years,'' said Giancarlo Minardi, the team's founding director. ''Unfortunately, there is no more place for the artisans, those who came to the sport by passion.''

Gabriele Rumi, the Italian businessman who has been the team's majority owner since 1997, is in talks with several companies, including Telefonica, to sell all or part of the team.

''Formula One has become a communications business,'' Rumi said, ''so it is absolutely necessary to perform.''

One only needs to look at the paddock, Minardi said, to see what the sport has become as each new car manufacturer builds a hospitality motor home bigger than that of its competitors. The latest, a palace built by Jaguar, makes Minardi's single-floor buses with awnings look like shacks.

But a clue to the team's survival may be found in the details. Rather than a large restaurant-style espresso machine like the others, Minardi uses an ingenious little contraption that takes a single-dose pre-packed coffee bag for each cup. This kind of cost-effective ingenuity is also what Minardi cultivates for its racing cars.

The outdated Ford engine -- renamed a Fondmetal, after Rumi's private company -- is bigger and heavier by 30 kilograms (66 pounds) than those of the top teams. It also requires more cooling, which means larger radiator ducts, which in turn hurt the car's aerodynamics. So to attack the weight and cooling problems, the team built an innovative compact titanium-cast gearbox, which is light and can take more heat.

Gustav Brunner, the technical director, said Minardi had a budget of dollars 50 million a season and about 100 people building the car, while the top teams have dollars 350 million and 700 people

''But the lap time difference,'' said Brunner, ''is only three seconds at the very worst. So you pay dollars 300 million to go those three seconds quicker.''

Last year the team finished next to last, just ahead of the new British American Racing team, which had the fourth-largest budget but also had teething pains.

Progress is difficult to judge, said Cesare Fiorio, Minardi's sporting director. At the Brazilian Grand Prix in March, for example, the team qualified two-tenths of a second quicker than Mika Hakkinen's 1999 pole position in a McLaren.

''Of course Hakkinen also improved by another 1.8 seconds,'' Fiorio said. ''But we have improved 4.2 seconds, which is a tremendous achievement. If things had not evolved the way they have, this would be sufficient to be a very competitive team.''

The evolutionary problem is the big car manufacturers: Companies such as Ford, BMW, Honda and Mercedes not only provide free engines to their respective teams but also supply workers, research, money and facilities.

''It is absolutely necessary for me to find a partner,'' Rumi said. ''But I'm not looking for a boss. If I can't find a partner, I will be obliged to sell.''

Rumi's company supplied wheels to championship-winning teams for years. But in 1990 he bought a team, Osella, that he was forced to sell two years later. ''I felt like I had lost a battle,'' he said. ''So I returned in order to show to myself that I would have the capacity to stay. I have done all I can to be able to stay. And I think that my team, which no longer has a place here, is still today the real Formula One team, for those who think of what Formula One used to be.''

Even with only one point in four years -- obtained by Gene at the European Grand Prix last September -- Minardi is highly respected in the paddock. And the team has always been a good school for drivers, launching the careers of Elio de Angelis, Michele Alboreto, Alessandro Nannini, Christian Fittipaldi, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli.

''Nowadays if you watch a Formula One race, they only show the first two cars,'' Gene said. ''But I have an idea that with any car you should be able to show your skills to the people who make the decisions in Formula One.''

Fiorio said that the motivation remained the same whether at Minardi or a top team such as Ferrari, where he worked in the early 1990s.

''If you are in Ferrari and you come in second, you have lost,'' he said. ''If you are in a team like this, you know that winning is not the issue. It is to make the team evolve.''

Back to Samples Index