Insight Motorsport News

THE ONGOING MINARDI STORY

MINARDI: The name will resonate with most fans of Formula 1 as the archetypal, plucky back of the grid battlers of the 1990s. While it’s been years since the team was sold to Red Bull, the Minardi name continues to forge a presence in the sport, as RICHARD CRAILL investigates.

WORDS: Richard Craill IMAGES: Mario Stefano

YOU HATE to play to a cliché, but there’s no doubt Giovanni Minardi hits all the markers for what you’d expect from an Italian working in Motorsport.

Now 45, the only son of Giancarlo – the founder and former team principal of the eponymous Grand Prix team that won the hearts and minds of fans for their ability to do big things on little money – is very definitely very Italian.

Overtly expressive. Says ‘appy’ and ‘forrr me’ (an emphasis on the rolled ‘r’s’) a lot. Lots of hand gestures. Unfailingly attentive and interested in your own thoughts but at the same time cool and relaxed to the point of being almost chilled out. He makes for a fascinating interviewee; his English is good but carries that charming Italian way of adding in different tenses and slightly odd sentence structures that would be familiar to anyone who’s seen an interview with, say, Giancarlo Fisichella before.

But he tells his story with all of the expression you would anticipate from someone hailing from that part of the world.

Our chance meeting at The Bend Motorsport Park’s first ever Asian Le Mans Series event in January couldn’t be more motorsport, either – a real case of small-world syndrome that the sport has in spades.

More than 25 years since he visited Adelaide on a 18th birthday trip organised by his father to the last few Grands Prix on the 1992 schedule, Minardi found himself back in the city as the Sporting Director of the Astro Veloce Motorsport BMW team, competing at The Bend with a pair of BMW GT3 cars.

The surname with so many connections to Adelaide’s Grand Prix past was impossible to ignore and fortunately the incredibly affable Minardi was happy to talk.

It’s there that The Race Torque sat down with this third-generation racer, continuing the family tradition that peaked in being Italy’s second-most popular Formula 1 team.

**

BORN in 1974 in Minardi’s traditional hometown of Faenza, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy’s North East, Giovanni Minardi was named after his grandfather, a Fiat dealer and racing driver in the post-war era.

Racing was in his blood from the outset and when Grandfather Giovanni passed away, son Giancarlo took over the racing operations of the Fiat dealership in a move that would ultimately lead to the Minardi team’s formation in the late 1970s. It was in this environment that Giovanni was born.

When Giovanni was six, Minardi entered cars in Formula Two racing for the first time and in just four years expanded to the point where they made the decision to step into the top tier: Formula One.

It was there Giovanni began his motorsport apprenticeship.

“I started very, very early, when I am 11 years old. I don’t like school, so I started working at the team during the summer when the school is stopped,” he tells The Race Torque.

“I started trying all the different types of job because I liked it more this work, so I started to try and understanding everything, because in my mind I wanted to work for my father when I was older. Inside the team the first year is a cleaning man, I cleaned everything, the car, the floor, everything! The second time is the tyre man, the third carbon fibre. After I tried to follow the team managers at the same time – I am studying everything.

“After I am finished with school, maybe 20 years old or less, I started there as the team manager of the test team. In the past there is a lot of possibility to do testing so there was two teams. It is obviously very different now. After the first year, I started working at all the races and the test team, and I am working for him (Giancarlo) for eight years.

“I travel around the world for all the season.”

Minardi’s history as the perennial Formula 1 battlers has been well documented over the years.

The team scored their first point in the 1988 season thanks to Pierluigi Martini’s sixth at the Detroit Grand Prix that year. 1991 delivered both Minardi’s best ever race and championship finishes – Martini’s 4th place finishes at San Marino and Portugal netting six World Championship points and seventh in the title.

Though the team was relatively competitive between 1988 and 1994, results became harder to find following what many consider one of Formula 1’s peak eras as budgets skyrocketed and the level of professionalism ramped up.

I started trying all the different types of job because I liked it more this work, so I started to try and understanding everything, because in my mind I wanted to work for my father when I was older.

Giovanni on his apprenticeship on the Minardi workshop floor.

“The results, they stay down because for us the best time is 91-92, after is changing completely for the money so it was very hard for us as such a little team,” Minardi explains.  

“For example, in my last year I stay there, in 2002, our budget was 25 million euro. Now the small budget is $150m so is completely different.”

Known at the time as the favourite place for Journalists and media-types to grab a coffee in the paddock, Minardi always had a reputation as the family team; small, close-knit and unified and, being Italian, particularly sociable.

“I liked working in the team because it was a family,” Giovanni says, arms opening as if to gesture to a group of people around him.

“All the people you know very well each other so all the people know all the names. For example, sometimes I am going to Torro Rosso; In 2005 there is 130 people and now there is 450 people so is completely different. Is a completely different situation inside the company. More people who don’t now the other name of the other.

“When I used to go out on the evening after work, the group is 30 people, 20 people but now people go out one by one. For me it is impossible to understand why – because the feeling of motorsport is a team, is a family, when you have the good relationship within the team is better.

“It is so strange for me that F1 for now is completely different.”

Giovanni rose though the ranks at Minardi and by the time his father sold the team to Paul Stoddart at the end of the 2000 season, he was serving as both the Race and Test team manager.

**

THOUGH he ultimately left to pursue other avenues in his career just two years into Stoddart’s ownership, Minardi has strong memories of the challenging times the team experienced when they became the now European Aviation-backed team in 2001.

“The best time was 2001 because we had Fernando (Alonso), he is now the champion, the second driver is my big friend, Tarso Marques, so for me it is maybe the best year of my job,” Minardi admits.

“2001 is very good because the money – nothing – the car is completely shit!

“But the results with Fernando was fantastic. 26 car grid and we stay always more or less in the middle of the grid so for us is a big, big result because when you don’t have the money. The car is ready in just two months, the engine is shit because is a European, the old Cosworth, so this year for me is the best.

“It’s more difficult but it works better and the rights for us results. We don’t take the points but is good because we stay always there near to the points when we have the completely different cars to the others.”

With the changes at the team, Minardi left the family firm at the end of the 2002 season and started his own driver management agency, GP Group – taking on several young rising and more established stars of Italian Motorsport, including noted GT ace, Davide Rigon.

“With Paul I am only working two years because I decide to change my job so I want to try to take the management of the driver,” he explains.

“When working there as the team manager I stay always more time with the driver, so I am understanding their philosophy, their mental and everything so I want to try that. When I leave Minardi end of 2002 I decided to open agency for management of the drivers and I started to take it in from there.

“From there to now it’s been 30-35 drivers. It’s very difficult working as the management – I don’t a have a sponsor for helping the driver, so I need to find it. For example, Davide Rigon has been with me for 10 years. He started with me in Formula 4 and is now arriving for a professional driver for Ferrari.

2001 is very good because the money – nothing – the car is completely shit!

On the 2001 season, that saw the team come back from the brink and survive.

“It is difficult for him understanding when I don’t give the sponsor to him! When he is going to Formula 2 championship the budget is $1.5m, but he spent only $500,000, so I have to find you $1m in sponsor. All drivers have this same problem.”

In 2007, Minardi returned to the family firm, if briefly: taking over the role of Sporting Director for the Minardi team in the Euroseries 3000 championship. It started another new direction that ultimately lead to further team management roles while still retaining the driver management portfolio.  

“I am working on relations with the press, I working with the relations with engineers, I working with people working on the car because I want to understand what they think of the job,” Minardi says.  

“I am combing back from my original work and I am going through the team for taking the Team Manager or Sporting Director.

“In the last two years I am working for FFF Racing in the Super Trofeo Lamborghini in Asia. The first year I am winning everything, the Middle East and Asia championships, and last year is arriving second because in the last race the driver is not performing! Is not always easy, winning!

The AVM team in action at The Bend Motorsport Park
PHOTO: BMW.

“This year I started with AVM and in the future for this season, I am again FFF for SuperTrofeo, but there other championships in Europe as well. Is a lot of sport! The problem is now people have not a lot of money so if you want to have the life you need to take on more championships. At the same time is better for me because I like it. The second thing is that being a driver in this time in Europe is very difficult: I prefer working in Asia because is very different. In Asia there are gentlemen drivers who prefer to have with him the professional driver.

“Sure, for the professional he is not happy because he doesn’t drive for the top category, but if you want to be a professional driver you need to do it!”

**

OUT OF CASH and in an impossible place to guarantee the future of his team, Giancarlo Minardi sold his race team to Paul Stoddart at the end of the 2000 Formula 1 season.

Minardi remained with the team as its figurehead until Red Bull purchased the squad in 2005, re-branding it as their Torro Rosso junior team for the 2006 season.

The Minardi brand popped up again in several avenues: in the aforementioned Euro Formula 3000 series in partnership with GP Racing and later, Piquet sports.

In the United States, Paul Stoddart spent a year in Champ Car as ‘Minardi Team USA’, linked with Keith Wiggins’ HVM Racing squad. In a lovely case of serendipity, Wiggins’ own team was formed from the history of another tiny Formula 1 squad from the early 1990s: Pacific Racing. Both entities would ultimately merge into other forms, or disappear completely.

Giancarlo Minardi’s career, however, did not stop.

“My father is amazing story! Me? Is a nothing story,” Giovanni smiles.

“This year is 40 years in motorsport! It’s a long time in life. When he sells the team, okay he needs to sell it because he was finished with the money, it was impossible to work again. He sells it because he was there with 120 family and he doesn’t want to closing everything.

“So, it’s remaining with Paul (Stoddart) for five years, then Paul is selling to Red Bull. At first my father stays there with Red Bull. But my father is very strange person.. no, not strange, but when you stay 21 years as the team principal it is very difficult to remain there in another role. My father is older but inside he is younger!

..he needs to sell it because he was finished with the money, it was impossible to work again. He sells it because he was there with 120 family and he doesn’t want to closing everything.

On why Giancarlo sold the team to Paul Stoddart in 2000.

“When the management of Torro Rosso are explaining with him, ‘you are older you are not understanding the rules of now’ he was: ‘Okay thank you very much I am finished’ and he leaves.

“After when you stay for a long time of team principal in your own team it is difficult to going in another team in working. So it is very difficult to go into another team because only Ferrari is the possibility, and is very difficult to take Minardi into Ferrari!

“They have collaborated a lot, have worked together for FIA and so on, but as team principal is impossible so is arriving to stop for the career in Formula 1.”

Giancarlo Minardi remains in the sport, spending a decade heading Italy’s Motorsport federation with an eye on developing young talent through karting and junior categories.

**

OUR chat ends as Minardi excuses himself with a smile and a handshake to head back to the garage of his BMW team, as qualifying rapidly approaches at The Bend.

“It is funny to be back here in Adelaide again,” he says with a smile, the name of the South Australian capital charmingly pronounced ‘Adel-lady’.

“I am coming to Adelaide in 1992 because this year I turn 18, so my father as a present took me to Japan and here, so this weekend is a fantastic weekend.

“I think in all the Grand Prix I am going, I think the best for me – sorry! – but the best is Canada but the second is Adelaide and the third Is Melbourne. Here is a big, big festival when it arrives in Formula 1. The other places are shit! Okay, there is a race but not important for the city. Here is a big, big, big festival, all the people love it and there is a very good situation on the way. Is fantastic.

“These are the three grand prix of my life… there are a lot of people Italian, so is fantastic when is coming here.”