Paul Stoddart: F1's R. P. McMurphy?

29/03/2006
NEWS STORY

This week the F1 'circus' arrives in Melbourne.

Everyone loves the circus, the colours, the noise, the anticipation, the thrills, the laughs.

For one man however, it won't be quite the same. Sure, he'll walk through the paddock, much like he has in previous years, shaking hands, catching up on gossip. He'll talk to the media, giving his views on the runners and riders, who's hot, who's not.

Yet, when the serious work begins, he will no longer slip into his costume and take his place in the circus ring, he will retreat to the shadows and watch the event like the rest of us, a spectator rather than a participant.

However, the news that Paul Stoddart has lodged an entry for the 2008 Formula One World Championship means that in the not too distant future, one of the sport's few real characters - love him or loathe him - could be making a return.

Ahead of this weekend's big race, Pitpass editor, Chris Balfe, talked to the former Minardi boss.

Balfe began by asking the Australian about Reuters' revelation that he has submitted an entry for 2008. "What you've heard is correct," says Stoddart, "I put in the entry last week for European Minardi F1 Team Limited, and I've had the official acknowledgement from the FIA.

"It doesn't mean that I'm going to get it as the FIA has made it clear that they are going to choose who gets an entry and who doesn't," he continues, "however, I think we've got all the correct ticks in the right boxes, so we' ll wait and see.

"If you look at it rationally, I've got ten years in the paddock," he adds, "and five of them with Minardi, therefore I've been through the mill and earned my stripes. At the same time, we are probably the only people, other than the existing teams, that have the necessary facilities and current cars. This means that we would be able to go testing as soon as required with a car that would comply to the 2006 regulations, and could run as a test mule for the car to be run in 2008.

"Max has said that he wants to encourage the independent teams," he continues, "well we're certainly that. He also says that he wants teams to run on a budget of no more than one-hundred million, well to be perfectly honest, if the budget for all the teams was one-hundred million, we'd be positively dangerous.

"It's early days," he adds, "we'll see".

Asked what he sees as the possible obstacles to returning to F1, other than Max Mosley, with whom he didn't enjoy the happiest of relationships, particularly in late 2004, and for much of 2005, he replies: "I think that's the only obstacle.

"My reputation for speaking out and telling it like it is, has got me into hot water," he admits. "However, if you look at it realistically, we have the most 'street cred' for getting the job done. It will be interesting to see if that street cred counts for anything or not."

Asked if it is only F1 that he is 'fixed on', whether he has considered any other type of racing, the response is instant, without any hesitation: "No, it's Formula One, that's the only thing that interests me.

"I've actually turned down offers," he reveals, "and that's not to take anything away from other types of motor sport, it's just that Formula One is the pinnacle of motor sport, it is the greatest championship.

"Also, if you've had ten years in it, five of them as a team owner, and worked through some very interesting times, it becomes part of you, it really does."

On Monday, the Grand Prix Manufacturers' Association announced that the five manufacturer teams had submitted their entries for the 2008 World Championship. Asked his opinion of the announcement Stoddart admits that he hasn't seen the press release due to his commitments with the Minardi two-seater programme, which has been in action this week.

However, much like Balfe, he feels that media claims that the threat of a breakaway is over, are somewhat premature.

"That's an interesting move, and I think it's a very good one for the sport," says Stoddart. "What could have happened, failing that, is that six entries would have been accepted and you would have had a situation whereby some of the top names in motor sport would have been on the sidelines. That would not have been a good thing, therefore I welcome this move.

"However, like you, I fear that we haven't heard the last of this," he adds.

Since he walked away from F1, we haven't heard a lot from the manufacturers and teams lined up with the GPMA, since, for much of 2005, Stoddart was the unofficial spokesperson for the 'rebels'.

"I was almost de facto spokesman," he admits, "mainly because I was one of the few that could say certain things that needed to be said, things that people wanted to know, needed to know.

"However, for very valid reasons you can't always get that information from large corporations, its not easy for some individuals to speak as freely as I did.

"That was one of the advantages I had in F1," he continues. "I was a free spirit, answerable to nobody other than my own beliefs. I think I did a reasonable job in giving the press, and the wider public at large, fairly accurate insight as to what was really going on, without giving away too many secrets but at least keeping people informed.

Asked for his view on the 2008 regulations, which were issued last week, the Australian admitted: "I've been very busy, so I haven't had the opportunity to sit down and go through them in detail. However, I've been asked if they are fundamentally different from those previously proposed, and the basic answer is no.

'Is there a particular rule which 'leaps out at him' as being bad, or good,' asks Balfe. "I don't think that the rules you are seeing now will be the final rules," Stoddart replies. "If you are talking about gearboxes that have to last six races, or four races, or whatever, the easiest way in the world to have an engine that will last six races is quite simple, and Scuderia Toro Rosso has one now, it's called a V10. 730 bhp, running at 16,000 rpm, that can run races until the cows come home, and you don't need to spend a billion dollars to find that out.

"The whole V8 thing has been a bit of a red herring, if you want an engine that will last for six races, that's your answer, the V10, we already had it, and every team could have one next weekend.

"As for gearboxes, they are not one of the mega-spends in F1. The sensible option is for the teams to agree amongst themselves that they'll have, for example, fifty standard ratios and that the ratios are manufactured to the same spec and you use them as you wish. What a lot of people don't realize is that this has been happening for ages anyway - Minardi used to use ratios from Sauber, BAR, Jaguar and Toyota. The ratios are pretty interchangeable, there are ways to save money, but nobody's going to win a fortune on gearboxes."

This weekend, for the first time since 2000, Paul will not enter the Melbourne paddock as a team owner, but as a visitor, a guest. Surely it will be a difficult time for him. "I've been in Melbourne for the first two races," he replies, "it wasn't terribly pleasant because you do miss it, and I miss the people.

"I'll take this weekend one step at a time," he continues. "I've a few media commitments, but nothing like in previous years.

"My biggest fear is that although I'm sure I'll be welcomed by many people, I'm not the kind of person who can just sit there, doing nothing. I've always said that you don't want to spend a lot of time in the F1 paddock if you haven't got a purpose, a job to do."

Recently, Paul had to face the difficult task of suspending scheduled services on his Oz-Jet airline, he breathes a heavy sigh: "The thing with Oz-Jet is that it wasn't working," he admits, "the rival airlines were just too strong. We didn't get the support we thought we would, we didn't get enough bums on seats, and there is no point taking it to the stage where anyone was going to get (financially) hurt.

"The good thing is that no passengers lost money, no staff lost money and no creditors lost money. I lost money, but that was the risk I took. I tried."

That line, "I tried" pretty much sums him up. Balfe compares Stoddart's attitude, his approach to life, and business, to Randall P McMurphy, the character in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Stoddart
hesitates, but when Balfe mentions the movie version, and the role made famous by Jack Nicholson, the Australian laughs.

Thing is, McMurphy tries, he's a doer rather than one of life's watchers. In the famous scene where he attempts to lift the heavy marble drinking fountain, it is clearly an impossible task, but he gives it his best shot: "I tried goddamit," he says, "I tried!"

"Yes," says Stoddart, "I can see that, I tried!"

Following the disappointment of Oz-Jet, Balfe asks if he has another venture lined up, there isn't a micro-second of hesitation: "Yes," says the Australian, firmly, "it's called F1 2008".

'So F1 hasn't heard the last of you?' says Balfe. "I hope not," Stoddart replies. "It's not my decision, if Max decides not to accept an entry then that's his prerogative. I think it's best to wait and see, because I do not think that this (the GPMA threat) is all over yet."

'But none of it was ever personal,' says Balfe, 'you stuck to your guns, and others stuck to theirs. For example, it's known that you were a big fan of Ferrari and Jean Todt, but felt hugely let down by the way they acted, firstly in abandoning the breakaway teams and manufacturers, and then the attitude towards the testing agreement and various other issues'.

"Jean (Todt) took a few shots here and there," Stoddart replies, "but I have nothing but admiration for what he's done. Ferrari became isolated and paid a heavy price, which was sad, because the man at the core of the team was being pushed to fight a political battle, yet had his mind on other things. It was very difficult for him.

"Same goes for Max," he continues. "I have said many a time that Max has done a lot of good for F1. But something happened in 2004, and the Max we had from May 2004 onwards was not the same. He went from trying to bring in passive change within the Concorde Agreement, to unilateral change with the Concorde Agreement becoming more of a guide rather than a agreement, I couldn't agree with that."

It's late, and Stoddy needs to get some sleep ahead of a very busy weekend, though sadly not as busy as he would like to be.

With the disappearance of Minardi, together with Gian Carlo and Paul, Formula One lost something, and Scuderia Toro Rosso doesn't come close to filling the void. No amount of wild and wacky press releases can make up for the passion that was Minardi.

There were times when Paul Stoddart made us laugh, times when he made us angry, but we always took notice, he was one of the true characters in the pitlane.

We hear that employees at Faenza miss their "crazy boss", we miss him too, even if at times he could be a right bloody moaner.

Fact is, he loved the sport, and just as he needed it, it needs him and people like him. Better a Randall P McMurphy than a Mr Corporate.

Article from Pitpass (http://www.pitpass.com):

Published: 29/03/2006
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