Exclusive: Dennis gets support from an unlikely source

11/09/2007
NEWS STORY

Though his Minardi team was never in a position to mix it with the big guns, away from the track Paul Stoddart was always prepared to take on the biggest and best of them.

In Melbourne 2005 he took on the FIA and won, and it was only out of fear that the sport's governing body would vent its anger on Australian motorsport that he didn't go in for the kill.

And who can forget the epic press conference in Montreal in 2003, when the Australian went head to head with Ron Dennis over the so-called fighting fund. While Stoddart stood his ground, his supposed ally, Eddie Jordan, remained silent, the streak along his backbone virtually the same colour as his team shirt (yellow).

Today, Stoddart is enjoying success in Champ Car, where his team budget wouldn't pay the catering bill of the leading F1 teams. Though he's out of F1, and to be honest, still missing it, he watches the sport with the same fearful fascination as the rest of us.

Ahead of Thursday's meeting of the World Motor Sport Council, the 'tell it like it is' Australian is keen to voice his support for his former adversary, Ron Dennis, while claiming that FIA President Max Mosley is endangering the sport in his quest for power and what Stoddart sees as a personal grudge against his fellow Englishman.

Aside form the spy saga, Stoddart is particularly incensed at what happened in Hungary.

"After Indy-gate and Melbourne, I thought I was beyond being surprised," he says, "but this particular issue, with regards McLaren and its points in Hungary, is simply the lowest of the low. There is no way that what happened in Hungary was bringing the sport into disrepute.

"What really happened in Hungary is similar to what happened in 2006 with Renault," says Stoddart, "except Flavio (Briatore) is a different beast. Flavio is one team principal Max won't mess with too much, though he has to prove that he's prepared to do a little bit. The whole (mass) damper thing, together with the incident during qualifying at Monza (2006), was bullshit.

"What does FIA stand for? It stands for Ferrari International Assistance, and that's been proven time and time again to be the case. Whether it's the $100m payment when the manufacturers were threatening to walk away and set up their own series and which started Ferrari's demise in the GPMA (Grand Prix Manufacturers' Association), or whatever, the FIA has consistently helped Ferrari, all the way down the line. The only difference is that lately it's been so blatant even a blind man can see it. And the reality is that it's damaging the sport.

"A while down the line, people will be saying, 'oh yeah, but it's forgotten,' about this current saga, but it's only forgotten if, as was the case last year, the right team won.

"People are frustrated by what they see as manipulation of the sport. Last year, when Renault and Alonso won the championships and Mosley's interference came to nought, people were satisfied; however, had (Michael) Schumacher and Ferrari won, people would have said that the whole thing was a farce.

"Exactly the same thing is happening this year. Whatever Lewis and Fernando did in Hungary, for example, did not affect the sport in any way, shape or form, and it certainly didn't bring it into disrepute. Okay, I can agree with the five-place penalty for Alonso, to a point, but the thing about the Constructors' points is just the biggest load of bullshit I've ever seen."

Returning to the issue of supposed Ferrari bias with the FIA, Stoddart repeats a story which was in circulation in the days following the Hungarian GP.

"I've heard from an impeccable source, someone whom I trust, someone who was there, that a group of F1 journalists were in a restaurant on the Saturday night and Felipe Massa was at another table.

"As they were leaving, one of the journalists said to Felipe, "It looks like nothing's going to happen tomorrow," to which Felipe replied, "No, no, no . . . Alonso's been penalized and McLaren are not going to score any Constructors' points." This was just after 11pm, though there was no official announcement until 11.35pm. Someone needs to ask how is it that Felipe knew the stewards' decision before anyone else."

At the post-qualifying press conference in Turkey, Massa was asked about this after the story had appeared in the German media. "That is crazy!" said the Brazilian.

However, Stoddart is adamant. "I trust my source," he says. "Besides, they were there."

We all remember the bad old days, when Stoddart and Dennis appeared to be at one another's throats at every opportunity. However, the Australian admits that though there were "difficult times" - a masterpiece of understatement - there was also respect.

"When I first came into F1 as a team owner, bearing in mind I'd been there for five years before that, one of the first things I did was buy a motorhome off Ron. We had a healthy relationship, but Ron takes a while to decide about people. At that time, his attitude was simply, 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.' He firmly believes that if you cannot afford to be in F1, you shouldn't be there.

"In 2002 and the early part of 2003, I think Ron was of the opinion that if you've only got $40m, you shouldn't be in F1. However, after that famous Friday the 13th in Canada (2003), I believe Ron had a little bit of respect for me. That's what I think anyway. I can say his attitude towards me changed after that. After that, in many ways, he was a completely different guy.

"As time went on, I got closer and closer to Ron and found I had a very healthy respect for him. To be honest, he's a very misunderstood guy. He wants to win, he lives to win. Yes, there are times when he appears arrogant, but deep down he's a man with an absolute passion for what he's doing, and it's the same with Frank (Williams).

"Do I feel that Ron Dennis is being badly treated by Max? Categorically," he says. "There is probably only one person in the sport hated more by Mosley than me, and that's Ron. You've only got to go back to Max's resignation speech in July 2004, when he referred to Ron and Martin (Whitmarsh) as 'not the sharpest knife in the box' and his side-kick.

"At all the team principal meetings, all the F1 Commission meetings, Max is consistently putting Ron down, at every possible opportunity. Okay, I admit, there are times when Ron doesn't help himself, but without question, he is one of the smartest, in terms of racing, of the lot of them. Flavio is the most commercial, but Ron knows the sport . . . they're the two movers and shakers.

"When we had the situation at Indianapolis in 2005, Ron, more than anyone else, worked for a solution. That wasn't just for McLaren, but because of the sport. It was Ron, Flavio and Bernie who were speaking to Max down the phone, but he steadfastly refused to listen.

"I have great respect for Ron. I believe he deserves to win the Championship. I sent him a text over the Hungarian GP weekend. He looked a shattered, almost broken man, and I can understand why. I sent him a short message: 'Don't let the bastard get you down!'"

Asked about Max Mosley, Stoddart, once again, admits that his view has changed over the years, to put it mildly.

"When I first came into F1, Ron was one of the people who warned me about Max - 'Watch out, Paul, because one day he'll turn on you,' he said.

"Something happened to Max in 2004. He changed. It was after the meeting in May, between the F1 Commission and the (engine) manufacturers in Monaco. Suddenly, it was like he was a different person.

"His legacy, following the first half of his presidency, was one of building. Along with Bernie, he was responsible for building F1 into what it is today. However, in recent years, so much damage has been done to the sport, mainly by him, that people are going to remember him as the man who almost single-handedly - I say 'almost', because I hope he doesn't achieve it - destroyed the sport.

"Max is a power-junkie. I have no doubt about that," says the Australian.

Stoddart fears for the sport in Mosley's hands. "What he has done so far, in my opinion, has not yet affected the pureness of the sport. It's come close, and last year was a classic example, but thus far he hasn't managed to pervert the course of the championship, yet. But this year, he's sailing close to the wind.

"A lot of good things happened under Mosley's direction," Stoddart admits. "The FIA Institute, the advancements in road safety, NCAP, all these great initiatives happened under Max's direction. All these initiatives are assets to the global motor industry. However, this was all earlier in his reign, because something happened in 2004. Since then, he's changed, and not for the better.

"Some people, such as Ron, will probably say he was always like that, but I don't agree. When I first knew him, he was an altogether different person. In 2002, he was very supportive of me and the team, and I probably wouldn't have survived without him. Eddie Jordan and Peter Sauber will say the same. The Max Mosley since late 2004, however, is a different beast.

Referring to the McLaren appeal following its punishment in Hungary, Stoddart is fearful. "My gut feeling is that having appealed - and God, I hope I'm wrong - McLaren will receive an even heavier punishment."

He then alleges that when BAR considered appealing its two-race penalty for the fuel tank irregularity in 2005 - and notwithstanding the fact that four other teams made hasty changes to their fuel tanks - the Brackley-based outfit was warned, in no uncertain terms, that should it appeal, it faced exclusion for the remainder of the season. Needless to say, the team accepted its original punishment.

"This is Ron's year," says Stoddart. "It's his championship, yet everything that can be done to stop him is being done. It's wrong. It's dreadfully wrong. He's having to go up against Mosley, risking everything, knowing that he faces exclusion for the rest of year, maybe next year, because it's in Mosley's power to do it. And make no mistake, no matter what anyone on this planet might think, the World Motor Sport Council will listen to Max Mosley.

"Then again, maybe Ron is thinking, 'Go on, Max, take your best shot,' to the point where the wrong decision could outrage everyone."

Asked if Bernie could have a say, in order to prevent the sport imploding, Stoddart says: "We all know that Bernie and Max are inextricably joined at the hip, but I've also been present when Bernie was shaking with temper and frustration. I've seen mobile phones thrown across rooms in anger - I'm talking about Indianapolis 2005, when Bernie tried his level best to get Max to see sense, but he steadfastly refused.

"That was the one and only time I've seen Max overrule Bernie, and it was a danger sign, a warning to everyone in that room. When it comes to power, Max bows to nobody."

We recently commented that Ron Dennis appears to be out there all alone, one man against the system. If Stoddart were still involved in F1, would he be speaking out in his former adversary's defence?

"People wonder how it was that I became the de-facto 'shop steward', the one to speak out about this and that. Thing is, as you are now seeing with Ron, if you are a team that is fighting for the championship, you have to shut the **** up. You cannot go against Max, because you will be damaged. I probably ended up as unofficial spokesperson for the teams because not only do I know the Concorde Agreement by heart, but also it is in my nature to stand up to people. Then again, as team owner of Minardi, he couldn't really hurt me - if you're last, you're last.

"I'm struggling," he sighs, "because I just can't find the words. I cannot believe that one man can wreak so much havoc on the sport. Whatever happens, unless McLaren wins the championship outright, nobody will consider that this championship was anything other than a farce."

Ever the character, one cannot let Paul go without asking what he misses most about F1. As ever, the answer is honest - and surprising.

"The politics," he laughs. "I never thought I'd say this, because at the time it was doing my head in; however, by the end, I was getting pretty good at it.

"I know, as sure as my arse points at the ground, that had I remained in F1, Max wouldn't have got most of his proposals through - half of the changes that have come in would never have got through - and the Concorde Agreement, which appears to have had a coach and horses driven through it from every direction, wouldn't have suffered that fate."

He then suggests that his departure from the sport wasn't entirely his own decision: "Don't ever, not for a moment, kid yourself that Red Bull really wanted to buy a second team. I was bought out. Certain people were sick of me sticking my head above the parapet. I'd become a thorn in someone's side."

'The Thorn' has to go, as there are at least two phones ringing in the background, but he still has time for a parting shot: "If you talk to Ron, or if he's reading this, tell him to remember my text - 'Don't let the bastard get you down!'"

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Published: 11/09/2007
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