When the new Formula One season gets underway on Sunday, there will be a showcase of drivers on the grid that will epitome the sport’s past, present and future stars.
The likes of Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso may have seen their world championship winning days disappear like their rivals often did from their wing mirrors, but they will still compete with present days superstars like Lewis Hamilton and even the sport’s future champions once the Brit retires such as Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc.
Verstappen could realistically be winning world championships 25 years after Alonso won his first, yet there is one former F1 face who has dealt with both during his time in the pitlane.
Paul Stoddart was owner and team principal of F1’s underdog team Minardi from 2001 to 2005
Paul Stoddart is fondly remembered as the no-nonsense team boss and owner of the plucky Minardi outfit between 2001 and 2005 – a team that had nowhere near the financial clout of their rivals yet on an incredibly modest budget still competed competently enough at the back of the grid.
Minardi were an Italian team formed in 1985 and with little success were close to going bankrupt before Australian businessmen Stoddart purchased them in late 2000. Stoddart recalls that upon acquiring the team he only had one piece of major value to call upon in a rising up and coming rookie driver.
‘One of the only assets I had when I bought the team was Fernando Alonso’, Stoddart told Sportsmail.
‘We’d been running against him in F3000 in 2000. I watched him in a wet race at Spa that year and I thought “wow, this is someone I need to keep an eye on”.
‘When we got together in December he was part of the team, he was helping build the car and living in the same hotel in Faenza and he was totally motivated.
Stoddart claims his only valuable asset on purchasing the team was rookie Fernando Alonso
Stoddart was amazed by Alonso’s consistent fast lap times at the 2001 Japanese Grand Prix
‘Throughout that year he got more out of that car than I think anyone else would ever have done and that stayed throughout his career. He doesn’t give in.’
Alonso made his F1 debut under Stoddart at Minardi in 2001, with the team’s lack of investment prior showing with a car that was well off the pace. However, the Spaniard throughout the year showed enough promise to be tipped for a star of the future despite failing to score any points. Already on loan from Renault, he returned to the Enstone team to test throughout 2002 – much to the Spaniard’s apparent annoyance.
‘I remember his last race for us at Suzuka,’ Stoddart added. ‘He was facing a year’s testing which he wasn’t very happy about and he went out on a mission to prove how good he was.
‘If you look at the 53 laps he did, and they were qualifying laps in terms of pace, the only difference was tyre degradation and fuel load. The only two drivers I ever saw that were that consistent were him and Michael Schumacher.’
At the age of 39 years old Alonso is back in F1 after two years out of the sport, and he will be on the grid with Alpine who, under their previous guise as Renault, helped the Spaniard win his world championships in 2005 and 2006.
Alonso returns to Formula One after a two-year absence with the Alpine team for this season
He will partner Esteban Ocon (right) at the team who, in their previous Renault guise, brought him world championships back in 2005 and 2006
Stoddart believes the team is the perfect one to get the best out of Alonso due to his relationship with them, and that he will be highly motivated to prove he still has the outright pace that makes him one of F1’s greatest modern day drivers.
‘Fernando needs to be loved. If he is loved he will produce’, he continued. ‘He is still hungry and has still got what it takes. I think you will see a rejuvenated Fernando. You can only compare him with [team-mate] Esteban Ocon. If he is consistently beating him throughout the season then he would have done all he needed to do.
‘My only concern is if he gets off to a bad start with reliability. He could lose interest but I don’t think that’s going to happen. We saw in the test all the cars were reliable – apart from maybe Mercedes but I don’t believe a bit of that!’
Two years after handing Alonso his debut, he gave Jos Verstappen his final season in Formula One.
The Dutchman is the father of current superstar Max, and Stoddart recalls that even at five years old, there were signs that the current Red Bull driver, winner of 10 grands prix at just 23, was set for stardom.
Stoddart also gave Jos Verstappen, father of Max, his final season in Formula One in 2003
Max Verstappen now races for Red Bull, but Stoddart recalls how even as a five-year-old he was showing his incredible racing talent
‘Young Max came to a two-seater day at Bruntingthorpe,’ Stoddart said. ‘We had one of the sponsors bring in a very early version of the F1 simulators and so Max was there with his dad saying “come on, come on” wanting to have a go.
‘Jos will remember this better than me but Max beat him in the F1 simulator! You couldn’t help but think he would end up somewhere, racing was in the family’s blood.
‘He was always going to be doing something. I met him before he came into Formula One in 2015 and after chatting to him for a while you just knew how serious he was. He is definitely a world champion in the waiting. No question, a multiple world champion even.’
These days Stoddart helps run European Aviation, which he founded in 1989, whose planes are helping distribute PPE equipment to the NHS and making daily trips to China and bringing in over two million vaccines per day.
Yet the Australian still recalls his F1 days fondly, although admits he was left furious after seeing a chance to produce a huge shock go to waste at the famous chaotic 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix.
As owner and founder of European Aviation, Stoddart these days oversees his planes helping bring PPE equipment as well as vaccines to Britain
Minardi had only achieved three top-six finishes in the previous eight years of Formula One but Stoddart is convinced that with Verstappen the team had a genuine chance of taking victory at the rain-hit Interlagos circuit. The race was won by fellow backmarkers Jordan through Giancarlo Fisichella after a huge crash from Alonso had brought out the red flag two thirds of the way through the race.
However, the soaked circuit had a mini river running across turn three that caught out many drivers, including Michael Schumacher, and Verstappen was among those to spin out the race like the German at the same spot.
‘We took the decision – and we could only do it with Jos’s car – to put him out in the spare car and start from the pit lane,’ Stoddart said. ‘We filled the car to the max [with petrol] and we knew we could get as far as 75 per cent of the race or if the race was run under a safety car – which it was.
‘We were fuelled way past two thirds of the race. There were enough safety cars so that we didn’t have to come in for fuel. Those that started the race had fuel loads nowhere near as high as ours and were going to have to refuel.
Verstappen’s Minardi (front) sits recovered off the track after retiring from the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix having spun off at the notorious wet turn three which caught out many drivers
Giancarlo Fisichella eventually took a famous victory at Interlagos for Jordan, one which Stoddart believes Minardi had a strong chance of achieving before Verstappen’s retirement
‘So providing the race had a lot of safety cars which it did and providing the race didn’t go the full distance which it didn’t. We knew we were going to be in a position like Fisichella was in the Jordan that we could get to the end.
‘It wasn’t an easy race to pass anybody, realistically you could only pass at the end of the start/finish straight, nowhere else in those conditions was a likely passing position. Certainly if we didn’t win we would have definitely been on the podium.
‘Jos though went off at turn three and I remember throwing my headset from the pitwall all the way to the back of the team garage across the pitlane, I was so disappointed.’
After selling Minardi to Red Bull, who with lots of investment changed the name of the team to Toro Rosso and then AlphaTauri to bring them up as mid-field sister team to the factory outfit, Stoddart has been out of the F1 spotlight and admits he has little desire now to return.
But when it’s ‘lights out’ to begin the season at the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, Stoddart can watch the likes of Alonso and Verstappen knowing both in some way have at least a little of the Minardi DNA in them to keep the plucky little outfit of yesteryear on the grid – and maybe near the front.
Stoddart embraces Alonso after his title win in 2005 (left) and poses with a pit board at the 2005 Chinese Grand Prix to mark Minardi’s final race before being taken over by Red Bull