Watching the Maurissa’s and Caterham’s currently toil around at the back of the field engaged in their own private race within a race without even the slightest glimmer of hope of scoring a single world championship point, I often get nostalgic for my personal favorite backmarkers, Minardi. For 20 years I kept those lovable Italian cars close to my heart. There was just something romantic about a team of jovial Italian craftsmen engaging in a labor of love while seemingly oblivious to the multinational super teams with 400 employees and $400 million dollar/year budgets occupying the garages just a few feet away. Perhaps it was their longevity that won fans the world over, but Minardi were clearly “The Peoples Backmarker.” An underdog in the the truest sense, their quest often made me think of the legendary video game, Super Mario Brothers, where the ordinary Mario and his cousin Luigi embarked on an amazing journey against impossible odds to rescue Princess Toadstool.
Minardi arrived at every single race around the globe and unpacked their cars with the same purpose as their counterparts at McLaren and Ferrari. They were in the business of extracting every fraction of a second out of the car that they constructed with their relatively meager resources, only their stopwatch had different standards than the rest. Their passion was evident, their optimism infectious, and I always found myself trying to will on those lagging cars from the grandstand as their drivers fought valiantly to overcome their shortcomings in horsepower, traction and aero efficiency.
In a sense the Minardi was more fun to watch live than a Schumacher Ferrari because while Michael made it look easy, the Minardi driver had to publicly display every bit of his God given talent just to keep the car off the walls and pointed in the right direction. You could listen to the Minardi driver fighting for traction as the revs jumped all over the place and see his hands flailing like a prizefighter to control the nervous chassis. Lapping a Minardi within 2-3 seconds of a Ferrari was a serious accomplishment that made the rest of the pitlane sit up and take notice. GP winners Nannini, Alonso, Fisichella, Trulli and Webber all served their F1 apprenticeship with the small Faenza based team and their ability to push the car to the limit marked them as stars of the future.
I can recall sitting in the turn 1-3 complex at the Circuit de Hermanos Rodrigues in Mexico City in 1986 and grabbing my program to get more information on this Nannini character who was hustling the Minardi with panache only rivaled by Senna in the Lotus. It was obvious that anyone who could make a Minardi dance was a bit special.
While the drivers from Minardi would progress up the grid to the likes of McLaren, Renault and Ferrari, the teams themselves remained in stark contrast of each other. The great pit reporter John Bisignano used to refer to McLaren as “the perfect boys from McLaren” and he was spot on with that moniker. Whether I was in Mexico City, Phoenix, Budapest or Montreal, every time I spotted the McLaren brigade marching through a hotel lobby, regardless of the time of day, they always looked immaculate and totally focused. Meanwhile the imperfect boys of Minardi would be down at the breakfast buffet disheveled, smoking and pounding the espresso before piling into their rented minivan like a team of kids off to a soccer game.
And if you ever found yourself walking the garages on the Thursday before a race whether legally or by way of subterfuge, Minardi was the place to be. The mechanics had nothing to hide and would take the time to answer the odd question. Conversely the big budget teams usually employed an off duty SAS officer to shoo away the casual observers and kept their cars shrouded in secrecy until it was time to get down to business on Friday.
At the ’96 Hungarian GP Minardi left their spare car sitting in the pit lane unattended and didn’t seem fazed when buzzards off the street started climbing into the cockpit for a photo op.
For the inaugural F1 race held at The Brickyard in 2000 we found ourselves facing a predicament that buzzards the world over have faced countless times. In our quest to hit the pit lane, we casually slipped through a catering entrance and successfully evaded the elderly guard of volunteer Hoosiers in yellow windbreakers roaming around looking for shady characters, but found ourselves stymied in Bernie’s Billion Dollar Paddock Club located behind the garages. As we strolled up and down with a false air of dignity looking for entry, suddenly a door to the back of the Minardi garage opened. If it were any other team we may have felt the fear, but armed with years of studying the behavior of the Minardi mechanics, we quickly pounced. It felt like entering a house party uninvited. We received a few strange looks and had to step over a few guys on the ground working under the car, but seconds later our efforts were rewarded handsomely by getting to eavesdrop on a conversation between Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen. Seriously. Two champs and 3 buzzards taking in the row of bricks together.
For F1 to survive it will need to retain the colorful independent teams that humanize the sport. Here’s a raise of a glass of Fernet Branca to Giancarlo Minardi, his long time workhorse driver Pier Luigi Martini, and all of the men and women who made up the proud Minardi team for two decades! Grazie Mille!