Probably the highlight of Paul Stoddart's career as a Formula 1 team owner came nine years ago in Melboure, when he and Mark Webber celebrated the driver's fifth place on the Australian Grand Prix podium. He returns this year in an ambassadorial, spectating as Webber bids to win the event outright this year.
Stoddart's two-seater Formula 1 cars were in action earlier in the week, and AUTOSPORT caught up with the former Minardi boss to get his typically forthright views on Webber, F1 in 2011 and the politics of prize money at the bottom end of the grid...
Q. There seems to be a big buzz in Melbourne this year ahead of the grand prix. Would you agree things looks set for a great season opener?
Paul Stoddart: It should be a fantastic weekend. In terms of tickets, it has almost sold out in the grandstands and admission - and that is good. It is good for Australia. It is good for Mark Webber - and what a difference a year makes.
When you fly in here and arrive at Melbourne airport, there are huge posters of Mark everywhere - and I think this year more than ever, and especially since 2002, he is going to have the crowd behind him. He really is. We will see what happens.
Sunday is a long way away, but one thing is for sure - it is going to be an interesting start to the season. Obviously the fact that we are back, perhaps for the wrong reasons though due to Bahrain, being the launch race of the season again is great news. It could not be better, really.
Q. It is amazing to think that the only time Mark Webber has stood on the podium in Australia was back with you in 2002...
PS: Yeah, I was on YouTube the other day, and if you put in, 'Australian GP 2002 Minardi' it comes up with the podium shot! It is still nice to watch.
I think he will do alright this weekend. Obviously a lot of this year is going to come down to who can look after their tyres. That is going to be a big issue, so all of a sudden you think of drivers like Mark Webber and Jenson Button. You think of Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso. They can all look after their tyres, and I think they are going to have the edge in the earlier races, but obviously being Melbourne the weather can play a part in qualifying and then it is a lottery.
Q. You've been a passionate fan of F1 ever since you have been growing up in Australia, what do you make about the recent speculation about the future of the race?
PS: I don't have an issue. Obviously I am in a beneficial situation because I am close enough to the inside to know what is really going on. The Lord Mayor today made it very clear that it is one thing to have an opinion, but the grand prix is here and it is here to stay. It is contracted until 2015, so don't expect it to go anywhere after that. No other city in Australia could host it the way Melbourne does - simply because no-one else has got the relationship with Bernie Ecclestone that Ron Walker has. And that is very important, as you well know.
Q. Do you think the future of the race is Albert Park, or is Avalon a serious possibility?
PS: I still think Albert Park. There are a few protestors still, but go and have a look down there at all the effort that is put in. It is so slick. When Bahrain, Abu Dhabi or Singapore wanted a race, what circuit did they go to get some advice? Where do they look at for perfection? They come and look at Melbourne.
Why do you see so many Melbourne GP workers being staff at other grands prix? They helped in Malaysia, they went to Bahrain - and they are everywhere. Every time there is a new grand prix, why is it that it is the Melbourne guys that go over and help them get started? It's because they do it well.
Look, the grand prix is expensive, but what it brings into Melbourne, Victoria and even the whole of Australia for that matter unbelievably outweighs its cost. And Melbourne, as you well know, is not one of the dearest grands prix. That comes down to relationships, and long-standing relationships. You won't have heard it first from me, but you will always hear it from me - don't expect to be anywhere in March other than in Melbourne if you want to see a grand prix.
Q. You had some good times in F1 and some bad times. What do you make of the current state of the sport?
PS: I am so impressed with the job that Jean Todt has done. He has stayed out of the politics and what a different sport we have got.
There are very little politics, and it goes away quickly - and that means you guys get to concentrate on the racing each weekend. That is fantastic.
The greatest political story last year was probably whether or not Red Bull Racing should introduce team orders in the last two races. That was the politics. So I think F1 has moved on. It has moved on very positively.
It also did put a bit of a smile on my face last year when the new teams started because I did a little exercise halfway through the year and worked out, with all their budgets and their positions it showed, and I genuinely mean this for the team as much as anything else, just how good Minardi did do with its budgets. When we scored those one or two points each year and finished in the top ten every year and so on, they got nowhere. Some of them had four or five times the budget that I was operating on year in and year out. So it showed how hard it can be at the back end.
I think you will see some big improvements this year - certainly with Lotus and possibly with Virgin, but nevertheless it is not easy. If it was easy then everybody would do it.
Q. Are you not tempted to consider an F1 comeback then?
PS: Um...you never say never, but the only way I would come back now is that I would never try and fill that 13th position. That really is a non-starter, as you need to get the [television] rights, and that is why I fought so hard in 2001 and 2002 to hold onto the rights that Minardi had. You have got to be in that top ten and you have got to be getting a share of the cake. Otherwise, it is just a hopeless task and as these guys will find out - they only have a three-year deal and if they are not in the top ten, then expect to see a loss of interest.
Because if you have no television fund money, no transport money - then by God, it is not easy to fill those big voids.
I do expect to see a big improvement with Team Lotus this year. Mike Gascoyne is pretty switched on and he is going to deliver a good car. Virgin is showing a bit of promise, but I do think that they need to rise into that tenth or better place.
Q. Do you have some empathy for Tony Fernandes? In F1 you had your fair share of punches from the rivals, and now Tony has had to do some hard fighting...
PS: Tony is in a much better position than I ever was. This whole Malaysian thing between him and Dany Bahar - well, I know both players quite well. It does seem a little bit ludicrous, but I am sure there will be a solution, although sadly that will probably have to be in the courts. Quietly I probably know which way it is going to go, but in the end I think Tony [Fernandes] will hang in there. He has a good team around him and he has Mike Gascoyne, and you need a good designer around you, you really do. And, Mike is no slouch. As long as Tony keeps listening to him, then he will drag him up further into the top ten.
Q. So where is your racing focus now? What are you up to?
PS: I am running the two-seater F1 cars, and I actually got back in and drove after four years last Sunday! That was quite good fun. They say you never forget, but I was quite worried. It went well though.
Obviously I did the year-and-a-half in Champ Car, and loved every minute of it. I enjoyed winning, and finishing runner-up in the championship. I would gladly go back into F1, but not until there is a team for sale at a sensible price that already has existing rights. That is the only way I could get tempted back in, but I do miss it.
Q. But if a new Concorde Agreement gets money distributed to all 12 or 13 teams, would that not improve the situation?
PS: It would certainly help put street value on the 11th, 12th and 13th teams, if there are 13 teams. But, I don't think that is going to happen. I have been in a lot of those meetings and do not be surprised if only the top ten continue to be paid. Up to a point you have to say that is fair. The way the new teams started last year was incredibly hard, and every one of them did a good job, but in the end every one of them has to perform. And I don't think you will see after 2012 any great slice of the cake going to 11th, 12th or 13th, because there are a lot of people in F1 who still believe you have to earn your money.
Q. And finally, who is your money on for the world championship this year?
PS: That is a tough call this year. My heart says Mark Webber, but it is going to very much depend on how well he gets on. I think Mark's biggest strength this year is his ability to look after the car and look after the tyres. That will be important in the first half of the season particularly, and that should play very, very much into his hands. Is there going to be politics in Red Bull? God, I hope not. But who knows?
My head probably says that you might see Fernando [Alonso] up there, and obviously Sebastian [Vettel]. If Sebastian soundly beats Mark then I think he will be odds on for world champion, but I think you will find a much renewed Fernando and Ferrari this year and obviously the McLarens may look like they are struggling, but you have two tremendously talented world champions there who can do well.
And I also hope that Michael [Schumacher] comes back a bit as well. Again - he is a fantastic guy at looking after his tyres. I can say that from firsthand experience because I drove on 52-lap old tyres with him in one of my two-seaters, and he knows how to look after a set of tyres.
Ross [Brawn] quite often has one good year and then one strong year, and the quiet years are usually to make sure there is another fantastic year the following year. It is going to be an interesting season.
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