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Baumgartner's Manager Says Minardi Deal at Risk

Zsolt Baumgartner's chances to make it to the 2004 Formula One grid suffered a big blow on Thursday, when his management declined an offer from one of his main sponsors, Hungarian oil company Mol Rt.

Zsolt Baumgartner's chances to make it to the 2004 Formula One grid suffered a big blow on Thursday, when his management declined an offer from one of his main sponsors, Hungarian oil company Mol Rt.

Christmas came one day early for 23-year-old Baumgartner last year, when he signed a race contract with Minardi on December 23, making him the first Hungarian in the sport's history to have a permanent Formula One seat.

However, his Christmas present could be snatched out off his hands barely two weeks later as Mol Rt. announced it would review its sponsorship position, because Baumgartner has signed for minnows Minardi instead of Jordan, as it has been originally planned.

After having made his Formula One debut with them at the Hungaroring last year, stepping in for injured regular Ralph Firman, Baumgartner was offered a race contract for the 2004 season by Jordan. The Silverstone-based squad wanted $US 10 million for the drive, a sum which Baumgartner's manager, Tamas Frank, failed to raise.

He still managed to get $US 4 million from three private sponsors - CIB Bank, insurance company Uniqa and Mol Rt. - and, realising the global marketing power of Formula One, the Hungarian government decided to double this sum as an "investment" in Baumgartner's career.

This enabled him to sign for Minardi, a team who asked him an estimated $US 8 million for the complete 2004 season.

Unexpected U-Turn

Baumgartner has even started his preparations for the season-opener Australian Grand Prix on March 7, when he heard about Mol Rt.'s decision to reconsider its position.

"We signed a memorandum of understanding last year, which has only been valid in specific circumstances. This memorandum was not a binding agreement. Mol Rt. started the negotiations in light of the conditions, which have changed since then," company spokeswoman Bea Lukacs explained.

Mol Rt. said they have not been informed of Baumgartner's plan to switch to Minardi, a decision they only learned from the press. As a consequence, the company reportedly wanted to reduce its $US 1.5 million sponsorship to a meager $US 284,000, which would make it impossible for the driver to fulfil his Minardi contract.

"Mol Rt. is confident that the support it has given to Zsolt Baumgartner will not be lost and he will be able to make it onto the Formula One grid this year," company representative Jozsef Szorad said on Thursday.

"In order to finish the discussions with a satisfactory result within the short time available, Mol has come forward with its irrevocable memorandum regarding the sponsorship, which takes effect if the company (representing Baumgartner) is able to give the financial guarantees asked from them," he added.

To make matters worse, Minardi expect to get one quarter of the total sum today, although Baumgartner is supposed to have a moratorium until January 23.

Impractical Guarantees

This may still not be enough to rescue his career, because Frank thinks Mol Rt. has asked for "impractical" guarantees.

"Today - the very day when, according to our contract with Minardi, the term of payment expires - Mol Rt. decided to modify its memorandum, originally signed on November 11 last year, by asking for guarantees which are impractical in motor racing," he told Hungarian news agency MTI on Thursday.

According to press reports, Mol has made a performance-related offer. This concept would work - and is not unusual - with a team at the higher end of the grid, but is hardly acceptable for Minardi, a squad who have not scored a point since the 2002 Australian Grand Prix.

Zsolt's father Antal Baumgartner, who owns the largest Renault-dealership in Hungary, has been assisting his racing career since the early days but is reportedly not willing to step in this time. He has already offered the government to compensate for their losses in case the $US 4 million investment doesn't pay off within three years, a risky decision in itself.

Frank acknowledged that Mol's decision to withdraw its backing may put an end to Hungary's dream of finally having a regular driver in Formula One.

"This has probably made his Formula One participation impossible," he said of Baumgartner.

A Minardi spokesman still stated on Wednesday that there was a firm contract in place.

"If not, we wouldn't have announced him as one of our race drivers," he said, adding that teams usually "don't make comment on commercial issues."

Hungary has had a Grand Prix every year since 1986, but never had a driver in the elite category of motorsport until Baumgartner made his F1 debut last season.

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