By Alan Baldwin
BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Former Minardi team owner Paul Stoddart is back in Formula One and making a big noise again.
The Australian aviation entrepreneur, whose popular Italy-based outfit became Toro Rosso after he sold it to Red Bull in 2005, is now running what he fondly refers to as the sport’s ’11th team’.
The 62-year-old has brought his two-seater cars to the track as part of the new F1 Experiences program, allowing passengers to taste some of the speed enjoyed by the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.
Operating at selected races this season, from a garage at the end of the pitlane, the cars are a throwback to a bygone era with their raucous V10 Cosworth engines and slimmer tyres.
But next year, with redesigned chassis penned by former F1 team technical head Mike Gascoyne, they will be a feature at every race.
The fuel tanks will be smaller, to allow more ‘bum room’ for passengers, but the same specification pre-turbo era V10 engines — with 15 brand new ones ordered — will be retained.
“Not in a million years did I think I’d be back,” Stoddart told Reuters at the Hungarian Grand Prix, unwinding in what was the Manor team’s motorhome.
“The trouble is, once you come back it’s such a drug. You’re addicted to it. and now I’m loving it, even though I’m back doing seven days a week.”
A whirlwind of energy, helping passengers settle in and loving the smiles and high fives as they step out after the ride of a lifetime, Stoddart lit up one of many daily cigarettes and reflected on his new project.
He has run two-seaters at his home race in Melbourne for a decade, their ear-splitting wail a familiar sound to Albert Park visitors, and with Champcars in the Americas in 2007, but it took a change of ownership in the sport for the next step.
Liberty Media, who completed their takeover of Formula One in January and ousted former supremo Bernie Ecclestone, wasted no time.
“We agreed we were going to do it as a trial in Austin and Mexico… we were ready for that no problem. Then I got a phone call on the Tuesday after China to say ‘can you be in Barcelona?,’” recalled Stoddart.
“I just said yes and then afterwards I thought ‘Oh my god, I’ve got no motorhomes and we sold all the garage kit years ago’. And I was determined that I wouldn’t do this unless I could do it as the 11th team, properly.”
Stoddart, whose European Aviation business operates out of Bournemouth on England’s south coast, swung into action.
He bought garage equipment, support trucks and motorhome from Manor’s liquidators before a scheduled auction and set to work.
“I had to kick a Boeing 737 out of my paint shop in Bournemouth, as it’s the only place I could have painted these things in time,” he smiled.
“That’s why they’ve got this lovely paint job on them because it’s BBJ (Boeing Business Jet) white – a little bit more expensive than truck paint. And we made it happen.
“There’s a lot of familiar faces and of course since this has been happening, a lot of my people have come back,” added the Australian of his 53-strong team.
The cars have been driven over the years by eight world champions, including Ferrari great Michael Schumacher who gave his wife Corinna a passenger ride in 2003, and can hit a top speed of 348kph.
“But we would never do that with passengers. We are always pulling it back 10 or 15 percent. So at Monza I’ll probably limit it at 300kph to be honest, just for safety,” said Stoddart.
Other guests among the more than 4,000 passengers to have enjoyed the ride over the years have included the late Hollywood actor Paul Newman, with retired Formula One world champion Mario Andretti driving at Edmonton in 2007.
“There was a famous shot of him standing up in the back seat (after the ride) saying ‘this is fantastic’ and tapping Mario on the head saying ‘next time, you’re in the back’,” said Stoddart.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)