Minardi v Prost

The 2000 Formula 1 season was one of turmoil for Minardi, one of the sport’s most beloved underdog teams. Increased costs across the Formula 1 landscape saw the team desperately struggling to make ends meet. Vintage pay-driver Gastón Mazzacane was hired to join Marc Gené, who had scored the team’s last points finish at the European Grand Prix of the prior season. The team ran an outdated and heavy Ford Zetec-R 3.0 litre V10 engine (though at least they got Fondmetal to pay for the privilege of having said engines compete under their name) despite attempts to get more up-to-date Cosworth power units. Despite these constraints, the M02 proved a very functional design, allowing Marc Gené to out-qualify future Formula 1 World Champion Jenson Button at the season opener in Albert Park and beating debutant Nick Heidfeld on pace.

After that success, another eighth place came for Minardi at the site of their great success the year prior: at the Nürburgring, Gaston Mazzacane managed to finish eighth ahead of Jean Alesi’s Prost-Peugeot. These two finishes saw Minardi occupy 10th in the standings ahead of the struggling Prost team, thereby entitling them to some very helpful prize money and increasing the attractiveness of the team for potential buyers. 

However, the pressure was on. Minardi already got lucky when Jean Alesi retired from seventh place at the Monaco Grand Prix, but Prost did get an eighth to climb back into the countback fight thanks to Nick Heidfeld managing to survive the ever-challenging Monaco circuit (something Mazzacane could not, running out of talent at St. Devote while ahead of Heidfeld). One more eighth place or better would hand Prost P10 in the standings, given that they had managed to achieve ninth-place finishes, something Minardi had not.

Given as Minardi had by now been banished exclusively to the back of the grid due to the problems mentioned in the first paragraph (with Gené only occasionally outqualifying Heidfeld) and the high-speed Austrian Grand Prix coming up, things were not looking rosy for Minardi. However, as any passionate fan of motorsport knows: anything happens in Grand Prix racing, and it usually does.

Qualifying for said Austrian Grand Prix seemed to support the notion that Minardi would not hold on to their 10th place in the standings. Only Luciano Burti’s unexpected and therefore unprepared debut prevented Minardi from once again occupying the last row of the grid. Even then, Gené was almost four tenths of a second behind the two Williams in 18th and 19th despite said Wiliams team struggling throughout the entire 60-minute session. Prost, on the other hand, managed to secure themselves 13th and 17th on the grid – Nick Heidfeld’s excellent driving placing him even ahead of last year’s title contender Heinz-Harald Frentzen and making him the second-best placed driver among the four Germans competing on this Grand Prix weekend.

17°C was not a particularly warm day by the standards of July, the threat of rain was made clear by the grey clouds literally overshadowing the A1-Ring. Minardi received a small “gift” from their competition: a technical issue forced Luciano Burti to start his first Formula 1 race from the pitlane. On the formation lap, the ORF showed multiple very necessary onboards from 2000 Reject of the Year Alexander Wurz who had managed an impressive 14th place in qualifying … impressive until you realise that Giancarlo Fisichella had managed eighth in the same car and was now 9-1 in the qualifying duel.

Turn 1 came and with it came mayhem of the highest order. Ricardo Zonta misjudged the braking distance and unceremoniously ran into championship leader Michael Schumacher. A number of separate situations took out a few competitors and left others in bad shape: either stuck in traffic or with damaged cars. Charlie Whiting, meanwhile, was left to make the call: red flag or a mere safety car period? After quick consideration, he chose the safety car – and that would prove to be a game-changing decision for Minardi.

While Mika Salo moving up to third thanks to these events got Murray Walker excited, the real game changer had happened in the midfield: Gené and Mazzacane found themselves 10th and 12th with both Prosts behind them. Both of them gained another place when Jos Verstappen, who had picked up damage in the opening lap incidents, needed to pit. Racing continued swiftly and it was now down to these two to maintain this advantage and see whether those positions could be defended. Mazzacane would have a challenging task ahead of him with Prost’s Jean Alesi right behind him. Sure enough, he failed the task pretty much immediately. Murray Walker, ever the appreciator of all racers, excitedly noted when listing the top 10 that Gené was ninth ahead of local hero Alexander Wurz.

Gené proved his racecraft, managing to both hang with Jenson Button and using his slipstream to make up for his heavier car. Regrettably, despite the fact that it was Wurz following him, we only get to see Gené in panorama shots of cars ahead of him, but the eye test seemed to confirm that he had no problem keeping Wurz behind him. At least Minardi fans got to see Gené, Mazzacane dropped down the order like a stone while nobody was able to see it happen. He was already down to 16th on lap 6, Zonta, Burti and Schumacher all cleared him with relative ease and the author would not have known it if not for the updated standings on the bottom of the screen.

Not only does the ORF deny us any Minardi pictures, they switch away from Rubens Barrichello hunting down the Sauber of Mika Salo to show Jos Verstappen randomly just so we can be informed he set the fastest lap early in the race. It is almost like they knew the author would re-watch this race almost 23 years later and wanted to deny him his favourite driver, though that may just be the paranoia speaking. Speaking of the paranoid: once again Martin Brundle tries to turn a Ferrari passing a Sauber with ease into something particularly worth mentioning. The author feels lucky that he has not properly listened to a word Martin Brundle has said in over five years, otherwise he might be worried what it would be like listening to him nowadays where there are more works teams with direct customer relations in the Sauber mould now than there ever where back when he was a competent colour announcer.

Eventually we get some visuals of Marc Gené again, much to the delight of the fan of the underdog. In other Minardi news: Mazzacane’s fall down the standings had indeed stopped at P16, once again the author had to rely on the overall standings that popped up every five laps or so to learn of this fact. The camera now was on Alexander Wurz again, resulting in minor air time for Gené, though unfortunately it was not good news for Minardi. Wurz was shown because he faced serious pressure from Jean Alesi. Thankfully the camera crew does not cut away from Alesi’s unsuccessful attempt to take ninth.

Unfortunately, the author afterwards is left only with his own knowledge of Formula 1 and the eye test to confirm that this fight between Wurz and Alesi cost both of them time and left Gené with breathing space. Eventually, Alesi found his way past Wurz and quite frankly the Murray Walker commentary gushing about Jean Alesi not having lost his spark despite his experience is more interesting than the move itself (which was not a bad overtake either, mind you). Motorsport is richer for having had Murray Walker dedicate himself to it.

While we do not get any Minardi action, we do get a lot of midfield action as there is no real battle for the lead. Mika Häkkinen had the situation well under control in this part of the race, so there was not much to show. In a weird choice, the director shows us Marc Gené for a split second before turning back to Mika Häkkinen. If the author were a jokester, he would suggest that the cameras that follow each driver were alphabetically sorted and the director got it mixed up.

Afterwards, the cameras mostly focus on Rubens Barrichello’s effort to hunt down Pedro de la Rosa for third, a challenging task given the supreme straight-line speed of the late Arrows cars. The real fight in this race gets some airtime, as Jean Alesi is shown getting fresh tires and a new fuel load. After a couple of McLaren moments, a replay reveals a near-tragedy unfolding: Ricardo Zonta went all-in into turn 1 to pass Gené and makes contact, but thankfully neither car picked up damage.

The camera showcases McLaren and Mika Häkkinen building their lead before we get Luciano Burti airtime. This, however, does not last long, as the directors pick up on the amazing battle between Ralf Schumacher and Gastón Mazzacane – before Martin Brundle proves to be a spoilsport by pointing out that Ralf Schumacher is down multiple laps on the Minardi. The camera cuts away from the two, apparently someone was listening to Brundle.

Young Nick Heidfeld in tenth is getting attention and by the fact that in the far view shows Gené’s Minardi it is deserved attention. Minardi could be in trouble if Nick continued to race as quickly as he does. Marc Gené, however, is not slowing down himself. He can see the 11880.com sponsorship on the back of Jenson Button’s Williams. 

Walker uses this opportunity to point out that Minardi could perform a lot better with a lighter and more state-of-the-art engine. Regrettably that claim would not be tested until 2007, when the team (then known as Toro Rosso) got their hands on customer Ferraris (and large amounts of Red Bull money) and sure enough ended up building a race winner the year after that.

As Pedro de la Rosa retired from a potential podium position with a gearbox issue, we get the joy of seeing Mika Häkkinen lap backmarkers for a few laps in a row. After a short onboard of Barrichello, the TV direction once again returns to the only fight that matters as we see Mazzacane getting refuelled. The Minardi pit crew gets no respect as the stop clock does not even bother stopping once the Argentinian leaves his pit box. Mazzacane rejoins the track behind Heidfeld and Zonta. For the next few laps the intra-McLaren duel for the win is on the focus of TV attention, as David Coulthard has brought himself back into contention. Nick Heidfeld’s stop forces the media to pay attention to the real battle again. Aforementioned bias is fully revealed, as Heidfeld’s pit crew is properly stopped at 9.8 seconds. The author shall use this opportunity to correct the earlier misreporting for historical purposes and reveal the fact that Mazzacane’s stop was a 9.2-second stop – Minardi’s pit crew doing all in their might to keep the Peugeot works team behind them in the standings.

Afterwards it is all McLaren again – understandable, as Häkkinen and Coulthard play out their strategies with the Grand Prix victory on the line – before the ultimate twist to this enthralling story is revealed. A hard cut away from a Barrichello onboard that had just begun reveals the two Prosts in the gravel trap as the result of a Teammate Collision (Ouroborus would be so proud of this self-reference). As we see a distraught Prost pitwall, the replays come in to reveal the cause of this incident. Jean Alesi, the veteran praised for his “moxey” earlier by Murray Walker, attempted an audacious dive into turn 1 and caused an accident that would be complemented if called amateurish.

The TV crew redeem themselves by showcasing the 8.8-second stop for Marc Gené in full. It must have sunk in that the great war for 10th in the WCC had swung Minardi’s way and thus they were trying to get in the good graces of the Italian underdogs and their fans. Unfortunately, they failed to realise that doing so requires showing the Minardis more after that. Regrettably, they instead chose to show the three-way fight Jenson Button vs. Mika Salo vs. Johnny Herbert for the final points. It is a sensible choice, but regrettably not a particularly reject-focussed one. Thankfully, jingoism comes to the rescue for Minardi fans. Alexander Wurz approaching Marc Gené was deemed worthy enough of air time. You know Wurz’s season was bad when the Austrian TV crew switched away from that battle after around half a lap to go back to the three-way battle for fifth mentioned earlier.

Senna fans would cry that the FIA once again gives Alain Prost preferred treatment as Gastón Mazzacane receives a 10-second stop-and-go penalty. Though the Argentinian taking that penalty is shown in full as Martin Brundle has no idea why he received that penalty. The last relevant act (for the purposes of this column) comes in the final laps as the Austrian TV direction gives Alexander Wurz one last chance to be showcased passing at least a Minardi. Wurz “used” this chance to nearly take out both himself and Gené. A worthy first Reject of the Year in F1R/GPR history, the author says. After that, there is nothing left to stop Marc Gené and Minardi from taking another 8th place, securing tenth place in the championship.

As Mika Häkkinen took a valuable win, tightening up the 2000 championship battle (after this race, only eight points separated championship leader Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard and Mika Häkkinen), the question of the point of talking about the 2000 Austrian Grand Prix will probably have entered the reader’s mind by now.

Originally, the concept of this Gravel Trap was to use this race as an example of why the old standard where each country holding a Grand Prix would provide the world feed was a silly solution that we should be thankful is long gone. While the opinion holds true, as realistically we should not have seen anywhere near as much Alexander Wurz as we ended up getting, the generally decent display by the ORF serves as a reminder to not blindly follow what one believes the history of a sport to be. Occasionally revisiting the past allows one to reassess one’s preconceived notions – or at the very least appreciate the conveniences of the modern age of sports broadcasting. 

Following backmarkers is a much more pleasant experience thanks to the invention of the timing tower, that’s for sure.

Sources: grandprix.com, ITV, StatsF1 

Image sources: Anibaln (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, cropped and resized), autosportworld.info, FOM