The Battle at the Back

The cameras follow the fight at the front: there’s nothing wrong with that. But at the other end of the grid Minardi and Jordan are battling each other with equal ferocity, and a fascinating duel is beginning to develop between the two minnows of Formula One.

Jordan and Minardi are, in relative terms, the poor men of Formula One. Jordan, the team that almost made it, scoring a trio of wins in the halcyon days of 1998-9, and even giving Heinz-Harald Frentzen a sniff of the driver’s championship. Now, bereft of charismatic founder Irishman Eddie Jordan and in a limbo year before their re-emergence as Russian team Midland F1 in 2006, they are a pale shadow of their former selves.

Minardi have been Formula One’s most beloved back markers since their debut in 1985. They have never so much as put a driver on the podium, but have brought such talents as race-winners Alessandro Nannini, Fernando Alonso, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli to the grid.

While Minardi have spent a considerable amount of time at the back of the grid, Jordan have only slumped to the absolute back of the pack in recent years.

This has been due to a lack of investment in the team, both by sponsors and the much-criticised former principal Mr Jordan, and the disappearance or replacement of other F1 back markers – Prost, Arrows and Jaguar being recent examples. Minardi, with Paul Stoddart at the helm, have hung on in.

Sure enough, the two teams have started 2005 up to three seconds per lap slower than the midfield pack, with Jordan around a second per lap faster than Minardi. But, with Jordan in a state of complete stasis as the new management takes over and prepares for the 2006 rebranding, Minardi have launched an assault with an all-new car targeted squarely at the Jordans, with the object of relegating the yellow cars to the back instead.

Both teams started the year with their 2004 cars: Jordan made the necessary aerodynamic tweaks to meet the new regulations and went racing. Paul Stoddart of Minardi, of course, chose a different approach – he brought his PS04′s in virtually the same specification as they ran in Brazil last October, and demanded that they be allowed to race as he claimed Max Mosley had imposed the new regulations illegally. He eventually backed down and had new, untested parts fitted to the car to make them race-legal. Unsurprisingly, their performance was dismal, even relative to the Jordans.

Minardi lumbered on with the PS04 for two more races. Ironically, their best qualifying to date occurred in Australia as a result of the freak weather conditions. They have not yet placed higher than 16th in qualifying or 12th in a race; Jordan’s best result so far is Tiago Monteiro’s 10th in Bahrain, largely thanks to the high rate of attrition. With BAR absent, Monaco could offer either team a chance of points if the attrition rate is high.

In terms of drivers, both teams are running pairs of rookies who have brought cash along with them to support the teams. Ex-Dallara Nissan World Series races Narain Karthikeyan has been reasonably impressive for Jordan, falling behind team-mate Monteiro only once in qualifying and beating him soundly in the races – by two laps in Malaysia.

Minardi paired 2004 Deustche Tourenwagen Masters champion Christijan Albers with F3000 driver Patrick Friesacher, the latter slightly having the upper hand.

Finally, at the San Marino race, Minardi introduced their new PS05 chassis. Compared to the PS04 and, indeed, Jordan’s EJ15, it looks much more like a contemporary Grand Prix car – all swoopy curves and elegant lines. Unfortunately, with virtually no testing before its arrival, it was not quick out of the box. From 0.815s behind the Jordans in qualifying one in Bahrain the fastest PS05 was 2.798s behind in the same session in San Marino – a difference of 3.3% of the lap time compared to 0.8%. Both PS05s retired from the race with transmission problems, while Karthikeyan and Montiero took 16th and 17th (one lap and two laps down respectively).

Since San Marino, Minardi have taken the opportunity for a rare test session at Mugello to sort out the reliability and handling issues with the PS05. There was one slight hiatus when rookie test driver Chanoch Nissany, a wealthy, 41 year-old Israeli, crashed into Albers. Fortunately the damage was not significant and the test continued.

At Barcelona, Minardi began to realise the potential of the new car. In first qualifying they managed to get within 1.006 of the fastest Jordan time (1.2% of their lap time) on one of the most aerodynamically demanding tracks on the calendar. Disastrously, on race day, both PS05s fell victim to software gremlins at the start.

Minardi have perhaps only got a couple of opportunities left to achieve their pre-2005 goal of beating Jordan, as an updated EJ15 is due for the French Grand Prix in July. That leaves the Monaco, European, Canadian and United States Grands Prix in which to get that result. Both the Montreal and Indianapolis tracks, of Canada and America respectively, are likely to favour the Toyota engines in the Jordans, so the tight confines of Monaco and the twists of the Nurburgring may be Minardi’s best chance of beating a rival on merit for the first time in years. But they must get on top of their reliability problems immediately if they are to stand any chance at all.

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