Formula 1 flashback: Minardi's greatest day
13 March 2014 – Throughout the 2014 season, GPUpdate.net will be publishing a special Formula 1 flashback in the run up to each event. For the Australian Grand Prix edition, we conversed with former Minardi team boss and popular paddock figure Paul Stoddart, who oversaw Mark Webber's sensational fifth place finish in 2002.
"It was a crazy week," recalls Stoddart in a vibrant tone. "Obviously, with Mark being Australian and me being Australian, it was a pretty big deal from a PR point of view. We had been running all week doing two-seater events and other events for the Australian Grand Prix all over the place. We were kind of run off our feet.
"In qualifying, my main concern was about getting both cars into the race on the Sunday. I was pretty confident that Mark would be able to make it, but I wasn't so confident about Alex Yoong. About halfway through the qualifying session it started to pour down with rain, and that pretty much locked the grid in where it was.
"We'd had all this publicity and now we'd got two cars into the race. That, for me, was pretty much it. We then thought we would have an average Sunday. We hoped that Mark could finish in the top 12 or something."
What followed was beyond Stoddart, Webber and Minardi's wildest dreams. A first corner melee – sparked by Ralf Schumacher's Williams launching over the Ferrari of Rubens Barrichello – dramatically took eight cars out of the running, with Webber and Yoong crucially guiding the two Minardis safely through the littered debris.
Further retirements and gritty driving saw Webber holding a points-scoring position as the laps ticked down to single figures. He then survived an attack from Mika Salo's Toyota to bring his car home and secure the team's only points of the 2002 campaign.
"The first corner pile-up took out a lot of cars, but both Minardis got through," Stoddart continues. "Progressively, through retirements and everything else, we got closer and closer to the end. With about ten laps to go, Mika Salo was chasing Mark down in a quicker car, but he spun. Then the whole crowd were just willing Mark on."
But Stoddart reiterated that, even after Salo's mistake, tensions remained high on the pit wall: "I had a slightly different perspective as we knew that the car was technically dead from the third lap with a differential problem. We were trying hard not to get too excited, as we thought it wasn't going to make the chequered flag. But it did.
"I think [race winner Michael] Schumacher told the best story as for the last four laps, every time he crossed the line, he thought the race was over because the crowd were on their feet. But they were cheering for Mark. He ultimately took fifth, and they were without question the most famous two points in the history of Formula 1."
What followed the initial pit lane celebrations was a jubilant second podium ceremony, during which Stoddart and Webber lapped up the applause from the thousands of gathered spectators. It is a scene that, in Stoddart's mind, will never be topped.
"It was the greatest day of my life and the greatest day of Minardi's life," Stoddart comments. "Yes we scored points at Indianapolis in 2005 but they weren't really points. It was a very special moment. And still to this day people say, 'You know when you and Mark won the Grand Prix?' They really believe that we won it.
"It was one of those very rare occasions in life when something absolutely spectacular happens."