LOCATING Paul Stoddart, the principal owner of the Minardi Formula 1 team,in England is no easy task.
He had not replied the e-mail I sent him a week earlier. But on the day I was due to fly back to Malaysia, the man himself got intouch with me and invited me over to his plant in Ledbury.
Ledbury? It was supposed to be a little country town where the Minardiheadquarters was located.
I didn't know the place existed and neither did the locals I asked. But following the directions given by Stoddart, I found myself standingin front of the magnificent building that housed the Minardi outfit.
Ledbury, west of London, is wrapped in the mists of hundreds of yearspast. Just down the road at company headquarters, Australian Paul Stoddart ishoping to write his own history.
But with the ink on the contract still drying, Stoddart only had weeksto build what most teams take years to achieve. At this massive factory, he is quietly accumulating the machinery and the know-how to get into the big league.
It started with an aviation empire built partly on incredible goodfortune and bad management in Australia.
When the Australian Government sold off its VIP aircraft, Paul Stoddart was the buyer. To his surprise, the deal came with spares worth millions! Minardi was saved. And Australia had its first owner since Jack Brabham.
With careful planning, a bit of luck and a few hundred million dollars,Minardi and Stoddart could one day swim in the champagne of Formula Onesuccess.
Stoddart admits the journey in Formula 1 will be a long and tediousprocess but he has set his long-term objectives. In 17 seasons Gian Carlo Minardi managed a couple of fourths and 28points.
"I want to be the person that actually puts a Minardi driver on thepodium," says Stoddart. You need a bit of luck but, more than that, you need the infrastructureand resources to get that podium when the chance comes along. I want toachieve that by 2003."
On why someone from the aviation industry is so taken up by motorsports,Stoddart says: "I saved the team from extinction as it deserved savingbecause of the tradition of over 17 years.
"And along the way we have become one eleventh, and later one twelfth,of Formula One. I think that is a pretty good position to be in as F1 is abusiness and to be one of the only 12 players is well worth the money wehave actually spent.
"My long-term strategy is to get Minardi off the bottom. All I want, andI'm not greedy, is one podium finish."
One of the more difficult tasks for Stoddart has been to secure areliable engine. The partnership with Asiatech was on the cards for some time and so itdid not come as a surprise but more as a relief to a team that has usedoutmoded Ford engines for too long.
While Stoddart was looking to major steps forward in 2002 in terms ofperformance, when he thought he had a chance at a Cosworth or Ferrariunit, the Asiatech deal has made him revise his opinion and aim at mid-grid respectability.
One thing the team will have, though, is more money. Malaysia's Alex Yoong, who is about to race a full season from theAustralian Grand Prix onwards, has brought on board Magnum Corporation assponsors.
Malaysia is coming into Formula One in a big way and Stoddart has takensteps to ensure a long-term relationship. He has the weight of the entirecountry behind him, a shrewd move for the future.
"We are going ahead with an academy for drivers in Malaysia. "It will start with karts. The Malaysian government supports motorsportand you will find a graduation process from karts through the juniorformulae to F3000 to find the next F1 driver.
"A lot of kids don't get a chance and to be honest it doesn't cost usthe national debt to take an interest in a country that takes an interestin us.
"The government isn't putting a penny into this, but they have facilitated introductions for us to companies that are happy to invest.
"Now it's time for us to give a little bit back. We do that through the two-seater programme and try to give a little bit more, because we need to.
"We need a niche. Why should somebody come to Minardi when they can go further up the grid? "The answer is that we've got more to give."
When asked if cementing a relationship with Malaysia means turning his back on Australia, Stoddart said: "Not at all. The problem with Australia is that they will probably onlysupport the first driver to get into F1. It may well be Mark Webber. Themultinationals, like Foster's, are all event sponsors."
1979 - Team founded by Giancarlo Minardi.
1985 - Formula One debut with Italian Pierluigi Martini.
1989 - First points (fifth and sixth in Britain).
1991- Ferrari engines take team to best season, finishing seventh withsix points.
1992 - Powered by Lamborghini engines.
1994 - Team enters into alliance with Scuderia Italia.
1996 - Flavio Briatore and Gabriele Rumi, who owned the former Fondmetalteam, acquire majority stake in team.
1997 - Briatore sells shares to Rumiand leaves company.
1998 - Austrian designer Gustav Brunner, who designed the car in 1993,returns to Minardi. 1999 - Cesare Fiorio arrives as team manager.
2000 - Team sold to Australian businessman Stoddart, who buys Rumi'sstake, after failed attempt to sell to Pan American Sports Network (PSN).Minardi remains as team director.