The Underrated
Pierluigi Martini

With Toleman 1984Detroit 1988Canada 19941990 in the USA

Written by Cliff Cermak

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In Formula One, the talents of many drivers have been shielded because of slow, second-rate machinery. Of course, many youngsters are forced to accept rides with lesser teams to prove their mettle before moving on to greener pastures. While the careers of youngsters usually skyrocket upon signing with a competitive team, the less fortunate drivers who go unrecognised despite their talent end up languishing in the second half of the Formula One grid.

The Underrated Pierluigi Martini

Arguably the most underrated driver of the past twenty years, Pierluigi Martini spent his all-too-short Formula One career wringing everything he could out of struggling equipment, desperately trying to satiate his ultimate goal of a World Championship. Unfortunately, the opportunity of a lifetime never came about for Martini, but the motivated driver never gave up in his quest for success.

Hailing from the province of Ravenna on the Adriatic Sea in Italy, Martini made it through all the necessary stepping-stones en route to a seat in Formula One. Securing the European F3 championship in 1983 cemented his reputation as a future motorsport star. An opportunity to test with Brabham certain whet Martini's appetite for Grand Prix competition as he looked toward the future.

Inexplicably unable to find a drive in 1984 following his superb run to the European F3 title the previous year, the young Italian was picked up by the Toleman squad to fill in for an injured Johnny Cecotto at the Italian GP. In the pressure-filled situation, but with inadequate seat time in the car, it came as no surprise that Martini failed to qualify for the event.

Martini finally received a regular drive towards the end of 1984, joining fellow countryman Giancarlo Minardi's fledgling Formula 2 operation. Little did Pierluigi know that the team would become something of a second home for him. The young Italian driver impressed in his limited showings, enough so to prompt Minardi to make the bold move into the deep waters of Formula 1 for 1985.

Martini's first taste of Formula One machinery was in a Brabham test at the end of his European F3-winning 1983 season.. Martini's first taste of Formula One machinery was in a Brabham test at the end of his European F3-winning 1983 season.

Unfortunately for the Italian team, the results were expectedly mediocre. Minardi found the jump to be similar to a big fish in a small pond suddenly becoming a small fish in a much bigger pond, with a string of mechanical failures. Hopelessly underpowered firstly by Cosworth V8s and then by Carlo Chiti's Motori Moderni turbos which Minardi had commissioned, the Faenza-based team undoubtedly found the going tough in their debut season.

In spite of being saddled with inferior machinery, Martini seized the opportunity to display his considerable talent. The driver qualified off the back row six times, a tremendous accomplishment given the lethargic M185 chassis and the equally weak engine. He qualified as high as 19th at Imola and Kyalami. The season culminated with a drive to 8th place in Adelaide, four laps down on victor Keke Rosberg.

In a 1990 interview with Joe Saward, Martini noted the powerplants were much to blame for the struggle Minardi faced in its debut season: "It was mainly the engine. We couldn't do more than a handful of laps each time." He also explained that the lack of reliability stunted the growth of the team in its quest for further improvement: "[The poor reliability] wasn't letting us develop. Whatever we had - and we didn't have the best - couldn't be developed."

The disastrous year, which saw Martini classified as a finisher in only three Grands Prix, resulted in the driver contemplating his career in motorsport. He opted to step back to contest the Formula 3000 championship, which rekindled memories of previous successes: "The results came right away and therefore I started to get even more confidence in myself and more enthusiasm that I nearly lost in 1985."

After two successful years in F3000, Martini seized an offer from Minardi at the beginning of 1988 to return to the F1 team as a test driver. During Martini's time away, he had not missed much; Minardi's F1 program was lurching from mishap to mishap. The team had expanded to two entries in 1986, but continued to be afflicted by countless mechanical issues thanks especially to the Motori Moderni engine. The best result in the two years matched Martini's result in Australia, an 8th for Andrea de Cesaris in Mexico in 1986.

Martini qualified 19th at Imola in 1985, but his first full season was blighted by mechanical problems. Martini qualified 19th at Imola in 1985, but his first full season was blighted by mechanical problems.

With the testing agreement in his pocket, Martini continued to do a fine job in F3000, but his path to an F1 race seat was blocked by the hapless Adrian Campos, who simply was not able to get the job done. Campos' funding was the main reason for his tenure in Formula One, and after failing to qualify for three of the first five Grands Prix of 1988, Giancarlo dispatched the underachieving Spaniard.

For Martini, Campos' departure was his opportunity to return to F1. He was called to take the second seat alongside Spanish rookie Luis Perez Sala, who had proven to be quite competitive in the M188. With engines supplied by Cosworth, it was indeed a significant upgrade over Martini's first sojourn with the Italian team. Coupled to an improving chassis, this was a legitimate chance for Pierluigi to prove his worth to the paddock.

Martini's first race was at Detroit in June, immediately making his presence known in resounding fashion. Despite limited time in the car, he qualified 16th, very impressive considering that Sala had had more seat time but had qualified nine positions lower! The strong qualifying performance was only a precursor of what was to come in the rest of the weekend. A smooth, calculating drive on the streets of Motown resulted in 6th place, and the first ever point for both Martini and Minardi.

As the season continued, it was evident that Martini was getting the upper hand over his team-mate. Of the eleven Grands Prix contested from Detroit to the season finale in Adelaide, Martini out-qualified Sala 7 to 4. The Italian finished the season just out of the points again with a 7th place in Adelaide, giving the small team hope that the following season would see further improvement.

However, the optimism brought by Martini's solid performances over the second half of 1988 was quashed early in 1989, as the team were forced to use an updated version of the M188 while development on the new M189 continued. A string of DNFs ensued, and the team would have to wait until July at Silverstone for its first classification. But it was a brilliant 5th place effort for Martini, followed home by Sala in 6th, marking the first ever double-points result for Minardi, and avoiding relegation into pre-qualifying.

Moment of Minardi glory: Martini leads a lap of the Portuguese GP, the only time in Minardi's history that they headed the field. Moment of Minardi glory: Martini leads a lap of the Portuguese GP, the only time in Minardi's history that they headed the field.

By the second half of 1989, the versatile M189 was proving to be quite reliable, establishing Minardi as a team on the upswing. The race of the year for Martini would certainly have to be the Portuguese GP, where the Italian qualified and finished 5th, leading a lap in the process. That single lap would prove to be an incredibly significant achievement, as it was the only time a Minardi led the field in its 21-year existence.

Martini followed the effort by qualifying 4th at Jerez, but suffered a rib injury which forced him to sit out Suzuka. Determined to close the season on a high note, Martini concluded the season with a point in Adelaide having started 3rd on the grid. All said, Martini had scored five points to Sala's one, and the season had been a demonstration of Pierluigi's wealth of talent.

For Martini and Minardi, it seemed the improvement from 1989 would carry over to 1990 as Martini placed his updated version of the M189 on the front row of the grid for the season opener in Phoenix, before narrowly missing a point and finishing 7th. After clinching 9th in the following round in Brazil, it appeared that Minardi were on the verge of scoring more points throughout the season.

Unfortunately, their high hopes were dashed. The anticipated debut of the M190 brought extreme frustration, as they failed to score a point all season. Struggles with the chassis were compounded by a decline in the quality of their Pirelli tyres which had proven so strong the year before, especially in qualifying. While Martini was able to wring everything he could out of the machinery, new team-mate Paolo Barilla struggled mightily, failed to qualify six times, and was replaced by Gianni Morbidelli.

It had been an exasperating year for Martini and Minardi. Desperate to leave the mediocre performance behind, Minardi brokered a deal to install Ferrari V12 power in the back of the M191 chassis for the upcoming season. It was a better year for Martini and Morbidelli, and as team leader Martini's qualifying was impeccable, starting in the top ten in seven of the sixteen rounds.

Moving to Scuderia Italia Dallara in 1992 was a mistake; rather than a move up the grid, it was merely a sideways shift. Moving to Scuderia Italia Dallara in 1992 was a mistake; rather than a move up the grid, it was merely a sideways shift.

Race pace improved dramatically for the Minardis as well. At San Marino, and later in the year at Estoril, Martini put in truly brilliant drives to clinch 4th in both events. The six points attained by Martini in these two races earned Minardi 7th in the constructors championship, which would prove to be their best ever result. But, as the first team ever to be supplied by Ferrari customer engines, perhaps Martini and Minardi had expected more.

Following the season, Martini made the decision to leave Minardi in favour of a seat with the Scuderia Italia team with their Dallara chassis, following the Ferrari customer engines which were heading there also. As Minardi had become like home to Pierluigi, the decision was undoubtedly a difficult one for him to make. However, he felt the move would ultimately give him a better opportunity to be competitive. After all, the team were coming off a season in which JJ Lehto had scored a podium at Imola.

But, as was the way with Martini's luck, he found himself moving from one midfield struggler to another. Saddled with an uncompetitive car, the Italian clawed his way into the points twice, at Spain and in San Marino. These two results marked the only races all season in which the Dallara was among the points. Both Lehto and Martini were terrific racers, but neither were the best at testing and development, and the team simply could not find a way to get on top of an evil-handling chassis all season.

The following season saw Martini welcomed back to Minardi, but only midway through the season as a replacement for Fabrizio Barbazza. Despite the team beginning the year solidly, such that they were 6th in the constructors championship ahead of Ferrari with 4 points results in the first 6 races, results quickly fell by the wayside shortly thereafter. Martini rejoined his unofficial home in time for the British GP. With little seat time in the M193, Martini still compared favourably with his team-mate, Christian Fittipaldi.

By the end of the season, Martini had scored three finishes inside the top 10 with a best result of 7th at Monza, although his most competitive performance had been in Hungary. Continuing into the following season, 1994 would prove to be one last full year in the glamour of F1 competition. Teaming with fellow Italian Michele Alboreto, it was the year in which Martini would score his last points before departing from Formula One.

Even in his last full season, Martini continued to push as hard as ever. Here he goes over the limit at the Ayrton Senna chicane at Jerez. Even in his last full season, Martini continued to push as hard as ever. Here he goes over the limit at the Ayrton Senna chicane at Jerez.

Minardi began the year with an updated version of the M193. Martini quickly showed the potential of the temporary car, taking it to 8th in the season opener in Brazil. After a series of shunts and mechanical failures, Martini put in a truly exceptional drive to claim 5th in Spain. Just two races later, Martini took the fresh M194 to another 5th at Magny-Cours. Despite the stellar beginning for the new car, those two points in France were the last of the season for Minardi, and the last in Martini's career.

Coming off the mildly successful season, Martini began 1995 yet again behind the wheel of the Minardi, this time with future Ferrari tester Luca Badoer alongside. Sadly, the performance of the car was lacking. Martini managed to score a pair of 7ths at Monaco and Silverstone, but Minardi were in dire financial straits. Thus, Giancarlo Minardi unceremoniously dispatched his long-time driver in favour of the young Pedro Lamy, who brought with him significant funding.

As quickly as that, Martini's Formula One career ended. Filled with promise during his early racing career, his stint in F1 largely consisted of displaying his talent and ambition in mediocre equipment, wheeling his cars to finishes higher than could be expected. Much of his F1 career was spent behind the wheel of a Minardi, where he scored a total of 16 points for the Faenza team.

That is more than half the 31 points accumulated by Minardi if you discount the seven points they earned in the farcical 2005 United States Grand Prix. Martini took Minardi to incredible heights, scoring a plethora of landmark results for this now-defunct squad, including its first point, first front row, and its only lap in the lead, while receiving little recognition and admiration for his remarkable talent and loyalty to the organisation which gave him his chance in Formula One.

Indeed, Pierluigi Martini was a rare find in the typically surly Grand Prix paddock. Though quiet, the man from Ravenna exhibited a strong character and personality in order to enjoy his time in the sport and leave it with no regrets. After a Le Mans 24 hours victory for BMW in 1999 with Joachim Winkelhock and Yannick Dalmas, Martini recently rekindled the desire to race, taking on a new challenge in the GP Masters series. You just can't take the racing out of this man.

Article written by Cliff Cermak © 2007

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