17 February 2020

Fascinating F1 Facts: 76 - Martini not on the rocks

The village of Pigna nestles at the bottom of a steep wooded valley a few miles inland from the Italian Riviera in Liguria. It is close to the French border if you have lots of energy and good walking boots, but the roads from Pigna lead down to the coast, to Ventimiglia and San Remo.

It was in this quiet place that Renato Martini was born in 1934. He was five when the Second War War began and when he was 12 his father decided to move the family to Jersey, in the Channel Islands, in order to get work. For the next seven years Tico, as he was known, grew up as an islander.  His father was the had waiter of a hotel in Saint Helier.

At 17 Tico learned to drive his father gave him a small car. He decided to go home to Italy and worked in an Alfa Romeo garage in San Remo before returning to Jersey in 1955 to help his father.  He acquired a Cooper 500cc racing car and began taking part in races on the sands around the island. Among his rivals was a local entrepreneur called Bill Knight and in 1959 Tico began working as a mechanic for Knight. A year later Bill opened the Belle Vue Pleasure Park at Les Quennevais, just south of the airport, where he laid out a kart track. Martini worked on keeping the karts in good condition. He decided to try building his own kart and in 1962 made a big impression when he put a 650cc Triumph Tiger motorcycle engine into a tube framed chassis. The machine broke the hill record at the celebrated Bouley Bay hillclimb.

Over in France, the Magny Cours racing circuit was in the process of setting up a racing school and the enterprising Bill Knight bid for the deal and was granted the concession. He hired Irishman Henry Morrogh, who had a celebrated racing school in Italy and he agreed to be the director of the school and Martini was sent from Jersey to run the technical side of the business. He spent the next two years living in a caravan. Then Morrogh decided to move to the United States and Martini took over running the whole business. The school name was changed to Winfield, Knight’s business in the UK and for the next four years things developed well. In 1966, however, Knight decided to hand the business on to his two sons Mike and Richard.

Martini argued that in order to cut down costs, the school should build its own racing cars, rather than buying them. The brothers agreed and so Tico built a run of five Martini MW1s. 

The MW2 followed in 1969 with nine cars being built and several being used that year in the Formula France championship, with one in Formula 3 for Jacques Laffite, who raced under the Winfield Racing banner. The Formula France car won its first race at Albi that year thanks to Jean-Luc Salomon. This meant that there was demand for more cars in 1970 and Martini built 26 MK4s for the new Formula Renault, changing the designation of the cars from Martini Winfield (MW) to Mike Knight (MK). There was also an MK5 Formula 3 car for rising star Jean-Luc Salomon.

That year François Lacarrau gave Martini its first title in Formula Renault but there was a shock in Formula 3 when Salomon was killed in an accident at Rouen. By the end of the season, the MK5 was also a winner, thanks to the efforts of Jean-Pierre Jaussaud.

In the course of the 10 years that followed Martini cars won 200 victories in 280 races in Formula Renault. The first Formula 3 title did not come until 1973 when Laffite dominated the French Championship. Despite the fuel crisis, it was a great year for Martini with a total of 38 cars built but plans to build an F2 cars stalled and the French Formula 3 Championship was cancelled. Fortunately movey was pouring in from Formula Renault.

A deal was put together for an F2 car in 1975 with funding for Laffite from Elf and the Swiss additive Ambrozium H7. The team used Schnitzer BMW engines and Hugues de Chaunac’s ORECA organisation was taken on to run the team. Laffite won six races and swept to the

championship. A second would follow for Rene Arnoux in 1977.

De Chaunac and Martini decided that it was a good time to enter Formula 1 and began preparations, moving to premises that that were three times larger than the original factory. It was the era of the Cosworth kit-car and Martini designed the MK23, a simple car for a Cosworth DFV and a Hewland gearbox for the 1978 season. There was not much funding and the team had just 12 staff. Arnoux had backing from Elf and RMO, an employment agency based in his hometown of Grenoble. Not being a member of the Formula One Constructors Association made things more complicated but the car was ready for the third race of the year, in South Africa in March. There were 30 cars battling for a place on the 26-car grid and Arnoux could do no better than 27th and so the team decided to miss the next race in Long Beach, to improve the car. They failed to qualify in Monaco, where there were only 20 starters, but the bad news was that Arnoux was still only 27th, but in Belgium René set the 19th best time and made its debut, Arnoux finishing the race in ninth. Engine failures in testing meant that the team missed the next two races and so was not seen again until the French GP. The car had been heavily modified and Arnoux qualified 18th and was able to finish 14th but there was then a setback when Martini was refused an entry at the British GP. When he qualified, Arnoux looked a solid runner but getting into the races was tough. He finished ninth in Austria and then crashed in the Dutch GP and as money had run out, it was decided to end the programme there. The sport was going through the ground-effect revolution and Martini did not have the money to work out that could be done.

Arnoux had done enough and was hired by Renault for 1979 but Martini and de Chaunac turned their attention to a bright new French star in Formula 3 – Alain Prost. The MK27 was a good car and Prost was exceptional and completely dominated the European Formula 3 Championship and leapt straight into a McLaren F1 drive.

In the years that followed Martin won French Formula 3 titles with Alain Ferté (1980), Philippe Streiff (1981), Michel Ferté (1983), Olivier Grouillard (1984), Pierre-Henri Raphanel (1985) and Yannick Dalmas (1986). In the European Championship there was a title for Ivan Capelli in 1984 and there was a German title for Volker Weidler in 1985. Martini continued to dominate in French Formula Renault but as competition in F3 increased for Ralt, Reynard and Dallara and then organisers started switching to single chassis supply deals. Martini ran cars in Formula 2 and Formula 3000 but without much success and although there was plenty of business in French national racing, hillclimbs and historics, martini decided to sell the business when he reached his 70th birthday in 2004. Guy Ligier absorbed the business into his empire.

In retirement, Tico spends his time flying (he has a landing strip in the field next to his house) and singing… 

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