Dubious Debut - 1985 Minardi M185 Motori Moderni

By 1985, the mad world of Formula One had started to revolve around one single technology: turbocharging. After the first careful and embarrassingly steamy steps with 1977’s Renault RS01, more and more manufacturers and teams were starting to realize the limitless potential of forced induction. While Renault soldiered on perfecting their design, Ferrari followed suit in 1981, with BMW, TAG-Porsche, Honda and Alfa Romeo close behind in 1983.

This development was great for factory teams and privateers with big budgets, but it left the smaller independents with an even bigger gap to the front runners. The only privately-built turbo engine was the disastrous Hart 415T. This shoddily converted Formula Two four cylinder engine had no hope of keeping up with even some naturally aspirated cars, and displayed appalling reliability. For the average established small team then, things were looking rather bleak.

Giancarlo Minardi decided to make the big switch in 1984.

Giancarlo Minardi decided to make the big switch in 1984.

For a brand new team entering the sport, it was a living hell. As the 1.5L turbo engines were much more complicated and expensive than the increasingly outdated 3.0L naturally aspirated units, finding a competitive means of propulsion was nigh-on impossible. Despite this, Italian Formula Two outfit Minardi Team SpA moved to join Formula One during the course of 1984.

The outfit had been founded by Giancarlo Minardi in 1980, after he renamed his team from Scuderia Everest. Minardi had grown up around racing cars, as his father Giovanni had been a driver and constructor during the late 1940’s. When his father died, Giancarlo took it upon himself to keep the family’s racing activities alive, first as a driver and then as a team owner. Eventually his career lead him to a reasonably successful stint in Formula Two, with the high point being a win by Michele Alboreto at the 1981 Misano round.

Minardi was quite successful in Formula Two.

Minardi was quite successful in Formula Two.

For 1984 Giancarlo felt the need to expand his business, and set his sights on the pinnacle of motorsport: Formula One. Supported by former Ferrari and Fittipaldi designer Giacomo Caliri, Minardi started work on a prototype F1-car based around Alfa Romeo’s underpowered, fragile and thirsty 890T twin turbo V8.

As the prototype was being tested, Minardi learned of the departure of Alfa Romeo’s greatest designer, Carlo Chiti. The illustrious Italian had decided to go his own way, and announced he would design an independently funded Formula One engine under the name of his new company, Motori Moderni. With the awful performance and indifferent attitude of Alfa Romeo in mind, Giancarlo Minardi decided to forge a tie with Chiti for the 1985 season.

The Alfa Romeo-powered M184 was quickly abandoned.

The Alfa Romeo-powered M184 was quickly abandoned.

As a result the Alfa-powered prototype was put aside, and Caliri was told to design a new vehicle around the Motori Moderni Tipo 615-90 twin turbo V6. Caliri produced a carbon-fiber monocoque chassis suspended by double wishbones and pullrods. Operating on a tight budget, he was nevertheless able to produce a simple and effective machine. To Minardi’s surprise and dismay however, Carlo Chiti had to inform the team of a delay in the production of the new Motori Moderni powerplant.

The 615-90 would not be ready until the third round of the 1985 season, the San Marino Grand Prix. Minardi was now left without an engine for the Brazilian and Portuguese races, and was forced to buy a Ford-Cosworth DFY to avoid skipping them and losing sponsorship. A special spacer was used to adapt the DFY to the Hewland 5-speed manual gearbox intended for the turbo V6, and the team was ready for its first season at the highest level.

The Motori Moderni engine took too long to complete.

The Motori Moderni engine took too long to complete.

The cobbled-together car was then given to Italian rookie Pierluigi Martini. Martini had just one Grand Prix start under his belt, deputizing for Ayrton Senna at Toleman after the Brazilian had received a suspension. Luckily for Pierluigi, Giancarlo Minardi knew him well, as his uncle Giancarlo Martini had won the Formula Italia championship with the Minardi-run Scuderia del Passatore in 1973.

Martini would pilot a single entry for Minardi, as the team only had enough budget to run just one car. With 520 horsepower on tap, the old-fashioned Cosworth engine produced slightly more than half the power of the front running turbo engines, but Martini still manage to qualify the car in a pair of 25th places. Unfortunately the engine expired at Jacarepaguá, and Martini’s inexperience was revealed when he spun off at Estoril. With the first two rounds a complete disaster, Minardi focused on preparing itself for the arrival of the long-awaited Motori Moderni turbo.

Minardi's 1985 Formula One effort.

Minardi's 1985 Formula One effort.

At the San Marino Grand Prix, the promised engine had finally arrived. Compared to the Cosworth, the 720 horsepower Motori Moderni provided a substantial improvement in performance, but it was not even near the power levels of Ferrari and TAG-Porsche (900 horsepower) or the BMW, Renault and Honda (1000 horsepower) in race trim.

It was even far removed from the new, privately developed Zakspeed four cylinder (820 horsepower), but surprisingly close to the much older and more developed Alfa Romeo V8 (780 horsepower), and easily outclassed the Hart straight four (650 horsepower). Frustratingly though, the addition of the new engine meant the car was severely overweight at 600 kg (1322 lbs), 50 kg (110 lbs) above the minimum weight limit.

Helped by the improved performance, Pierluigi Martini managed to qualify an impressive 19th, right behind the Alfa Romeo 185T of the far more experienced Riccardo Patrese. Saldy his good effort was not rewarded accordingly, as one of the turbo’s exploded on lap 14.

At Monaco the task at hand was even more difficult, as only 20 cars were allowed to start the race due to the constraints of the tight street circuit. This meant as much as six cars would be eliminated. Unfortunately Martini had no chance of repeating his results from the previous race, a he crashed out while trying to put himself on the grid. His only recorded lap was a staggering 6:41.307, rendering him dead last.

Pierluigi Martini failed to set a time at Monaco.

Pierluigi Martini failed to set a time at Monaco.

These two disappointing initial results would start a chain of seemingly never-ending retirements. On the high speed straights of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the underpowered and overweight Minardi very nearly failed to qualify. With a time of 1:34.985, Pierluigi Martini was a monumental 10.458 seconds slower than polesitter Elio de Angelis and his Renault-powered Lotus 97T. The dismal result was exacerbated in the race, as Martini had an accident on lap 57.

On the streets of Detroit, Martini dropped out with turbo failure on lap 11, again after starting last. A 24th starting position at Paul Ricard, France provided little motivation either, as the Minardi driver took himself and Arrows’ Gerhard Berger out on lap 20. The British Grand Prix at Silverstone again saw Martini start 24th, only for him to be taken out by a transmission failure on lap 38.

Practice at Silverstone, 1985.

Practice at Silverstone, 1985.

The turnaround for the increasingly desperate Minardi team finally came at the German Grand Prix, the first held at the new Nürburgring GP-Strecke. Although Martini again failed to qualify, he was granted special dispensation to start after a rain-soaked second qualifying session had prevented him from setting an adequate time.

This time the Italian managed to stay out of trouble and climb up to 11th place, but the Motori Moderni died on him with just five laps to go. He was still classified for his troubles, which gave Minardi its first ever official finish.

After the high point in West Germany, the Minardi team resumed its normal schedule. Pierluigi Martini qualified at the back of the grid for the Austrian Grand Prix, and saw himself out with suspension failure on lap 40.

At Zandvoort it was 24th on the grid for the Italian, and an accident on the opening lap saw him fail to finish again. For the Italian Grand Prix at the high speed Monza track Martin surprisingly rose to 23rd, but had to face disappointment again after a broken fuel pump denied him a race start.

Pierluigi Martini in the wet at Zandvoort, 1985.

Pierluigi Martini in the wet at Zandvoort, 1985.

Another power circuit followed, as the F1-circus moved to Spa Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix. There Martini was relegated to last place again, with a time of 2:06.007, some 10.701 seconds slower than Alain Prost and his TAG-Porsche powered McLaren MP4/2B.

In spite of the M185 being totally unsuited to the fast and flowing circuit, the unthinkable happened. Pierluigi Martini recorded Minardi’s first physical finish since their debut, as he crossed the line 12th and second to last. In the process he had been lapped by race winner Ayrton Senna an astonishing 5 times, and beat the Tyrrell 014 Renault of Martin Brundle.

Martini rounding Druids corner, Brands Hatch 1985.

Martini rounding Druids corner, Brands Hatch 1985.

Unfortunately the surprise result was immediately followed by another return to form for Minardi. Martini again started last at the European Grand Prix held on the beautiful swooping circuit of Brands Hatch, and crashed out of the race on the third lap.

A long flight to Kyalami, South Africa also failed to garner results, with Martini starting 19th on the 20-car grid. In another turn of tremendously bad luck, his radiator came apart on lap 45, and Minardi was forced to pack up early once again.

The promise of Carlo Chiti's Motori Moderni engine failed to materialize.

The promise of Carlo Chiti's Motori Moderni engine failed to materialize.

The first official Australian Grand Prix doubled as the last round of Minardi’s debut season, and the team was in for a surprise. As usual Martini started from the back of the grid in 23rd, but like his earlier race at Spa, he somehow kept going. The harsh streets of Adelaide and the intense heat caused an incredibly high rate of attrition, which saw 17 cars out by lap 62.

Uncharacteristically, Pierluigi Martini and his M185 were not among the retirements. The pair kept on trundling along the tight and twisty track, until they took the checkered flag in 8th and last place. Martini had finished some 4 laps down on winner Keke Rosberg in his Williams FW10 with Honda-power.

The M185B was another resounding success for Minardi.

The M185B was another resounding success for Minardi.

With the tiring and unsatisfying season finally over, Giancarlo Minardi decided to refocus his exasperated squad. Pierluigi Martini was thanked for his services and promptly dropped, with rookie Alessandro Nannini and veteran Andrea de Cesaris replacing him in a new two-car team.As money was still too tight to mention, Minardi was consigned to reusing the M185 for the 1986 season.

De Cesaris and Nannini raced the lightly modified M185B 26 times between them, before the former switched to the new M186 for the inaugural Hungarian Grand Prix. Of these 26 events, the pair started only 24, as both failed to qualify at Monaco, and managed just one race finish.

Nannini brought the car home from 24th to 14th place at the 1986 Mexican Grand Prix, some four laps behind the insane BMW-powered Benetton B186 of Gerhard Berger. With that final finish, the first ever Minardi was finally allowed to take its well-deserved rest.

Alessandro Nannini and the Minardi M185B, Spa Francorchamps 1986.

Alessandro Nannini and the Minardi M185B, Spa Francorchamps 1986.

The Minardi M185 was the product of a wide-eyed entrepreneur making the biggest jump in his career. Giancarlo Minardi’s biggest wish was to compete and win at the highest level. But with a tiny underfunded team and empty promises from one of the world’s most renowned engine designers, Minardi more often than not found himself doing neither. Carlo Chiti’s fledgling engine project seemed the way to go when faced with the misery of the Alfa Romeo engine, but Minardi’s hopes of improving his chances went up in smoke.

The lackluster V6 was underpowered and woefully unreliable, causing disadvantages the chassis and its drivers were unable to offset. Nevertheless the M185 remains a hugely important part of history, as it was the first in a series of cars spanning 20 years of Formula One competition. These machines were never the fastest, but they gave rise to future F1-stars like Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber. And it all thanks to a black and yellow disaster of a car.