Characterless Cocktail - 1978 Martini MK23 Cosworth

26w ago


Ever since Lotus, Ford and Cosworth introduced the soon to be legendary DFV V8 at the beginning of the 3.0L era in 1967, the world of Formula One became something of a free for all. With very little resources, almost anyone could suddenly build a vaguely adequate F1 machine.

The Cosworth DFV had democratized power at the pinnacle of motorsport, and along with the Hewland FG400 gearbox, it became one of the quintessential building blocks of any half-decent F1 competitor. Mass use lead to mass production, creating a relatively affordable package which lowered the threshold for teams to enter the sport.

The Cosworth DFV: the most successful F1 engine ever conceived.

One such team was Automobile Martini, a French manufacturer of lower level single seater race cars. Martini had been founded by aspiring racer Renato "Tico" Martini in 1965, after he dropped out of a program at Magny Cours' Winfield driving school.

Instead, Martini went on to maintain the aged F3 cars the school operated, before finally constructing his own chassis in 1968. Following this, he set up shop near Magny Cours, and expanded his activities to categories such as Formula Two, Formula Three, Formula Super Vee and Formula Renault.

1969's Martini MW2.

By the late 1970's, Martini was a well known constructor with a particularly competitive presence in Formula Two. After scoring numerous successes in the European Formula Two Championship with the young up and coming Rene Arnoux and Renault power.

He started design work on his F1 challenger midway through the 1976 season, but progress was slow. In the meantime, Arnoux narrowly missed out on the F2 title, beforing finally securing it in 1977 with the Martini MK22.

It wouldn't be until 1978 until the MK23 would finally be finished. Like any low budget F1 car, it sported a Cosworth DFV V8 and a Hewland gearbox, packaged within an aluminium monocoque chassis.

The design borrowed a significant amount of parts from the older MK22 F2 car, but was adapted to the larger fuel loads needed for Grands Prix. As a result the car featured larger fuel tanks which badly affected weight distribution, prompting Martini to shift the driver's seat forward to compensate.

The team presenting the MK23 ahead of the 1978 season.

Outwardly, the car looked like any other machine of the time. However, it was already outdated at conception. Team Lotus had shocked the sport with the first effective ground effect design in 1977, the Lotus 78. For 1978, Lotus had upped the ante even further with the 79, which extended its ground effect-inducing venturi tunnels to inside the rear wheels.

With ground effect obviously showing the way of the future, and even the conventional cars used by the rest of the grid being light years ahead of Martini's F2-derived vehicle, the tiny team had their work cut out for them to find a way onto the grids.

Arnoux trying out the MK23 for the first time, Kyalami 1978.

Naturally, defending European Formula Two Champion Rene Arnoux was drafted to pilot the MK23, which was adorned with decals from just three sponsors. Temp recruitment agency R.M.O was featured on the cockpit sides and the rear wing, while cigarette lighter company Silver Match occupied the front wing and sidepods.

Further ad space was reserved for French oil company Elf, a leftover from the Renault-link in F2. Though Tico Martini was the team principal in name, team managed Huges de Chaunac took responsibility for most of the outfit's operations.

Kyalami, 1978.

The red white and blue machine was first seen at the third round of the season, the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. Operating at the back of the field, Arnoux battled for a grid position with cars from Shadow, Theodore, ATS, Ensign, Surtees and Hesketh.

Unfortunately, the underdeveloped Martini suffered from fuel pick up problems, and was unable to make it onto the grid. Stuck in 27th place, Rene Arnoux was only one spot below a race start.

Monaco proved to be an even bigger disappointment.

Skipping the United States Grand Prix West at Long Beach, Martini was back for the most prestigious race of the season, the Monaco Grand Prix. However, the famous race put up a further hurdle for the small team. Out of concern for accidents on the incredibly tight street track, only 20 cars were allowed to line up on the grid instead of the usual 26.

This made it even harder for Rene Arnoux to secure a starting position, since he would have to take part in Pre-Qualifying as well, an extra session intended to weed out the slowest cars. This was exactly where the MK23 ended up, as its excess weight and engine issues made progressing beyond Pre-Qualifying impossible.

The car finally qualified at Zolder.

Things were looking up at Zolder, as Rene Arnoux managed to wrestle the car to a respectable 19th time in preparation for the Belgian Grand Prix, despite suffering a fuel leak and a blown engine. The Frenchman drove a controlled race, staying out of trouble, and finishing a decent 9th out of 13 finishers.

In the process, he had been lapped by Mario Andretti's winning Lotus twice. As points weren't awarded below 6th place at the time, the team remained scoreless, but the first successful race entry and race finish were a great motivator.

Paul Ricard, 1978.

An entry into the Spanish Grand Prix was withdrawn after two more engines disintegrated during preliminary tests, barring them from taking part in practice. The Swedish Grand Prix was subsequently skipped while they waited for new engines, before Martini resurfaced at their home race.

There, Arnoux qualified 18th, braving the 1.8 kilometer Mistral Straight at Paul Ricard, a section notoriously hard on engines. Against all odds, the Cosworth held together on race day, dragging the Martini to 14th place, one lap down.

After once again failing to get out of Pre-Qualifying at Hockenheim, Martini took the the sweeping, high-speed mountain circuit known as the Osterreichring. The MK23's heavy chassis and underpowered customer engine were a major drawback on the undulating Austrian track, a fact proven by Rene Arnoux's lackluster 26th position on the grid.

However, Arnoux had only just qualified, and was therefore free to start his third Grand Prix of the season. Once again he drove a brilliantly subdued race, moving up the field as his competitors dropped out. In a repeat of his drive at Zolder, he crossed the line placed 9th, two laps down on Ronnie Peterson's Lotus.

Rudimentary barge boards were fitted at Zandvoort.

At Zandvoort, the car was outfitted with skirts behind the front wheels, seemingly trying to replicate the examples mounted on the sidepods of the Lotus ground effect cars. By accident, this made the Martini one of the first cars feature something akin to the modern barge boards.

Additionally, the short airbox behind the driver was removed, ostensibly to provide improve reliability and prevent further engine blowups. The modifications saw a slight uptick to the car's performance on the incredibly fast Dutch track, as Arnoux qualified 23rd.

Sadly though, his race would be over just past the halfway mark. On lap 40 out of 75, the MK23's rear wing failed. Increased airflow from the removed airbox might have been the culprit, but whatever the real issue, the wing detached almost completely, ending Rene's race prematurely.

The Martini would make one final appearance at Monza, but a distinct lack of speed moved Huges de Chaunac to withdraw the car, and with it the entire team. With his budget finally dried up, Tico Martini finally pulled the plug on his F1 misadventure. Sick of the uncompromising, cutthroat world of Formula One, he resorted to doing what he did best: building highly competitive F2 and F3 cars.

The Martini MK23 was a classic example of a small race car factor launching a starry-eyed assault on the top of the racing world. However, it came with the classic set of problems. Like any other backmarker, it was a cookie-cutter, basic building block machine with very little budget behind it.

Based around an albeit competent Formula Two chassis, the car didn't have a semblance of a chance in the face of better funded teams, and the emerging ground effect revolution. Despite the obvious disadvantages, a couple of spirited drives from a promising young driver saw the MK23 finish in the top 10 twice, although it never scored any points.

The Martini MK23 in the single seater section of the Magny Cours museum.

Though the car itself was a failure, it did help establish what would be one of the leading names of the 1980s: Rene Arnoux. Nowadays, the car can be seen at the Magny Cours museum after a long stint as an exhibit in the Martini factory.