INTERVIEW

Tempered by experience: Pierluigi Martini

Sitting on the front row of the grid for the USA GP in Phoenix was the Minardi of Pierluigi Martini. In recent months the Italian has emerged from the shadows and built himself the reputation of being one of the fastest competitors outside the big name teams of Grand Prix racing. Few remember that in 1985 Pierluigi had been consigned to F1's scrap heap as a no-hoper.

Back in 1983 Pierluigi was the bright young star of European racing. In October of that year at Thruxton Ayrton Senna and Martin Brundle fought out the British Formula 3 title. On the same day at Croix-en-Ternois in northern France Pierluigi took the European title. He had beaten the likes of John Nielsen, Tommy Byrne, Emanuele Pirro, Roberto Ravaglia and Gerhard Berger.

A few weeks earlier he had tested a Brabham Formula 1 car and, driving a Minardi, had finished second on his Formula 2 debut at Misano.

He was 22 years old and, quite clearly, a man who was going places in Grand Prix racing.

And yet it all went wrong. Pierluigi did scarcely any racing in 1984, but the following season he was picked as Minardi's first F1 driver when Alessandro Nannini was refused a superlicence by the FISA.

The 1985 season was a disaster, the fledgling Minardi outfit, using Motori-Moderni turbo engines, was hoplessly off the pace. By the end of the year Martini was being written off by F1.

"It was mainly the engine," he explains, with disinterest in his voice. "We couldn't do more than a handful of laps each time and it wasn't letting us develop. Whatever we had -- and we didn't have the best -- couldn't be developed.

"Generally-speaking the team was inclined to blame others and did criticise itself. For many of them the driver was at fault.

"I have nearly totally forgotten 1985," he says now, "but I know that it was good for me in the sense that I had to understand that one must always fight, without ever losing hope, and without ever stopping that fight. I really try and get positive experience from the past."

Had that disastrous year been a case of too much too soon?

"No, I don't think so. If I had had a competitive team or a competitive car I would not be the Martini I am today."

"The positive thing was that this was never the case with Giancarlo (Minardi) himself. He has always admitted his own mistakes."

"I had a very good relationship with Giancarlo which did not break even when I left in not a very nice manner. Between us everything continued to be quite friendly."

Friends or not, Pierluigi's career lay in ruins. There was no chance of another F1 drive, so Pierluigi decided to go backwards -- to Formula 3000 -- in an attempt to rebuild his reputation. He rejoined Luciano Pavesi Racing, for which he had won the European F3 title.

"I really wanted to go back to race for Pavesi. I was sure that that team knew me. At least they knew what I was worth and believed in me the same as I believed in myself. That let me take it easy. I didn't have to prove anything to them, because they knew me. I was fighting against everyone else, but at least I didn't have to fight in my own house.

"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."

Pierluigi ended 1986 as the runner-up to Ivan Capelli in the International F3000 Championship.

He stayed with Pavesi for 1987, but nothing went right and, at the beginning of 1988, he joined Lamberto Leoni's First Racing. At the same time he was contracted to Minardi as the team's test driver.

In the course of the summer Martini's fortunes took a turn for the better. Minardi's Adrian Campos quit the team and Pierluigi was called in to replace the Spaniard. In his first race, the Detroit Grand Prix, he finished sixth, scoring Minardi's first World Championship point.

Within a matter of weeks he was a winner again in F3000 at Enna-Pergusa.

Surely, he must have been wary about going back to Minardi after the experiences of 1985?

"I didn't think too much about it, Within myself I knew what happened and knew what was changing and I had no reason not to have coinfidence.

"I knew, or I believe I knew, the motives and reasons for which Minardi was what it was in 1985. They had gained a little experience since then and the whole team was wanting to progess and recognise their own errors. The team's policy had changed completely.

"With Giancarlo and me there had always been a reciprocal knowledge of each other's competitiveness. The proof was that when he could choose a driver, he chose me. That was proof enough. When I realised that the whole thing could be handled by Giancarlo instead of leaning on other people, I took my decision and that was it."

Pierluigi signed for the team fulltime for the 1989 season.

"Minardi is my work desk. I am doing my job and I am paid for it like everyone else but, of course, there is a special kind of feeling. We come from the same part of the country and we've known each other for a long time."

The team started to work with Pirelli and as the season progressed so did the competitiveness of Minardi. At Silverstone that hard work was rewarded with an emotional fifth-sixth finish for Pierluigi and his team mate and friend Luis Sala. It came on the day that Minardi was threatened with a future of pre-qualifying unless there were points on the board.

"It was not a day that I can easily forget. It was one of those days that stay with you because it makes you think how hard it is to work and how rewarding it can be when you get the result you have been chasing. In Italian there is an expression 'Dalla stalla alle stelle' -- from the stables to the stars. That is what really happened to us.

"That is what really makes this sport nice, but it also teaches you that something that is very important: never over-estimate yourself. It's difficult enough to get up there to the front, but its very easy to fall back down again. You always need to work hard and be on the ball. The most difficult thing is not to get to the stars, it is remain there..."

Pierluigi has managed to achieve that. By the end of last year, he was challenging McLarens and Ferrais for pole positions and mounting a serious threat in the races.

"We worked a lot with Pirelli during the winter and probably the reason for our success is that not only did they developed their own product but also that we developed alongside them. Minardi was building the way Pirelli wanted and the same vice-versa. Without evene thinking about it we met in the middle and solved our problems together. The results have been the fruit of that relationship."

At the dn of last season Pierluigi's name was being linked to bigger and more celebrated teams, yet he stayed on with Minardi.

"I had many contacts with other teams," he explains, "but the programme that Minardi had put in front of me, was better than the offers I received. So I did think about it, but not for long, because I knew this was my way -- at least for the time being.

"It is an immense satisfaction to realise that you are showing others what you believed you were anyway. I believe that the people around me are the thermometers for what happens outside. I am very happy about the satisfaction, but, at the same time, I am very conscious and responsible that I have to do it again next weekend. In other words, I am keeping my feet on the ground and not running away on horses.

"It is even more important because I am not fighting against a crowd of incompetents -- all my adversaries are very competent -- possibly some are better than I am, or more experienced that I am. I just have to work harder and harder and harder. Not only me, but the whole team.

"And even if sometimes I do forget about keeping my feet on the ground, it doesn't last long because I immediately go back and say 'Yes, okay, I've had fun and vented my feelings, I have to go back now and work on my line'.

Talking with Pierluigi you get the impression that he has built a wall around himself, to protect himself from the kind of hurt he experienced in 1985. He is not unfriendly, but he is reserved. He is doing a job and the real Pierluigi Martini is not available for everyone to see. Does he feel that?

"Yes. I have my friends and my fun in very simple ways. In doing those things I'd rather that no-one recognises me and they let me do whatever I am doing.

"It has to change when I am at the track, but that is my profession.

"I don't like to be involved in too much chaotic activity. I like to take a walk in the country or play golf. My family and private life is one thing, my profession is another one. I like to keep them separate."

It seems, looking back, that Pierluigi is much changed from the delighted, emotional, youngster of 1983. F1 has not been kind to him in the past and he is guarding against the same happening again. He will not let his hopes and ambitions run riot.

Does he feel that change?

"Possibly," he says without a smile. "It happens."

While he is cautious, there is no doubt that the same fire still burns as did in 1983. His ambition then was to be World Champion and this has not changed.

"I will try to be World Champion with whatever team takes me up to the standard necessary," he says.

"I do not want to imagine the future. I want to try to give my best at the moment. If I lose my concentration I can easily fall back -- with the team -- to where I was before.

"I don't believe in planning too much. You never know what might happen. You are really planning without all the necessary information, so it's not very intelligent. You know what direction you want to go, but you shouldn't plan with too much detail because things might change.

"It is not in my plans to think about the future until I reach the future."

Follow grandprixdotcom on Twitter
Print Feature