Minardi M189: Heroic minnows’ only race-leading car

2015 Goodwood Festival of Speed

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Minardi, the well-loved but ultimately unsuccessful team which competed between 1985 and 2005, raced over 26,000 laps in that time. That’s more than historic teams like Jordan or Ligier – and even modern powerhouses such as Red Bull and Mercedes.

[retrompuminardi01]But on only one occasion did a Minardi head the field of a grand prix. And only once did one of their cars line up on the front row. These auspicious milestones were reached by arguably the best car ever to come out of the Faenza factory: the Minardi M189.

Moving up

Minardi entered Formula One in 1985 but failed to score a point in their first three seasons, most of which were spent with the unreliable Motori Moderni V6 turbo. For 1988, as F1’s last turbo era came to an end, the team switched to a normally-aspirated Cosworth engine.

While the team’s original driver Adrian Campos had some reservations about the M188 design – “completely shit” was his verdict – his mid-season departure paved the way for the return of the team’s most loyal driver. Pierluigi Martini, who made the majority of his 118 career starts with Minardi, immediately scored the team’s first point at Detroit.

But despite that breakthrough, change was afoot at the team. The M188’s designer, Giacomo Caliri, was shown the door. Among those hired to design the new car was Aldo Costa, the future Ferrari and Mercedes technical director, then aged just 26.

Costa and former Lotus engineer Nigel Couperthwaite collaborated on the design of the M189 which proved a much simpler and more effective machine than its predecessor. The team scored six points with it in 1989 – one shy of the best they achieved under the old ‘top six’ scoring system.

As with most Minardis, the M189 was an exercise in frugality. Having entered the first three races of 1989 with an updated version of their previous car, the M188B, the new chassis arrived in time for the Mexican Grand Prix.

In the first season following the end of the last ‘turbo era’, Minardi was one of eleven teams using the Ford-Cosworth DFR V8. The engine, descended from the 1967 DFV which revolutionised Formula One, was affordable and reliable if lacking the outright power to take on the factory-backed Honda, Renault (both V10) and Ferrari (V12) power plants which won races that year.

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Problems with Pirelli

Minardi M189, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2015The Italian team was also running on Italian rubber. Pirelli, however, had not won a race since 1986, and that did not change in another season where Goodyear again swept the board. Inconsistency was the major weakness of the company’s product – Minardi rarely knew when Pirelli would appear with a suitable tyre for the conditions and if they would have enough sets of its best compound for both the team’s drivers.

But the chassis the wheels were attached to was visibly slimmer and neater than its predecessors. As well as following the trend for shrinking the frontal area of the car, the M189’s subtly up-swept nose section was a distinctive innovation which contributed to its effective aerodynamics. Further packaging improvements at the rear of the car included situating the petrol tank completely behind the driver.

Despite the point picked up in 1988, which meant they were entitled to receive assistance with their travel expenses from Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Constructors’ Association, Minardi had still not ranked highly enough to escape the ranks of teams which had to pre-qualify for each race. The 1989 season saw a record 39 entries for some events – almost twice as many cars as today – and to preventing overcrowding on the tracks up to nine had to be ejected even before qualifying took place.

Martini never failed to make the cut but his generally slower team mate Luis Perez-Sala came up short in Mexico, France and Germany. A new chassis at the Italian Grand Prix featuring a slightly enlarged cockpit eased Sala’s discomfort at the wheel.

By then the team were free of the Thursday trauma of pre-qualifying. The M189s came good at Silverstone where Martini, despite an overheating car, led Sala home giving the team fifth and sixth places – Minardi’s first two-car points finish.

Day of days

Minardi M189, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2015Then came Portugal. Liking the feel of his car on Pirelli’s qualifying tyres, Martini put the M189 an impressive fifth on the grid, headed only by the vastly wealthier McLaren and Ferrari teams. Martini held his position early on, and as those in front headed for the pits one by one, when lap 40 came around car number 23 – Pierluigi Martini’s Minardi-Cosworth M189 – was leading the field.

Martini slipped back to fifth by the flag. He might have done better had his second set of Pirellis not proved considerably weaker than the first. While Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell took each other out as they disputed the lead, Martini was unable to keep Stefan Johannson’s Onyx from bating him to the podium, while Minardi’s former driver Alessandro Nannini took fourth for Benetton.

The giant-killing qualifying performances continued. In Spain Martini took fourth, and was running fifth when he spun off. Worse, he fell off the team’s truck in the paddock and broke a rib, which ruled him out of the Japanese Grand Prix.

Returning for the season finale in Adelaide, Martini scaled new heights with a ten-tenths lap which delivered third on the grid. However dire weather descended for race day, and Martini found Pirelli’s wet weather tyres little use. He salvaged sixth, but as neither of the cars which started in front of him finished the race, he and the team were left to wonder what might have been.

The M189 remained in service at the beginning of 1990 where it performed a final remarkable feat. Senna being beaten to pole position by new team mate Gerhard Berger in their first race together at Phoenix was one thing, but the appearance of Martini’s Minardi in second place made for a scarcely believable front row. In the race Martini slipped to seventh, just outside the points.

At the San Marino Grand Prix the team introduced its M190, an extensively overhauled design with minimal carry-over of parts from its predecessor. Not long afterwards Minardi made its bid to become a fixture among the front-runners by agreeing a deal to use Ferrari engines. But in the decade-and-a-half that followed until the team was bought by Red Bull and turned into Toro Rosso, they never recaptured the highs they had managed with the M189 and its humble Cosworth powerplant.

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Pictures: Minardi M189 at the 2015 Goodwood Festival of Speed

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Minardi M189, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2015

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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34 comments on “Minardi M189: Heroic minnows’ only race-leading car”

  1. As I kid i wrote a fan letter to Minardi and got some photostat pictures of the cars back, signed by the drivers – boy was I chuffed – a fan for life.

    Will always remember Phoenix 1990 – mainly for the Alesi/Senna battle – But just look at the grid (and thats after pre-qualifying), the variety – wow, those names Tyrrell, Brabham, Minadri, Dallara, Ligier, Lola-Lamborghini, Leyton House, Onyx, Osella and they say the small teams don’t add to the show….

    1 28 Gerhard Berger McLaren-Honda 1:28.664 1:53.486 —
    2 23 Pierluigi Martini Minardi-Ford 1:28.731 2:33.083 +0.067
    3 22 Andrea de Cesaris Dallara-Ford 1:29.019 1:57.435 +0.355
    4 4 Jean Alesi Tyrrell-Ford 1:29.408 1:54.738 +0.744
    5 27 Ayrton Senna McLaren-Honda 1:29.431 1:52.015 +0.767
    6 20 Nelson Piquet Benetton-Ford 1:29.862 1:55.449 +1.198
    7 1 Alain Prost Ferrari 1:29.910 1:56.661 +1.246
    8 14 Olivier Grouillard Osella-Ford 1:29.947 — +1.283
    9 5 Thierry Boutsen Williams-Renault 1:30.059 1:52.771 +1.395
    10 8 Stefano Modena Brabham-Judd 1:30.127 — +1.463
    11 3 Satoru Nakajima Tyrrell-Ford 1:30.130 — +1.466
    12 6 Riccardo Patrese Williams-Renault 1:30.213 1:53.530 +1.549
    13 25 Nicola Larini Ligier-Ford 1:30.424 — +1.760
    14 24 Paolo Barilla Minardi-Ford 1:31.194 — +2.530
    15 29 Éric Bernard Lola-Lamborghini 1:31.226 — +2.562
    16 33 Roberto Moreno EuroBrun-Judd 1:31.247 1:51.538 +2.583
    17 2 Nigel Mansell Ferrari 1:31.363 1:52.405 +2.699
    18 30 Aguri Suzuki Lola-Lamborghini 1:31.414 — +2.750
    19 12 Martin Donnelly Lotus-Lamborghini 1:31.650 1:49.942 +2.986
    20 10 Bernd Schneider Arrows-Ford 1:31.892 — +3.228
    21 9 Italy Michele Alboreto Arrows-Ford 1:31.948 1:54.499 +3.284
    22 19 Italy Alessandro Nannini Benetton-Ford 1:31.984 — +3.320
    23 7 Gregor Foitek Brabham-Judd 1:32.398 — +3.734
    24 11 Derek Warwick Lotus-Lamborghini 1:32.400 2:05.974 +3.736
    25 15 Brazil Maurício Gugelmin Leyton House-Judd 1:32.904 — +4.240
    26 16 Ivan Capelli Leyton House-Judd 1:33.044 — +4.380
    27 35 Stefan Johansson Onyx-Ford 1:33.468 — +4.804
    28 21 Gianni Morbidelli Dallara-Ford 1:34.292 — +5.628
    29 36 JJ Lehto Onyx-Ford — — —
    DSQ 26 Philippe Alliot Ligier-Ford 1:31.664 — +3.000

    1. And people complain about Mercedes dominance now as it’s something that is completely unheard of and will destroy the sport.

      Gap from 1st to 6th that day – 1.198
      Gap from 1st to 6th in Austria – 0.864

      Gap from 1st to 15th then – 2.562
      Gap from 1st to 15th in Austria (in Q2) – 1.674

      Although the gap from Mercedes to Manor is about what it was to the back of the grid…

      1. It is more about the fact that four different manufactures won during the 1990season, using four diffrent engines.12 different drivers on the podium, the same team did not dominate each weekend. You were not subjected to a year of pole positions by one team etc. The actual time gaps are not of consequence…

        1. Anthony, at the same time, how much of that unpredictability was down to the fact that reliability, even for the top teams, was significantly worse than it is now (for example, Williams had a failure rate in excess of 25% that year)?

          Would we necessarily have seen quite as many different podium finishers if reliability was closer to today’s rates, where you might expect to see two or three cars (10-15% of the field) fail to finish, rather than a rate more typically closer to 50% in 1990?

          1. Well the top two retired 4 times – one of those retirements each was there crash in Japan which had nothing to do reliability, Piquet in third retired twice, Berger in fourth 3 times. Not sure how many of those retirements where due to driver error. That is nowhere close to 50%

      2. Gap from 1st to the next manufacturer that day – 0.067
        Gap from 1st to the next manufacturer in Austria – 0.355

        That’s the one that counts.

  2. I loved this article. Well done, Keith!

    I loved Minardi. Even in the European Minardi days. Proper team of proper people.

  3. Also, look at the amount of sponsors this car has!

    I’m afraid those days are behind us, now. I can imagine companies are easier to persuade for sponsorship deals when their logos are shown on circuit, twice a month, on free-to-air television. Pay-per-view or subscription subtly kills all of that.

    1. @andybantam
      I was thinking the same, there’s more sponsors on that car than most modern cars.
      I think the minute amount of TV time the smaller teams get doesn’t help them attract sponsors either. I think I’ve seen more of Rosberg’s wife than I’ve seen marussia so far this season.

      1. I know some people prefer the BBC to Sky, and visa versa, for various reasons listed in one rant or another, but it must be harder to attract sponsors when the ‘casual passing’ viewer doesn’t have access to the complete live calendar without paying for expensive subscription fees.

        1. @andybantam Something people forget now is that it was actually the same back then. The BBC didn’t start showing every race live until 1993 or 1994 (BBC didn’t start showing every qualifying session until 1996) & the one’s they didn’t show live were in the 30-40min highlight slot around 9-10pm.

          And for the races the BBC didn’t show live the only way of watching the full live broadcast was Eurosport which was only available via a satellite or cable subscription.

          1. Fair enough. The car space was probably proportionately cheaper back then too…

          2. @gt-racer @andybantam Something people also forget is that there are F1 fans outside of United Kingdom and there are markerts for F1 elsewhere as well, and in many other areas F1 was free-to-air at that time, for example my home country included. So yeah, I think free-to-air definitely helped teams to get more sponsors, but sadly that is pretty much a thing of the past…

          3. In the main satellite footprint for Europe , Eurosport was free to all people with a dish and receiver on Astra.

  4. Awesome article, thanks a lot!
    I remember having missed qualifying for that 1990 race and any news about it for that matter. When I tuned in on Sunday I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was only 8 back then, but I knew I was watching something special.

  5. lovely stuff, you must be having a blast at goodwood – it really looks like a great year. i realise that it wasn’t technically minardi, but a lot of the same people from faenza were involved when vettel won in 2008. you can’t buy that kind of feelgood factor for fans of a certain age.

  6. Great article. I’ve been a huge Minardi fan since those days and still have my blue baseball hat with the Telefonica livery. I even ordered a fleece direct from Italy for over $100!

    Their performances in the M189 were mostly down to the Pirelli rubber, let’s be honest. They used to shave used sets to give them great one-lap speed.

    The 1993 season was probably more impressive actually. Martini was a regular top 10 contender using the same tires as everyone else- and they scored points with 3 different drivers! That was a giant-killing performance for sure.

    I liked their attitude and the fact that they always attracted other teams in the paddock for their awesome coffee.

    Martini was a great driver who deserved a podium but at least he was vindicated with a Le Mans win in 1999. Kind of like the Hulk in that regard.

    1. @gitanes Indeed, very similar.. perhaps Ferrari didn’t realise how much Capelli’s performances were from the Newey designed March? Martini of 1990 or even Modena of 1991 would have done better than Capelli alongside Alesi… Will they repeat this by taking Bottas over Hulk? That said, there’s no denying that Bottas is similar to Hulk and would also outperform Kimi. I can see both in the top 3 cars next year..

      1. Agreed, Martini would have been a much better option than Capelli

    2. Mention of the coffee reminded me of this, written by Joe Saward at the time – you can almost smell it!
      Forza Faenza, Grandprix.com

  7. That was a fun read, thank you, Keith!

  8. To think that Minardi would’ve been regular points scorers under the current points system.

    I always loved Minardi, they showed a complete passion for the sport, proudly running their cars against all odds, and bringing new talents to the sport in a way not a lot of outfits could do.

    And those yellow, white and black liveries were so classy ! I was so sad to see that go after 1997.

    1. Just imagine the joy of the mechanics after every taste of sucess. It must have been epic to be around the Minardi garage in those days.

  9. It’s so beautiful. I love this team. I still wear their RetroGP shirt every race day.

  10. Great article, very well done and a treat to read. Thank you !

  11. John LeTourneau
    26th June 2015, 16:11

    This article reminded me of the rain stopped European GP when Marcus Winklehok and Spyker looked to slay the field thanks to starting on full wets… Every now and then David can come pretty close to beating Goliath.. Great article, well written!

  12. Avanti Minardi! Far from being consigned to history, Minardi actually points the way that F1 will have to go if it is to survive. The team was and remains F1’s finest hour.

  13. I don’t know about you guys, but this article has inspired me to buy a t-shirt…

    Check this out…

    1. Well, that was a spectacular failure…


      Try this instead

      1. Great article @keithcollantine . Love the minnows, especially Minardi.

        @andybantam – Thanks for the link. That is a fine looking shirt and I may need to order one too.

  14. I believe if we could pick Minardi as our favorite team on this site, it could quite possibly be the 3rd most popular team after McLaren and Ferrari despite 10 years of inactivity! Everybody loves them.

    1. Former teams and drivers in that feature would certainly be a very welcome addition. I guess I´m not the only one whose favourite driver has retired quite some years ago.

  15. Well, after Redbull bought over the Minardi, they managed to achieve, what Minardi didnt, and thats the wictory in Monza. But ofcourse Minardii was and still is much more likeable team. I would be thrilled to see Minardi and Arrows back on the grid, as well as Jordan and Tyrrell. Those were proper teams with proper liveries and names.

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