March Engineering began operations in 1969. Its four founders were Max Mosley, Alan Rees, Graham Coaker and Robin Herd. They each had a specific area of expertise: Max Mosley looked after the commercial side, Robin Herd was the designer, Alan Rees managed the racing team and Graham Coaker oversaw production at the factory in Bicester, Oxfordshire. The history of March is dominated by the conflict between the need for constant development and testing to remain at the peak of competitiveness in F1 and the need to build simple, reliable cars for customers in order to make a profit. Herd's original F1 plan was to build a single-car team around Jochen Rindt, but Rindt became dismayed at the size of the March programme and elected to continue at Team Lotus.
De Adamich going to practice in a March 711
March's launch was unprecedented in its breadth and impact. After building a single Formula Three car in 1969, March announced that they would be introducing customer cars for F1, F2, F3, Formula Ford and Can-Am in 1970, as well as running works F1, F2 and F3 teams.
The Formula One effort initially looked promising, with March supplying its 701 chassis to Tyrrell for Jackie Stewart. These cars were merely a stopgap for Tyrrell, who no longer had the use of Matra chassis and were in the process of constructing their own car; March was the only option available given clashing fuel contracts. In addition, the factory ran two team cars for Jo Siffert (Porsche were paying for his drive) and Chris Amon sponsored by STP. A third STP car, entered by Andy Granatelli for Mario Andretti, appeared on several occasions. Ronnie Peterson appeared in a semi-works car for Colin Crabbe when his works Formula Two commitments allowed; various other 701s went to privateers. The team constructed ten Formula One chassis that year, in addition to Formula Two, Formula Three, Formula Ford and Can-Am chassis. Stewart gave the March its first Formula One victory, at the 1970 Spanish Grand Prix, and both Amon and Stewart took a non-championship race victory, but the works team did not win a Grand Prix. The 701 had distinctive aerofoil-profile fuel tanks at the sides of the car designed by Peter Wright of Specialised Mouldings; Wright had been involved with BRM's abortive ground-effect programme in the late sixties and later worked on the groundbreaking Lotus 78. The 701's tanks lacked endplates and skirts to help generate any meaningful ground effect. Herd (in Mike Lawrence's history of the team Four Guys and a Telephone) described the 701 as essentially a good 1969 car and not what he would have done had he been able to run a small team for a star like Rindt - the 701 was designed and built very quickly and he claims he would have built something more like the 711.
For the 1971 Formula One season March Engineering came up with the remarkable 711 chassis, which had aerodynamics by Frank Costin and an ovoid front wing described as the Spitfire (for its shape) or "tea-tray" (for its elevation from the car) wing. The car took no wins, but Peterson finished second on four occasions, ending as runner-up in the World Championship. Alfa Romeo V8 powered cars were occasionally entered, to little avail (following on from an equally unsuccessful Alfa program with McLaren).
The 1972 Formula One season completely failed to capitalise on the promise March showed in 1970-71. Three distinct models of the car were used, beginning with the 721, which was a development of the 711. Peterson and Niki Lauda then drove the disappointing experimental 721X factory cars (using an Alfa Romeo transverse gearbox and intended to have a low polar-moment, anticipating in some ways the much more successful Tyrrell 005/006 series). Frank Williams ran regular 711 and 721 customer cars for Henri Pescarolo and Carlos Pace. The 721X was deemed to be a disaster and abandoned, but the team saw a way out; customer Mike Beuttler and his backers ordered an F1 car, and the team produced the 721G in nine days (the G stood for Guinness Book Of Records as the car was built so quickly) by fitting a Cosworth DFV and larger fuel tanks to the 722 F2 chassis (not as desperate an experiment as it may have sounded -- John Cannon commissioned a Formula 5000 car which was built to a very similar scheme). The 721G was light and quick, and the works team soon built their own chassis. The 721G set the trend for future March F1 cars, which for the rest of the 1970s were essentially scaled-up F2 chassis. Meanwhile, March was going from strength to strength in Formula Two and Formula Three.
Also, the German team Eifelland entered under its own name a 721 much-modified with distinctive and eccentric bodywork by designer Luigi Colani for its driver Rolf Stommelen. This car was extremely unsuccessful, and later reverted mostly to conventional 721 form and was used by John Watson to make his F1 debut for John Goldie's Goldie Hexagon Racing team.
March's only notable result was Peterson's third place in Germany.
1973 was the low-point for March in Formula One. The four extant 721Gs were re-bodied and fitted with nose-mounted radiators and the crash-absorbing deformable structures that became mandatory that season; although no new chassis were built, they were re-designated 731s. Without significant STP money, the March factory team was struggling, running an almost unsponsored car for Jean-Pierre Jarier (who mainly concentrated on F2, winning the championship in a works March-BMW), while Hesketh bought a car for James Hunt to race. Jarier was replaced by Tom Wheatcroft's driver Roger Williamson, who suffered a fatal accident in Zandvoort (at which race March privateer David Purley attempted to rescue Williamson from his burning car). The Hesketh team, after an initial non-championship outing using a Surtees, bought a March which was developed by Harvey Postlethwaite and became a regular points-scorer, again hinting that there was little wrong with the basic concept of the 721G/731. Nineteen seventy-three marked the first year that F2 became more important to March than F1, with the new two-litre rules heralding the beginning of a long relationship with Paul Rosche at BMW. March undertook to buy a quantity of BMW engines each year in exchange for works units for their own team; the BMW unit was standard-issue for the 732 F2 car and to use up the rest of the units March also manufactured a two-litre prototype until 1975. Some of these had an unusually long life and were still competing (albeit much-modified) in Japan in the early 1980s.
In 1974, the factory team ran Howden Ganley until he left, having signed with Maki as their number-one driver. Then March ran Hans-Joachim Stuck in a Jägermeister-sponsored car and Vittorio Brambilla in a
Beta Tools-sponsored car. Both drivers were exuberant and occasionally quick, but proved expensive in terms of accident damage. BMW was starting to exert pressure on March to quit F1 and concentrate on F2. Patrick Depailler took the F2 championship in an Elf-sponsored March-BMW, the marque's last title for several years as the Elf sponsorship programme and (in 1976) the arrival of Renault engines turned the formula into a French benefit. Some discontent arose in the March customer ranks in F2 since the works appeared after the first couple of F2 races with cars that differed significantly from the customer vehicles.
In the following year Brambilla continued, scoring a surprise victory in the rain-shortened 1975 Austrian Grand Prix. The second car was run by Lella Lombardi, the only woman to score a championship point in F1 (only a half point actually as th 1975 Spanish Grand Prix was shortened). Mark Donohue died after a practice accident in a Penske-owned March at the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix. Penske had abandoned their own car and bought a March to allow them to continue competing. Through the mid-1970s, March provided privateers with simple, fast, and economical cars; at one point Frank Williams bought an allegedly brand new 761B only to discover that it still had orange paint on it from its time as a 751 with Brambilla driving.
In 1976, Peterson, unhappy with the uncompetitive Lotus, left the team early and returned to March for whom he scored the team's second and last win at Monza. The 761 was fast but fragile, with the F2 components starting to show the strain; by this point the F1 effort was being run on a small budget with a two-car works effort featuring Peterson and Brambilla, the cars tending to turn up in different liveries as race-by-race sponsorship deals were signed, and a B-team entered under the
March Engines banner for Stuck and Arturo Merzario. By now the F1 effort as a whole was under fairly severe pressure from BMW, which wanted Herd to concentrate entirely on the works' Formula Two effort, which was starting to be outpaced by French constructors (Martini and Elf) and the new Ralt marque.
That year Peterson scored only one other point in 1976 before being brokered back into a deal with Tyrrell for 1977. Although he felt most at home at March, it was clear that the team did not have the resources to do Formula One properly.
In the off-season of 1976-77, March engineer Wayne Eckersley constructed a rear end for the 761 chassis that had four driven wheels (designated the March 2-4-0) to Robin Herd's design. Unlike the six-wheeled Tyrrell P34, the 2-4-0 had four 16-inch driven wheels at the rear (the same size as the front wheels). The theory behind the design was that this arrangement would offer improved traction and reduced aerodynamic drag (compared to the Tyrrell, which used ultra-small front wheels and normally sized rears). The chassis was tested at Silverstone circuit in early 1977 by both Howden Ganley (although the first time Ganley tested the 2-4-0 only the front pair of rear wheels were powered!) and Ian Scheckter but the project was curtailed in favour of further development of the conventional chassis. The car made March more profit than many of its successful racing cars as it was licensed by Scalextric and became one of their most popular models. The 2-4-0 rear end was later used in hillclimbing by various drivers including Roy Lane.
A token F1 effort with Rothmans sponsorship was run in 1977 for Alex Ribeiro and Ian Scheckter, but nothing worthwhile was achieved. Yet, as the works were fading from F1 the 761, by virtue of being cheap, simple and readily available, became the tool of choice for privateers, notably Frank Williams who after his acrimonious split with Walter Wolf needed a car to get back into racing before his own vehicle was ready.
1978 March-Triumph F3 car, as raced by Nigel Mansell
, on display at the Heritage motor museum, Gaydon
Merzario later built his own unsuccessful F1 car based on his old 761, which he and Simon Hadfield attempted to develop into a ground effect car. This programme was completely unsuccessful.
At the end of the 1977 season, the F1 team's assets and FOCA membership were sold to ATS (who had bought the Penske cars); Herd was retained by them as a consultant and was hence in the curious position of developing a development of his own 1975 car - and the 1978 ATS had some features reminiscent of contemporary March thinking. Mosley left the company to concentrate on FOCA matters. The F2 car had reached the end of a train of development that had started with the 732 and was becoming seriously uncompetitive; the works team abandoned the evolutionary 772 in favour of a smaller, neater car built around an old Formula Atlantic monocoque, the 772P. This was more than a match for the Martini opposition and formed the basis of the next year's dominant 782.
From 1978, March concentrated on Formula Two, running the works BMW team. A 781 chassis was occasionally campaigned in the minor Aurora F1 series. March also assisted in the production of the Group 4 and Group 5, racing versions of the BMW M1 sports car, which as well as running in mainstream endurance races also ran in the one-make Procar series as supporting events in many F1 races. The F2 cars of this era, particularly the 782, were often superb, and March regained its dominance of the formula - Bruno Giacomelli took the F2 title.
Ground effects came to F2 in 1979 but were widely misunderstood; for a while it looked like Rad Dougall in the Toleman team's conventional 782 would beat not only Brian Henton in Toleman's own car but also March's new 792 to the title. In the end, however, Marc Surer prevailed for the works.