Formula One
Midfield Hero: Ivan Capelli

So long a part of the furniture at the 1980s incarnation of March, Ivan Capelli is now sadly remembered for a single dreadful season at Ferrari that basically ended his Formula 1 career. Before that, though, things had started so well for the immensely likeable Italian.

His early career had been meteoric. In the 1980s it was atypical for drivers to get an F1 drive before their mid-twenties and without several seasons of junior racing under their belts, much removed from the situation in the 21st century. So, by the standards of his contemporaries, Capelli wasn't a particularly late starter, contesting the 1982 Italian formula 3 championship with Coloni Racing at the age of 19, after four years of karting. He placed 6th overall (with team owner Enzo Coloni taking the title) using the Alfa-engined March 813, before the team switched to the Ralt RT-3 midseason. The following year Capelli romped to the title, taking wins in nine of the thirteen rounds and scoring 58 points more than the next driver. The performance was enough for the Brabham BMW team to give Capelli his first taste of a Formula 1 car during a Monza testing session.

For 1984 Coloni moved into the European Formula 3 series, taking Capelli with them. In their Alfa-engined Martini MK42, he won four rounds (including the prestigious Monaco event) and again took the title, seven points ahead of Johnny Dumfries. This lead to another F1 test, this time with Toleman, who used a test session at Estoril to effectively audition several young starlets for the role of replacing Ayrton Senna. Testing alongside Senna, Manfred Winkelhock, Roberto Moreno, Jonathan Palmer and Jam Lammers, Capelli recorded the slowest times and didn't come close to the seat. Even this wasn't much of a drawback - John Watson and Stefan Johansson landed the seats eventually, but were left kicking their heels after Toleman failed to negotiate a tyre contract. When the team were finally able to buy out Spirit for their contract, the Benetton-sponsored outfit would enter partway through the season with a single car for Teo Fabi, most of their prospects having found a drive elsewhere. Capelli was among them, taking a drive in the inaugural Formula 3000 season, which had taken over from the European F3 series as the intended final stepping stone for aspiring Grand Prix drivers.


He left the Coloni enclosure, moving to another Italian team - Cesare Garibaldi's Genoa Racing, driving a March 85B-Cosworth. The whole series was a little scrappy as teams and manufacturers tried to adapt to the new formula (which - for this season only - allowed use of obsolete Formula 1 chassis, though the results of those who tried were appalling). Capelli had a mixed year, winning at the Österreichring but only taking one other points finish with 3rd place at Donington. He placed 7th overall, but would nevertheless land his first Formula 1 race drive.

Ken Tyrrell's experienced team were enduring a difficult year. Stefan Bellof had performed excellently, only to lose his life in a Sportscar race at Spa. After running a single car for a couple of races, Tyrrell turned to Capelli for the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. It was a steady rather than spectacular start for Ivan, who qualified in 24th three seconds off the pace of Brundle in the other Tyrrell (collecting a damaged nose in one of the sessions after being brake-tested by an irate Keke Rosberg), before sliding off after forty laps. The following South African Grand Prix was the last to be held under apartheid. This was marked when the two French teams, Ligier and Renault, boycotted the event. Ken Tyrrell took the opportunity to get Ligier's outgoing second driver, Philippe Streiff, in the Tyrrell. However, the seat was handed back to Capelli for the first World Championship Australian Grand Prix at Adelaide. Blazing heat and the race's duration (it took just over two hours to run) turned it into something of a test of endurance, one which Capelli was equal to. Despite his drinks bottle malfunctioning almost immediately, he stuck at the course scrapping with Brundle and Eddie Cheever for an eventual fourth place, one lap down. While attrition was high (the Ligiers were 2nd and 3rd, Capelli had nursed his car home where others had failed, and needed medical attention after the race.


Overall, then, it had been a very impressive first taste of F1. However, Capelli elected to stay with Genoa for another crack at F3000 in 1986, another win at the Österreichring backed with a second at Vallelunga and five placings saw him take the title by two points from Pierluigi Martini. He would also get a second bite of the F1 cherry, effectively testing AGS' new car at the Italian and Portuguese Grand Prix. The small French team were planning on stepping up from lower formulae to a full season of F1 in 1987, and entered the portly JH21C (a marriage of a 1985 Renault RE60 and AGS F3000 parts), powered by a Motori Moderni turbo loaned from Minardi. Capelli did well to qualify 25th, and hung onto the lower midfield runners before picking up a puncture after 30 laps. Estoril was much the same, 24th on the grid followed by gearbox failure after six laps. It had been a useful way of gaining experience for Ivan, who had other plans for 1987.

Genoa Racing had enjoyed an unofficial works relationship with March, and Garibaldi had been discussing the possibility of a return to Formula 1 with the manufacturer's head Robin Herd. With F1 planning to phase out turbocharged engines by 1989 and Cosworth producing the affordable normally-aspirated 3.5l DFZ customer engine for 1987, it was deemed viable. Capelli was nominated as driver of the single March car, and would also be eligible for the 'atmo' Jim Clark Cup (which operated as a second class within the field). The other teams not using turbos would be the two Tyrrells (reliable, competent), the AGS (initially in the hands of the deathly slow Pascal Fabre, though their long preparation meant the car, basically that driven by Capelli in 1986 but with a DFZ in the back, was again very reliable) and the new Lola built for Gerard Larrousse's new team.


It would be a testing year, despite big money sponsorship from Akira Akagi's Leyton House financial institution (which would give the cars a striking Miami blue colour scheme). Overseen by Garibaldi with a lot of staff drawn from Genoa (including team manager Ian Philips), it was something of a case of too many new things - Capelli had four Grand Prix to his name, the chassis was new, and the DFZ was new. The March often showed the rest of the atmo class a clean set of heels (though this generally translated to lower midfield in the overall running order), but frequently broke. The team were late preparing the car, meaning they had to travel to Brazil with a Formula 3000 chassis which was withdrawn after it kept blowing DFZs. An early false dawn came when Capelli placed 6th overall at the F1 car proper's third meeting on the streets of Monaco, while he won the class in two other races. However, he only accrued six finishes in all. The Jim Clark Cup rewarded reliability, and thus Capelli only placed fourth, narrowly scrapping past Fabre.

Reliability did improve as the season went on, but March had a firm eye on 1988. With Akagi's backing, the team signed a deal with John Judd to use his new V8 engines for the season, while young designer Adrian Newey (formerly of March's Indycar operation, then Carl Haas' ill-fated F1 team) had joined in mid-1987 as chief designer. The team expanded to two cars for 1988, the affable Mauricio Gugelmin taking the second car. Once again efforts were hindered by a lack of testing and a new powerplant, and early on in the season reliability was once again elusive. However, the slippery March 881 showed its' speed from the start, Capelli qualifying 9th in the first two races. He would finish 10th at Monaco after an uncomfortable afternoon in the 881's cramped cockpit, struggling near the rear of the field after hitting Alex Caffi in the opening laps. However, constant work by the team gradually sorted the car's handling, and in Canada Ivan would climb up to take an excellent fifth place for the team's first points of the season. Things threatened to take a turn for the worse a week later, when he hit the pit wall at Detroit and broke a bone in his foot. Capelli was forced to sit the race out, but recovered in time to take 9th place at the following French Grand Prix.


Paul Ricard was the first of a glut of fast tracks that would fit Newey's graceful 881 perfectly. The March cars shared row 3 at Silverstone (Gugelmin outqualifying his team-mate), but Capelli's race ended mid-distance with alternator problems. Hockenheim saw them take the fourth row, this time with the Italian in front, and despite losing his clutch Capelli brought the March home in fifth again. Newey then devised a 'biplane' front wing to generate more downforce for the Hungaroring round, allowing Capelli to start an excellent fourth. However, Ivan over-revved the Judd almost immediately, and was forced to retire. Spa saw a return to the points after a disappointing midfield start, his prowess in slicing past Riccardo Patrese, Derek Warwick, Cheever and Nelson Piquet drawing more positive notices and being rewarded with another brace of points for 5th place. He repeated the performance at Monza despite colliding with Patrese early on, but even this run of form was to be surpassed at Estoril.

The 1988 Portuguese Grand Prix is mainly remembered for the incident that moved Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost from being rivals to participating in an all-out feud when the Brazilian threatened to squeeze his team-mate into the pit wall when the Frenchman tried to pass him. However, Prost took the corner and would win the race as Senna dropped back with a faulty fuel readout. Capelli had started third, only bettered by the all-conquering McLarens, and hung defiantly onto the back of Senna. Ivan took advantage of Senna being unable to really use the Honda due to the seeming consumption problem, harrying the World Champion elect until lap 22, when Capelli pulled off a textbook outbraking manoeuvre, slipped into second and then rapidly pulled away. Gerhard Berger soon followed him past the struggling Senna and chased Capelli down in the turbo Ferrari, only to spin off when lining up a pass. Capelli remained calm and focused throughout the rest of the race, finishing within ten seconds of Prost, while Alboreto's second Ferrari ran out of fuel vainly chasing him down.


The following race at Jerez was inevitably something of an anticlimax, as Capelli started 6th and stormed up to 3rd (passing Senna, Alessandro Nannini and Patrese) only for the engine to fail just past mid-distance. Then at Suzuka he would give another excellent performance, starting with 4th place on the grid. After Senna botched his start, Capelli stuck to Prost and Berger ahead of him. Taking advantage of the turbo cars' fuel limitations, he flashed past Berger after five laps. Then he hunted down Prost, slipped past the McLaren at the chicane and lead across the line - the first time a non-turbo had led a race since Alboreto's victory at Detroit in 1983, and an achievement that made Capelli one of only four drivers to head a race in 1988. The lead only lasted until the first corner of the next lap, with Prost indulging himself in a little turbo boost and taking the corner, but as rain began to fall on the circuit he couldn't shake off the March's attentions. Then, on lap 20 Capelli finally dropped away when an electrical fault cut the power to the engine and led to his retirement. Ivan might not have been able to hold the astonishing Senna (tearing through the field on a mission from God), but he had the measure of Prost and another 2nd place was possible.

The Australian Grand Prix ended the season on a relatively low note, Capelli qualifying 9th and slogging through to a lapped 6th place (leaving him 7th overall in the championship) after a litany of minor problems and the car's general incompatibility with the circuit. That this failure to upset the big boys can be seen as a low note said it all for Capelli's impact in 1988 - not since Senna's performances for Toleman in 1984 had a driver broken from the midfield and made quite such a regular trick of upsetting the front runners. While Newey's 881 was undoubtedly a groundbreaking chassis, Capelli had made good use of it while attracting numerous notices for his bubbly, easygoing personality to boot. The combination of March's know-how, Akagi's financial clout, Judd's growing experience with engines (March would exclusively use a new narrow-angle V8 for 1989), Newey's design skill and Capelli's driving saw the Italian strongly tipped to take race wins in 1989, especially as all the cars would now be using atmospheric engines.


However, 1989 was to be a severely depressing year. It started in a difficult fashion, with Akagi buying the F1 operation from March and renaming it Leyton House Racing. This froze some areas of the team over the winter, as March retained a number of facilities and replacements had to be sourced. The new CG89, named in honour of Garibaldi (killed in a road accident during 1988) and featuring an exclusive 75° Judd V8, wouldn't be ready for the start of the season, so the team would press on with the 881. This was not necessarily the worst thing to happen - March would be using a package that was one of the best by the end of the season, while most of their rivals were using new cars and/or engines. Indeed, Capelli started 7th and moved up to third before retiring as a result of damage sustained collecting debris from Senna and Berger's first corner collision - Gugelmin would eventually take the third place. Heartened by this strong showing, March decided they had no need to hurry the complex new car. However, things took a turn for the worst at Imola. Capelli qualified 13th but tigered up to 7th, only to spin off on the second lap and destroy the car. This left the team in an awkward position - whether to spend serious funds rebuilding enough 881s for the next meeting, or whether to debut the untried car at Monaco, of all places. In the end, finances dictated the latter. Predictably the car spent much of the weekend breaking down, and Capelli would end up 22nd on the grid. However, the thing somehow kept going for nearly the whole race, Ivan limping around in 6th with a lap to go until a wound from a clash with the errant Rene Arnoux finally killed the EMS, dropping him to 11th in the classification.

To compound the problem, Monaco was then followed by the three flyaway American races, meaning three weeks in which very little meaningful development could be undertaken. The CG89 repeatedly fell victim to niggling troubles, summed up by the team's experiences at Mexico. Minor problems constantly interrupted Gugelmin's practice, resulting in him failing to qualify (unthinkable a year previously). Capelli was luckier in qualifying, placing an excellent 4th on the grid. However, a brake line fractured almost immediately, though Capelli was able to start from the pitlane after Stefano Modena had a race-stopping shunt. He lasted two laps before a CV joint broke. And the season went on like that. When Leyton House did manage to sort the car a bit more, they found a multitude of problems with the narrow-angle Judd. Capelli would only finish once all season, 12th at Spa and then with a very sick engine. He only really showed his talent once, at Paul Ricard, the smooth surface suiting the car. In one of the more open races of the season (fifteen of the 26 starters ran in the points at one point or another, in the days when pitstops were largely optional) Capelli moved up to second by just after half-distance, only for the engine to fail. Otherwise, while outwardly ebullient, Capelli seemed depressed b the unreliability of the car, exacerbated by the competitive midfield - the second half of the season saw whole rows covered by tenths of a second, while Pirelli's qualifying tyres often mixed things up further.


Nevertheless, the team kept going all season, and the strong unit formed during the rise through the lower formulae kept all the key staff in one place. However, 1990 was to be just as much of a nightmare for the most part. The new CG901 looked stunning, but suffered from many of the faults of its' predecessor - on some tracks it was impossible to set up, and the team never really tested it adequately. Leyton House had started the season desperate to grab a multi-cylinder engine deal, competing with Onyx and Arrows for Porsche's proposed 1991 motor. When they lost out, they were forced to resort to off-the-shelf Judd customer unit. Unknown to the team at the start of the season, rogue wind tunnel readings led to fundamental flaws in the car.

The season started badly, Capelli sharing the back row at Phoenix with Gugelmin. He climbed to 19th place before retiring after 20 laps. Worse was to come at Interlagos, where the stiff car was near-undrivable on the bumpy surface, and neither Leyton House qualified. Capelli then collided with Nakajima on the first lap at Imola, before qualifying poorly and retiring again at Monaco. By now even the friendly team was beginning to fall apart, and with Phillips ill from a virus recriminations saw Newey scapegoated for the CG90's poor performance. He left the team, but not before devising a new floor plan for the car which would go some way to solving the car's aerodynamic problems. Despite another poor practice time, the Canadian Grand Prix saw Capelli finish 10th, his best result since Australia 1988. The bumpy Hermanos Rodriguez circuit then brought about another double non-qualification, but returning to Bicester after the flyaway races gave the team time to implement Newey's revisions.


Paul Ricard was just the right track for the new B-spec car, the smooth surface and long straights suiting the set up and the aerodynamics. Indeed, the car ran so perfectly the tyres wore considerably less than those of any other team. Capelli placed an excellent 7th on the grid (his best since Mexico 1989), with Gugelmin 10th. Both planned to make their C-compound Goodyears last the whole race - when the Leyton House crew mentioned this to the Lotus mechanics, they were laughed at. On race day, though, the Bicester outfit had the last laugh. Capelli didn't make a good start, allowing Alesi, Thierry Boutsen and Nelson Piquet to pass him. The Belgian's retirement moved him up to 9th, which became 8th when Piquet pitted on lap 20, then 7th when Alesi stopped a lap later.

Then came stops for Nannini, Prost, Berger and Senna and suddenly Capelli was third. Lap 31 saw leader Mansell pit, then Patrese ducked in next time around. The Leyton House cars were first and second, and were being so well-driven that the front runners largely had no answer to their pace. They held station, Capelli comfortably ahead, until lap 54 when Prost finally caught and passed Gugelmin (the Brazilian's scavenge pump would give up three laps later, denying him a certain 3rd place). Prost then gradually reeled Capelli in, and four laps from the end lined up a passing manoeuvre. Capelli neatly fought him off, but next time around the Ferrari squeezed past. The oil light had flicked on in the Leyton House, and fighting back against the world champion would have been putting the six points at risk. Despite Prost spoiling the party a little the result was hugely popular, with even the stewards turning a blind eye to technical director Gustav Brunner vaulting the pit wall as Capelli crossed the line.


More was to come at Silverstone. Capelli started 10th, and was immediately hard-pressed by Nannini. After eight laps the pair swept past Aguri Suzuki. Capelli had to then give best to the Benetton, but kept on his rear wing as the pair bore down on Patrese. Nannini was caught out when Patrese braked early at Bridge and the pair collided, promoting Capelli to 6th. Despite a broken exhaust and the attentions of Suzuki he chased down Boutsen, passing the Williams on lap 33. He then gained on Gerhard Berger at a rate of a second a lap, pushing past the McLaren after 44 laps. The Leyton House was working beautifully, and Capelli began hauling in the leading Ferraris at the same astonishing rate when a cracked fuel line ended his race on lap 48. It was a race he could have won, and an even more impressive drive than Paul Ricard as he'd had to overtake rivals on this occasion. However, coming close to victory in successive races was something of a false dawn. The chassis worked well again at Hockenheim but the Judd just didn't have the horsepower, Capelli losing out to Boutsen for the final point and ending a lapped 7th. The twisty Hungaroring saw another step backwards, Ivan retiring from 10th place at three-quarters distance. Spa suited the car, but Capelli gave best to Gugelmin in the battle for 6th place. He was then heading for a point at Monza when the fuel pump sheared, but after that the season petered out.

There was some speculation as to where Capelli would drive in 1991. He was in the frame for a seat at Ferrari, but that went to Alesi. Ken Tyrrell spoke to him about replacing the Franco-Sicilian as team leader, but Capelli instead opted to spend another year with Leyton House. The team had finally secured an exclusive engine, the brand new Ilmor V10 - effectively the team's fourth new engine in four years. While the CG911 was respectable out of the box, and easier to set up than its' predecessor, it lacked Newey's innovative touch, and once again had reliability problems. However, Capelli rose to 5th in the wet San Marino Grand Prix before spinning out with a puncture, and then at Montreal moved up to 4th before the Ilmor expired. It was clear, though, that the CG911 was never going to put him in a position to upset the front runners. He seemed to became disillusioned once more, especially after nine retirements from the first nine races. At least the tenth not only brought a finish but also a point after qualifying ninth and driving steadily to 6th place in Hungary. He could have had a couple more at Estoril, but went over a kerb and lost the nosecone assembly. In the week running up to the race, Akagi had been arrested for fraud and the team found themselves suddenly short of funds. After one final outing at Catalunya, Capelli stepped down as driver for Leyton House.


Ivan had decided to go elsewhere for 1992, and a number of enticing seats were opening up elsewhere, with Tyrrell, Jordan, Benetton and Scuderia Italia among those with vacancies. In the meantime the sponsored Karl Wendlinger took his Leyton House seat for the last two rounds, though Capelli attended the races to help the young Austrian. The final race of the season saw the team present Ivan with a trophy in a pitlane ceremony to commemorate his six years with the operation. It was also the race where Ferrari fired Alain Prost for his outspoken criticism of the team, opening up a seat with the Prancing Horse for 1992. This time Capelli landed the drive.

After a disappointing 1991, failing to win a race, Ferrari were optimistic for 1992. Alesi had shown he could lead the team, while Harvey Postlethwaite had designed the beautiful F92A, featuring a radical twin floor. An active suspension system was also to be developed as the season went on, a necessity for front-running teams at the time. While Ferrari realised they were in a year or transition, respectable results were expected. However, almost from the off Capelli seemed a fish out of water. The fiery Alesi had won the team's hearts in 1991, and the relaxed family man Capelli was unlikely to wrestle much of the attention away from him. The problem with Ferrari was that Prost was right - the team was a mess more concerned with internal politics than organisation, and a more different atmosphere than the familial March/Leyton House operation was difficult to imagine. Luca de Montezemolo had been put in charge of the team in an attempt to replicate his mid-1970s success (this being the first step towards the Ferrari/Schumacher domination at the start of the 21st century), but the changes would take time.


The situation wasn't helped by the fact the F92A was a dog of a car, Postlethwaite's twin floor simply not working. For the fourth time in as many seasons Capelli found himself in a undertested, overcomplicated car. However, the power of the Ferrari V12 and a relatively uncompetitive midfield (only the briefly resurgent Lotus, Wendlinger's March and Andrea de Cesaris' Tyrrell were likely to mix with the big four of Williams/McLaren/Benetton/Ferrari) meant that good placings weren't impossible. Capelli started 9th at his Ferrari debut in South Africa, fighting with Berger for 6th place before stopping with oil starvation. In Mexico he started an abysmal 20th, and was taken out by Wendlinger at the start. Already the Italian media were up in arms at Ferrari's poor form, and Capelli never recovered from the shaky start. Interlagos at least saw a reliable run to a lapped 5th place, while he was competitive in the wet in Spain before aquaplaning off the course. Too often, though, he was towards the front of the midfield, whereas Alesi was mixing with the front runners. At Monaco rumours began that he was out of favour at the team, and he hardly helped his cause by crashing out of 5th place, leaving his F92A pathetically wedged on a barrier at Rascasse. He wouldn't finish another race until Silverstone, when he came home 9th behind Erik Comas' Ligier. Indeed, his place in the team seemed secure largely because Ferrari were at a loss for a replacement. A lapped 6th place at the Hungaroring didn't really help his cause either, as he largely only gained the placing through the retirements of others.

Demoralised didn't even begin to describe Capelli, all but ignored by his team and a forlorn figure in the paddock in stark contrast to the smiling figure of previous seasons. For the Belgian Grand Prix, Alesi received a much-improved F92A with a transverse gearbox; Capelli, stuck in the old car, qualified 14th and retired from a distant 6th place. Monza gave a glimmer of hope as he got a new car, qualified 7th then confidently shadowed Alesi in 5th, only to spin off seconds after his team leader retired with a broken fuel pump. However, Estoril saw him start 16th, and he was still running there on lap 34 when the engine blew. Ferrari decided to use the second car as basically a test bed for the active suspension for the last two races, and promptly fired Capelli to bring in test driver Nicola Larini.


Capelli's career, which had stalled a little due to his loyalty to March, was basically killed by the Ferrari ordeal. He had gone from a promising driver who'd never been given a good chance to a has-been almost overnight. While the F92A was not a good car by any means, the fact remained that Alesi had done well enough in it (indeed, to some 1992 was perhaps Alesi's finest year, his drives at Catalunya and Magny-Cours being near-legendary, and he regularly dragged the car into places it didn't belong). At the same time, Ferrari gave Capelli very little support, and seemed ready to ditch him s soon as it was clear he wasn't matching Alesi, instead of nurturing him.

Ivan had taken such a battering in 1992 that it was something of a surprise when he resurfaced with Jordan in 1993. The team were trying to rebuild after a disastrous season with Yamaha engines, and wanted an experienced driver to pair with hotshot Rubens Barrichello. Ian Phillips, by then working as Jordan's commercial director, recommended Capelli and a deal was struck. He qualified a passable 18th (admittedly four places behind Barrichello) at Kyalami only to have a massive off on the third lap. The crash knocked whatever confidence was left out of him, and after he failed to qualify for the following race in Brazil, Capelli left Jordan by mutual consent.

Yesterday's man in F1, it was over a year before Capelli re-emerged, driving a Honda NSX GT1 at Le Mans and guesting in a couple of Spanish touring car races. Since then he has made sporadic GT appearances, but mainly devoted his time to TV punditry, a role which has at least seen him rediscover his cheerful side, compared to the forlorn figure seen in 1991-1993.