Ivan Capelli was nicer than most and as quick as any­one


Ivan Capelli’s last F1 Grand Prix start was in 1993. But he’s been a fa­mil­iar pres­ence at grands prix for much of the last two decades, as part of the com­men­tary team for Ital­ian TV. So Capelli’s been a fre­quent vis­i­tor to our shores in re­cent times, call­ing the ac­tion from Al­bert Park for the view­ers back home in Italy.

It’s been a while since he’s been to Ade­laide, though. More than a quar­ter of a cen­tury, in fact, the Ital­ian hav­ing made his last start at the Park­lands cir­cuit in a Leyton House in 1990.

A lot has changed in 26 years. Even in com­par­a­tively sleepy Ade­laide, as Capelli dis­cov­ered when he ar­rived in town last Novem­ber for the Vic­to­ria Park Sprint event at the Ade­laide Mo­tor­sport Fes­ti­val.

“When I got here on Thurs­day morn­ing, and I came here to the cir­cuit and I looked at the pit en­trance, I said ‘where are the grand­stands, where am I?” he laughs. “I couldn’t recog­nise the area from my mem­ory from driv­ing here!”

It was a re­union on sev­eral lev­els. Not only would Capelli be driv­ing the 3.5-litre Judd V8-pow­ered March CG891 he raced here in 1989, but he’d have con­tem­po­raries Pier­luigi Mar­tini and Ste­fan Jo­hans­son along­side, with Mar­tini pi­lot­ing his Mi­nardi Cos­worth 3.5-litre V8 from the very same year. Jo­hans­son would be aboard a Ferrari F156 1.5-litre turbo, from 1985.

“It’s quite emo­tional to be here,” Capelli says, “with the ‘89 Leyton House, and with Pier­luigi (Mar­tini), who is ac­tu­ally a good friend of mine. We started to­gether in For­mula 3 in Italy, and then we com­peted in For­mula 3000 and then For­mula 1. We have known each other 35 years.

“For us, it’s a very big party to be here. With Ste­fan, we were team-mates in Ma­cau in For­mula 3 in ’84, and we raced ob­vi­ously in For­mula 1 at the same time with dif­fer­ent teams. And then later I met him sev­eral times be­cause he was com­men­tat­ing for Swedish tele­vi­sion and I was do­ing the same job for Ital­ian tele­vi­sion – which I am still do­ing.

“I have been do­ing it for 19 years, and it’s nice be­cause I am still in touch with the peo­ple I know from my driv­ing. And I like For­mula 1, I like the at­mos­phere, and I like to be part of the world that gave me so much, in terms of emo­tion.

Ob­vi­ously talk­ing is dif­fer­ent from driv­ing, but I know that I am still part of the world that I love.”

Capelli’s ca­reer as a driver is very much a case of what might have been. There is no ques­tion as to his tal­ent but, not un­like his fel­low Vic­to­ria Park Sprint vis­i­tors Mar­tini and Jo­hans­son, he was one of those F1 driv­ers who couldn’t quite mas­ter the mys­te­ri­ous art of be­ing in the right place at the right time.

What no doubt also worked against the Ital­ian in F1 is the fact that he’s a gen­uinely nice guy.

“Ba­si­cally I was too loyal,” Capelli con­cedes of some his ca­reer de­ci­sions in F1. “If be­ing loyal means too nice, then yes…

“I was loyal to Leyton House, I was loyal to (Leyton House chief) Akira Ak­agi…

“When Alessan­dro Nan­nini had his he­li­copter crash in 1989, I was one of the driv­ers who re­ceived the phone call from Flavio Bri­a­tore to re­place him (at Benet­ton).

“I said to Flavio, ‘look, I would like to, but I just signed a con­tract with Akira Ak­agi for the next sea­son. I gave my word to him so I can­not do it’. Flavio said, ‘so you don’t want to race for us, these two races this year in Ja­pan and Ade­laide, and all of next sea­son?’

“I tell him, ‘I’m sorry, I gave my word to the team and I want to be loyal’.”

Bri­a­tore’s in­vi­ta­tion must have been tempt­ing. By the late ’80s Benet­ton was clearly a team on the rise; in ‘89 it was best of the rest be­hind Ferrari, Wil­liams and McLaren.

In the end, Capelli’s ad­mirable loy­alty would prove spec­tac­u­larly mis­placed.

Ak­agi’s 1987 pur­chase of the March team had been seen as a God­send for the peren­ni­ally cash-strapped outt. But be­fore long the re­named Leyton House team was it­self un­der nan­cial siege as Ak­agi’s busi­ness em­pire went up in ames amid money laun­der­ing, scams and fraud in the Fuji Bank scan­dal. Ak­agi and the Leyton House name were gone from F1 by the end of 1991; be­lea­guered March fol­lowed suit 12 months later.

It was a shame for all con­cerned, be­cause March/Leyton House did have some good things go­ing for it. Such as its tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, a young aero­nau­tics en­gi­neer named Adrian Newey.

Newey’s rst F1 de­signs were crit­i­cised by Capelli and team-mate Mauri­cio Gugelmin for their un­com­fort­ably cramped cock­pits as Newey sought to max­imise the aero­dy­namic efciency by mak­ing the car as small as pos­si­ble (a clas­sic Newey trait still ap­par­ent in to­day’s Red Bull cars).

Newey’s 1990 car, the CG901, was bet­ter, though far from per­fect. It was a kind of au­to­mo­tive equiv­a­lent of the Henry Wadsworth Longfel­low poem, There was a Lit­tle Girl, be­cause when the CG901 was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad, as it was in Mex­ico that year, it was down­right hor­rid.

In Mex­ico nei­ther Capelli nor Gugelmin

“Think­ing back, mak­ing dif­fer­ent de­ci­sions might have changed my ca­reer… but I was and I am a per­son who is loyal to the peo­ple I am work­ing with

could ex­tract enough speed from their CG901s even to qual­ify. By then Newey had al­ready re­ceived his march­ing or­ders. He’d be off to Wil­liams for ’91, and the rest, as they say (a to­tal of 10 Newey-de­signed world cham­pi­onship-win­ning cars for Wil­liams, McLaren and Red Bull), is his­tory.

Seven days later at the French Grand Prix, Leyton House achieved what must be the most re­mark­able form re­ver­sal in the his­tory of For­mula 1. Where the CG901 had oundered in Mex­ico, on the much smoother Paul Ri­card cir­cuit it was right at home, with Capelli qual­i­fy­ing sev­enth and Gugelmin 10th. At the time Capelli said it was the most per­fect car he’d ever driven. Even bet­ter, it was prov­ing very easy on its tyres. This prompted team man­ager Gus­tav Brun­ner to go for broke with an ag­gres­sively bold tyre strat­egy – one which al­most re­sulted in the up­set of the cen­tury.

“The aim was to be gen­tle with the tyres

in the be­gin­ning of the race,” Capelli re­calls, “and then to start to at­tack and be re­ally fast af­ter the tyre changes of the other driv­ers.”

Sure enough, once all the other cars made their tyre stops, there were the two Leyton House cars run­ning rst and sec­ond, with only day­light be­hind them.

On the BBC tele­vi­sion cov­er­age, the late James Hunt as­sured view­ers that it was just a stunt from the back­marker team (re­mem­ber that from the pre­vi­ous six races, a Leyton House had failed to qual­ify six times, and the best re­sult was Capelli’s 10th place at Canada) aimed at grab­bing some TV cov­er­age by leav­ing their tyre change late, and the ‘real’ leader was Alain Prost’s third-placed Ferrari. But lap af­ter lap the aqua cars just kept on sail­ing by the pits, run­ning 1-2. Gugelmin’s car even­tu­ally went out with engine fail­ure, and Prost was only able to nail Capelli three laps from home as his Leyton House be­gan to like­wise fail. Capelli nished sec­ond.

It would have been the fairy­tale win to end all fairy­tale wins. It was and would re­main Capelli’s equal best re­sult in F1.

“When I look back on that, I think, that maybe… if only it was a few laps less!

“Win­ning that race might have changed the his­tory of Leyton House and maybe Ivan Capelli as well. We were lead­ing 46 laps, and the lap be­fore the last my oil light was ash­ing and I had to back off to try to save the engine. But un­for­tu­nately Alain Prost, who was be­hind me,

was eas­ily able to over­take me, and I was able to nish still sec­ond with lots of prob­lems in the engine.

“When I saw pic­tures with me in be­tween Alain Prost and Ayr­ton Senna, think­ing that just the race be­fore in Mex­ico we couldn’t even qual­ify the car… it showed how much For­mula 1 back then was re­lated so much to the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the driv­ers and the en­gi­neers, whereas now so many things are xed.”

Out of the ru­ins of Leyton House, Capelli seem­ingly landed on his feet with a seat at no lesser team than Ferrari. He was re­plac­ing Prost, who’d been sacked for de­scrib­ing the Ferrari 643 as a ‘hor­ri­ble truck’ to drive, and telling the press that no one at Ferrari was lis­ten­ing to his in­put. In hind­sight, Prost’s sack­ing should have been a warn­ing sign that Ferrari in 1993 was not a happy place to be.

Capelli’s two sea­sons with the Scud­e­ria were not mem­o­rable, to say the least.

A drive with Jor­dan and the smaller team’s more con­vivial at­mos­phere looked like just the thing to re­store Capelli’s de­pleted stocks in 1993. But it was not to be. He lasted just two races be­fore be­ing re­placed. “I was dis­ap­pointed not to be able to choose my point of leav­ing For­mula 1. I had to fol­low other peo­ples’ de­ci­sion. Jor­dan told me, ‘Thierry Bout­sen is bring­ing $700,000 more than you, but you can still have a drive if you are bring­ing to me one mil­lion’. Af­ter the ’92 grand prix here in Ade­laide, I said to him, ‘no’.”

The Benet­ton of­fer for 1990 was prob­a­bly the big missed op­por­tu­nity, the one that might have made the dif­fer­ence. In­stead, Capelli chose loy­alty to a team owner who turned out to be not wor­thy of re­ceiv­ing it.

Through it all, though, Ivan Capelli at least can say that he re­mained true to his own prin­ci­ples.

“Now, think­ing back, mak­ing dif­fer­ent de­ci­sions might have changed my ca­reer,” he says. “I don’t know, but I was and I am a per­son who is loyal to the peo­ple I am work­ing with.”

Capelli un­der at­tack from Alain Prost in the clos­ing stages of the 1990 French Grand Prix. had the race been a few laps shorter, the Ital­ian might have pulled off the F1 up­set of the cen­tury.

Above: The dream of driv­ing for Ferrari turned out to be a night­mare for Capelli. Op­po­site: Capelli at the Ade­laide Mo­tor­sport Fes­ti­val last year, re­united with his old March CG901 Judd V8.

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