(Virtual) Lunch with... Ivan Capelli

Ivan Capelli was once the golden boy of Italian motor racing, the rising star with an impeccable track record. But as he tells Simon Arron, when he landed a dream job with Ferrari, it proved the opposite...

Ivan Capelli in his Leyton House March at the 1988 Belgian Grand Prix

Capelli in the Leyton House blue of March at the 1988 Belgian GP. Deals during this time were often done with a handshake.

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

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On paper, it had the potential to be one of the most romantic of all motor racing fairy tales: the schoolboy who was given an unexpected opportunity to sit at the wheel of a Formula 1 Ferrari and later went on to drive for the team. For Ivan Capelli, though, the second part of the story marked the beginning of the end for a career that had hitherto been ripe with promise.

That was the best part of 30 years ago, so the time to find out how – and why – everything went so wrong so quickly is long overdue. The 57-year-old is based mostly in Switzerland now, near Bern where he manages a factory that produces medical equipment. He still races, though travel restrictions this year precluded his pilgrimage to the Bathurst 12 Hours. For the same reason, our conversation takes place not face-to-face across a restaurant table, but with coffee and biscuits to hand, 600 miles apart via the miracle of Skype.

Successful almost from day one in karting, Capelli won national and European Formula 3 titles before lifting the FIA F3000 Championship with Genoa Racing, one of the smallest teams in the category. When he made his F1 debut with March in 1987, at the wheel of what was effectively a reworked F3000 chassis, cobbled together at short notice, he scored a point in the Monaco Grand Prix – and that in the days when such things were awarded only to the top six.

Everything suggested an exceptionally bright future – and he combined this natural vim with an easy-going manner and a level of approachability that was rare even then.

Ivan Capelli Zoom call

Capelli today, via Skype

“I was introduced to motor sport because my father produced advertising for dairy firm Parmalat, which in the 1970s had personal deals with Ferrari’s drivers and later sponsored Brabham,” he says. “One day, aged 12, I went with him to Fiorano, where he was filming a test session. While I was there I met [Niki Lauda’s chief mechanic] Ermanno Cuoghi and he allowed me to sit in the car. I then started to follow the sport closely through newspapers and magazines.”

As Capelli Sr was also a fan, it wasn’t too hard to see what might happen next.

“If you are not on the podium after this race, it’s all over”

“About 18 months passed before we bought our first kart,” he says, “but we then found out that I wasn’t old enough, at 14, to drive a 125cc gearbox racer. We hadn’t known that, so swapped it for a 100cc Cadetti – the smallest class in Italy at that time. Through the winter of 1977 and into the following year I began competing and in my first full season won most of the events I contested. It took four or five races for me to understand how to drive, but after that it was a successful season and I won the Italian championship.

“I think it helped that I’d been a good skier from a young age. I’d been competing in downhill events since I was seven or eight, so understood the notion of racing lines. Early on I also met Pietro Sassi, an experienced driver who was competing at the top level in Italy. We tested together a couple of times and he taught me a few useful tricks.”

Was there a light-bulb moment when the thought occurred that he might be able to convert his successful pastime into a career?

“Not when I was karting,” he says. “It seemed just so far away from what was going on at Monza or Imola…”

Ivan Capelli during his karting days

Young Ivan in karting days, with mechanic Vittorio Cò in the foreground and Ivan’s dad behind

Capelli Archive

He edged closer to the car world in 1980 and 1981, when he travelled to F3 races with respected team Ravarotto Racing, monitoring his friend Paolo Barilla’s progress.

“Over the winter of 1981 I was working at Fernando Ravarotto’s factory in Novara, helping the mechanics because I really wanted to understand how the cars worked,” he says. “My hope was that I’d be able to drive for Ravarotto in the 1982 Italian F3 Championship as part of a two-car team. In about February, however, he called and told me he had a problem because Ruggero Melgrati, one of my kart rivals, had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse to run him in a single-car team. I wasn’t sure what to do, because I didn’t really know anybody else in F3, but Fernando promised to introduce me to the Pedrazzani family, who built the Novamotor F3 engines, because they had good contacts. When I went to see them, I was told not to worry, that they knew a guy whose team was based not far away and that I should wait in the office.”

Half an hour later Cesare Gariboldi, who would have a profound influence on Capelli’s career, walked through the door.

“Cesare and I hit it off immediately,” Capelli says. “I was on a very steep learning curve because I had to learn about gears, understand how to give relevant feedback and so on, but I felt comfortable straight away. We started with a March chassis, switched to a Ralt RT3 and went on to have a decent season. I didn’t win any races, but finished sixth in the championship as leading rookie. I think we spent 190 million lire [about £80,000], so it was very expensive, and all the more so as all the parts came from England at a time when the lira was very weak against the pound. It had been very important not to have any accidents…”

Ivan Capelli's Ralf RT3 for the 1984 F3 Macau Grand Prix

For one race in 1984 Capelli drove a Ralf RT3 for Theodore Racing in the F3 Macau GP

Veteran Enzo Coloni won the title that year, aged 36, then decided to retire to focus on running a team.

“Enzo approached me at the end of the season with the offer of a free seat for 1983, because he already had sponsorship in place,” Capelli says. “Cesare completely understood why I had to make the move, so we remained on very good terms.”

It was to be a fruitful partnership. Still at the wheel of an RT3, Capelli stormed to nine wins en route to dominating Italian F3 – he finished 58 points clear of closest rival Stefano Livio – although it was not all plain sailing as he failed to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix support race. “We were running on Pirellis in Italy,” he says, “and just couldn’t get the chassis tuned to work properly on Michelins. We also did a few other events away from Italy and towards the end of the year Enzo arranged for me to test a Martini chassis at Magny-Cours and I went a few tenths quicker than the factory team had ever managed.”

Coloni switched to Martini for 1984 and embarked upon a European F3 campaign with Capelli, but the year didn’t start well. “I had a minor accident during practice for the opening race at Donington Park,” he says, “spinning at the Old Hairpin and going off onto the wet grass. I only just kissed the wall, but moments later my team-mate Bernard Santal went off at the same place, ploughed into my car and destroyed both of them, so neither of us could race.

“Tom Walkinshaw was looking across at me like a maniac”

“We then went to Martini’s Magny-Cours factory to rebuild the chassis and I followed the truck down in my small motorhome to help the mechanics. It was also my job to cook for everybody while we were there! The next race was at Zolder and I had another accident during practice, destroying the front-left suspension. The car was repaired, I qualified fifth and, just before the start Enzo Coloni came over to me, bent into the cockpit, opened my visor and said, ‘Look Ivan, if you are not on the podium after this race, that’s it, it’s all over.’ He then turned away and walked back to the pits, but fortunately I finished third.”

Victories at Magny-Cours, La Châtre, Enna and Mugello followed, together with a clutch of podium finishes, and third place in the Jarama finale was enough to put him beyond reach of principal foe Johnny Dumfries, that year’s British champion. One year after his failure to qualify for the prestigious non-championship race in Monaco, he returned to dominate there, too, finishing comfortably ahead of Gerhard Berger. “At that stage the car was almost completely white, because we had very little sponsorship,” he says, “but that victory helped us to secure some backing, and Cesare used it to negotiate a deal on my behalf with Marlboro Italy, which helped me to continue racing.”

The low point of the year came at Monza, where Capelli was excluded for use of an illegal airbox.

“I’m confident that the car was OK throughout the rest of the campaign,” he says, “and it took me a number of years to find out what happened at Monza. There was a lot of rivalry between engine suppliers Volkswagen and Alfa Romeo at that time, and Alfa wanted to make sure it wasn’t beaten on home ground. They played around with the airbox in a bid to find more power, but…”

Ivan Capelli's 1985 Genoa racing car

From six races in ’85 for Genoa Racing, Capelli had two podium finishes

For 1985, Gariboldi massaged a deal to run Capelli in a March in the inaugural FIA F3000 Championship, under the Genoa Racing banner, though the programme was delayed because he was on national service and couldn’t initially obtain dispensation to race at weekends. He missed the opening three rounds, the fourth at the Nürburgring was snowed off in his absence and he finally pitched up for round five, in Vallelunga.

“I was involved in a sizeable accident with Lamberto Leoni,” he says, “and my career could have ended there and then. I was unhurt, but the car was very badly damaged and we couldn’t afford to rebuild it. Cesare’s solution was to sell his racing transporter, which meant we could get the car fixed, though we now had no means of taking it to races. He then did a deal with Sanremo Racing boss Alberto Colombo, who also had an F3000 team. He would send his truck to our factory and pick up my car on the way to events. In the paddock Colombo had his own cars under the awning, and usually there was no room for mine, so it often stood out in the open, even when it was raining.”

Despite this, he notched up an impressive maiden F3000 victory in the Austrian Grand Prix support race at the Österreichring.

Capelli suffered gearbox problems ahead of the Donington Park finale and was obliged to start 21st and last. “It was drizzly, as usual in England,” he says, “and the circuit was slightly damp. As we were at the back anyway, we gambled on using the softest Bridgestone slicks, added a bit more front wing and gave it a go. I came through to finish third and afterwards Ken Tyrrell found me in the paddock. We had a little chat and I asked Cesare what he thought. He just said, ‘If he came to see you, there must be a reason…’”

Ivan Capelli at Brands Hatch in the 1985 British Grand Prix

Rubbing shoulders with giants at Brands Hatch in Capelli’s first Formula 1 outing in 1985, where he was surely the only driver to arrive by taxi…

Two weeks later, Capelli lined up for his Formula 1 debut in the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. “I’d made it clear from the start that I wouldn’t be able to bring any money,” Capelli says. “Mr Tyrrell told me not to worry and that I would have to pay only for my flights and accommodation. I couldn’t even afford to buy an air ticket for Cesare… I flew from Milan to the UK on my own, took a bus from Heathrow and then completed the journey to Brands Hatch by taxi.

“I arrived on Wednesday, was introduced to the team and then hung around because I didn’t have a rental car to get to the hotel. When Ken Tyrrell realised, he asked my team-mate Martin Brundle to be my chauffeur for the weekend. I was a bit jealous because Martin had a company Jaguar XJS, through his sports car racing. I had to squeeze in the back, behind him and his wife.”

Both Tyrrells retired from the race, but Capelli was offered another opportunity in Adelaide and brought his car home fourth in an attritional seasonal finale.

With no full-time Formula 1 opportunities on the horizon, Capelli remained in F3000 with Genoa Racing for 1986, scoring wins in Vallelunga and again in Austria, and took fourth place in the title decider at Jarama, which was enough to make him champion by two points from Pierluigi Martini.

The magnitude of that cannot be overstated. Genoa had by now acquired fresh transport of its own – a small box truck – but this was a tiny, four-strong team taking on and beating strong factory opposition from March, Ralt and Lola.

“There was a lovely family atmosphere at Genoa,” he recalls. “That was an important factor, as was Cesare’s ability to set the car up perfectly to match my driving style.”

Capelli was busy in other domains, too. He contested two late-season grands prix – Italy and Portugal – with the tiny AGS team, which made its F1 bow using a reworked version of an old Renault chassis. “Before I tested the car for the first time at Paul Ricard,” he says, “I received a phone call from team boss Henri Julien. He wanted me to visit our engine supplier Motori Moderni’s factory en route to pick up a rev counter, because the team didn’t have one.”

He was also invited to join Schnitzer BMW for selected European Touring Car Championship races.

“I enjoyed that,” he says. “It was also a good way to earn some money, and BMW gave me a company car, so I could actually drive around in something decent, not my usual diesel. It was great experience because it gave me an understanding of what it was like to work with a professional team.

“I was sharing a 635 CSi with Roberto Ravaglia and Dieter Quester in the Estoril finale and came up alongside Tom Walkinshaw’s Rover on the main straight. Because the Rover was right-hand drive, we were pretty much right next to each other. Tom had an open-face helmet and I could see him looking across at me like a maniac.”

Ivan Capelli in the 1986 AGS JH21C

The AGS JH21C only entered two GPs in ’86

The most significant of his extra-curricular activities would be in Japan, however.

“Bridgestone’s European motor sport director, Hiroshi Yasukawa, came to see Cesare at Imola in June,” he says. “He explained that a friend was looking for somebody to race for him in Japan, because one of his own drivers had unfortunately been killed [Akira Hagiwara died when he crashed a Mercedes 190E touring car during a test session at Sugo]. The friend turned out to be Akira Akagi from Leyton House – at the time a successful business in Japan. We later met up in the middle of the paddock – myself, Cesare, Mr Yasukawa, my father, who couldn’t understand a word because we were speaking English, and Mr Akagi, dressed all in white. He asked whether I would be available to drive for him in the All-Japan F2 series. I pointed out that Japan wasn’t exactly around the corner, but said I’d go if I could I could keep 40 per cent of any prize money that I earned, to help support my racing in Europe. We agreed on a handshake.”

Capelli finished sixth on his debut appearance at Suzuka, then second at Fuji – a first podium for Leyton House Racing. His F3000 March was also repainted in Leyton House’s distinctive Miami blue.

“After one race we went to see Mr Akagi in his office before flying back to Europe,” he says. “During this meeting, he gave me a sealed envelope with my share of the prize money. I told Cesare that I was going to open it, but he told me that would be really impolite. I did anyway, counted the prize money and realised he’d given me all of it. I tried to return some, because that wasn’t what we’d agreed, but he insisted I keep it. From that moment the two of us had a special bond.”

Capelli finished his partial Japanese campaign with a third place at Suzuka and was then summoned to another meeting. “Mr Akagi asked whether I would drive for Leyton House Racing in Japan on a full-time basis in 1987. He offered me a $200,000 salary, too. I replied that I’d like to come, but that I was already talking to a few F1 teams, including Osella and Tyrrell. Cesare looked at me in astonishment, because it was a complete bluff.

“Mr Akagi then asked how much it would cost to support me in F1, running in full Leyton House colours. I had no idea, so told Cesare it was his turn to answer and he suggested $4m. Mr Akagi asked if I was sure I was ready for F1, which I said I was. He said, ‘OK, we’ll do it,’ and agreed yet again on a handshake.

On the flight back to Europe we had a lot to drink but didn’t know how we were going to arrange any kind of F1 deal. After landing in Milan, Cesare booked a flight to London for the following morning, turned up unannounced at Robin Herd’s door and asked whether he’d like to bring March back into Formula 1, because he had the necessary support. I think they sorted it out over a bottle of wine, though the 1987 March F1 car was really just an 86B F3000 chassis modified to accommodate a bigger fuel tank and with revised aerodynamics.

“At the first race in Rio we had a team of just 17 people, including Mr Akagi, his girlfriend, his translator and my father. Our engine tuner Heini Mader didn’t yet have a full-spec Cosworth DFZ ready, so we used a World Sports Car Championship-spec engine that wasn’t very powerful. On the straights the turbos were coming past at least 60mph faster than I could run, so I was a bit of a mobile chicane.”

Sparks fly from Ivan Capelli's March 871 at the 1987 Austrian Grand prix

Sparks flew at the 1987 Austrian GP, which at times resembled a stock-car meet. Capelli was in the naturally aspirated March 871

Despite the rushed nature of this fresh venture, Capelli scored that aforementioned point in Monaco – “a miracle of the kind that would not be possible today” – and took a couple of class wins in the one-off Jim Clark Trophy for naturally aspirated cars. In the background, meanwhile, Adrian Newey had been recruited and was working away on next season’s March 881.

“The first time I drove it at Silverstone, I knew it was good,” Capelli says. “It was immediately obvious.”

The team expanded to two cars, with Maurício Gugelmin signing to drive the second, and Capelli took fifth place in Canada and Germany, third in Belgium (after both the Benettons had been excluded) and second in Portugal before he had the lead – albeit briefly – in Japan, the first time since 1983 that a naturally aspirated car had done so.

“That was a wonderful moment, even if Alain Prost re-passed me quickly,” he says.

“The 881 handled wonderfully around Suzuka and I was helped a little by the conditions, because my car was more tractable than the turbos in the damp, so I was able to compete with the McLaren-Hondas until an ECU problem brought me to a halt.”

Ivan Capelli sits on tyres in his Leyton House overalls

Capelli always felt comfortable within the family atmosphere of the March F1 team, later renamed Leyton House

The following year began in the worst possible manner, when Gariboldi died in January following a road accident. “That was a huge loss,” Capelli says. “Not just on a personal level, but also because of Cesare’s old-style engineering input. Telemetry was quite new then, but he retained the ability to deal with the facts in a practical manner and not just rely on data.

“The 1989 car [christened CG891 in honour of Gariboldi] suffered a lack of gearbox reliability and was difficult to set up, which I think triggered Adrian’s departure, but by then he had also designed the following season’s CG901, and that was a good car even if we had contrasting fortunes. In Mexico it couldn’t handle the bumps and we failed to qualify, but at the next race in France we led for much of the afternoon. I finished second.”

Late in 1990 Capelli received an approach to join Benetton, which needed a driver after Alessandro Nannini suffered serious injuries in a helicopter accident.

“Flavio Briatore called while I was following the news about Sandro on TV,” Capelli says. “I told him I’d just verbally agreed to renew my contract with Leyton House and that I couldn’t turn up in Japan and tell Mr Akagi I was switching to Benetton. I needed time to think, to see whether we could perhaps work something out for the following season, but apparently that wasn’t an option. He told me I had to make up my mind there and then: did I want to race for him in Suzuka, or not? I turned him down, because I had given Mr Akagi my word.”

“I didn’t want to say ‘no’ to Ferrari. I joined blind to their plan”

Leyton House had taken a controlling interest in March in 1989, but by 1991 the business was running into financial difficulties at home and that impacted on the F1 operation. Capelli scored the team’s only point, in Hungary, and stepped down two races before the campaign’s end to make way for Karl Wendlinger, who brought much- needed sponsorship. “I didn’t receive my salary that year,” he says, “but paid my own way to the final races in Japan and Australia, because I wanted to be there to support the team.”

By that stage he knew his future lay elsewhere as he had signed to drive a Dallara-Ferrari for BMS Scuderia Italia in 1992, though a phone call from Ferrari, which had not long since sacked Alain Prost, put an end to that. “I explained that I had a contract with Scuderia Italia,” he says, “but they assured me that wasn’t a problem and that they would deal with it. I obviously didn’t want to say ‘no’ to Ferrari, but I joined completely blind, without knowing anything about what they were planning.

Ivan Capelli at Monaco for Ferrari in 1992

The red of Ferrari at Monaco in 1992, but all was not well behind the scenes

“The situation I found there was quite dramatic. The F92A chassis included some radical features, including the double flat- bottom, but the aero didn’t work, the monoshock suspension didn’t work and we had to reduce the engine from 12,500rpm to 11,800 to make it more reliable. The car was designed with a transverse gearbox, but I think the Ferrari factory managed to make only two that worked properly, and they were both given to Jean Alesi. For the first seven or eight races I used the longitudinal gearbox from 1991, so we had two completely different cars. It was an absolute disaster, because we couldn’t exchange information.

“I was shocked when I tested the car for the first time in Estoril. I’d been driving the 1991 car, but on the last day, in the afternoon, I was finally allowed to try the F92A for the first time and could tell straight away it didn’t feel right. During the debrief I didn’t say, ‘Look, we have a s**t car,’ but I pointed out that we needed to refine the front suspension and the aero – it required a lot of work. When they switched to Jean on the other side of the table, he told them the car was fantastic, that he could win races and challenge for the championship. I pointed out that we were 1.5sec slower than Williams, but they just said I didn’t understand and chose to believe Jean. For me, the whole thing was a nightmare from about day two, with lots of political stuff that I simply never had during my March and Leyton House days, when we worked as a family. Mauricio and I used to eat together, go on holiday together. With Ferrari, a driver relationship like that was impossible.”

Ferrari dispensed with his services before the season was through and Capelli signed for Jordan in 1993 alongside rookie Rubens Barrichello. “Eddie said I could have the seat for $1m, so I started trying to put some money together,” he says. “The car didn’t perform well in the opening race at Kyalami, though, and I had a big accident.

Ivan Capelli and Rubens BArrichello with Eddie Jordan before the 1993 South African Grand Prix

Eddie Jordan with Capelli, left, and a young Rubens Barrichello before the 1993 South African GP

“Meanwhile, Eddie was on the phone almost every day asking me for the money. This was a new kind of pressure, something I’d never encountered before. After I failed to qualify in Brazil, Eddie said, ‘You need to bring me that $1m or you’re out.’ I replied that after 93 grands prix I didn’t think I should be bringing money. If he wanted to give me the possibility to race, fine, but I decided I didn’t want to become a pay driver, so I stopped. A lot of teams were asking for money then. Jordan used five different drivers alongside Barrichello during the season, so it was almost like a rental car.

“The next year I spoke to Adrian Newey, who was now winning titles with Williams, to see whether there were any testing roles available, but there weren’t. That’s when I realised the door back into F1 was closed.”

Ivan Capelli CV

Born 24/5/1963, Milan Italy
  • 1977-81 karting
  • 1982 Italian F3, 6th
  • 1983 Italian F3 champion
  • 1984 European F3 champion
  • 1985 FIA 3000 part-season, 7th; F1 debut with Tyrrell; 4th in Australian GP
  • 1986 FIA F3000 champion, Genoa March; two F1 starts
    for AGS; selected races in All-Japan F2 Championship and with Schnitzer BMW in touring cars
  • 1987 F1, March; touring cars, Schnitzer BMW
  • 1988-89 F1, March; 2nd in 1988 Portuguese GP
  • 1990-91 F1, Leyton House; 2nd in 1990 French GP
  • 1992 F1, Ferrari
  • 1993 F1, two grand prix starts for Jordan
  • 1994-96 German STW Cup, Nissan Primera
  • 1995 Only Le Mans start, Honda NSX GT1; retired
  • 1997-present Occasional GT and sports car outings; F1 commentator on Italian TV