The chance to drive for Ferrari was his dream job. Little was he to know how badly it would turn out. Adam Cooper reports.
Most of the drivers who’ve related the tale of their ‘Worst Racing Car’ can now look back on the experience with a smile. It may have been awful at the time, but at least it gave them an amusing story on which they’ve been able to dine out over the years.
For Ivan CapeIli, the situation is rather different. There’s no question that the awful Ferrari F92A effectively ruined his career, and it’s taken this pleasant man years to put the disappointment behind him.
At the time he joined Ferrari CapeIli was regarded as the brightest Italian prospect in a decade. After success in F3000 he spent four seasons with the upstart Leyton House team, and together they had regularly upset the establishment In 1988 Ivan finished second in Portugal, and two years later he repeated that result – after leading – in France.
The 1991 season proved less successful as Leyton House hit troubles both financial and technical. However, when Ferrari cast around for a replacement for Alain Prost, Capelli got the nod. The old story about the team not employing Italian drivers had been laid to rest by Michele Alboreto. Ivan was immediately accepted by the tifosi, although Jean Alesi had already won a special place in their hearts.
“Obviously for an Italian to become a Ferrari driver is a fantastic experience,” he recalls. “You immediately make a big jump forward in the eyes of the media and the public. You realise you are going to be known by nearly everybody in Italy. “On the morning of the press conference I drove to Maranello. I stopped just before the highway to refuel and it was no problem. In the evening we stopped again to refuel at the same place, and in five seconds my car was surrounded by people, asking for autographs. This was in just eight hours…”
It was to be a short honeymoon. Ivan had the misfortune to arrive during one of the most turbulent periods in the team’s history. In ’91 the team failed to win a single race for the first time since 1980, and Prost was sacked before the end of the season.
Shortly afterwards Luca de Montezemolo returned to the fold to take charge. He appointed Sante Ghedini as team manager, engaged Niki Lauda as a consultant, and brought Harvey Postlethwaite back from Tyrrell for a second stint as technical director.
Harvey was too late to influence the new car. When he arrived just before the season started, the F92A was ready and waiting. With John Barnard long gone, it had literally been designed by a committee, and just to confuse matters, chassis man Steve Nichols had left in December.
With its distinctive oval sidepod intakes, the car certainly looked different. There was more novelty under the skin; aerodynamicist Jean-Claude Migeot had come up with a twinfloor concept. But whatever gains he’d found in the wind tunnel proved elusive when the thing ran on the track.
“I drove the old ’91 car first,” says Ivan. “When I left the pits with the little black horse in the middle of my steering wheel, I couldn’t believe it. On your skin you have a feeling that is fantastic, you can’t really find the words to describe it.
“The car was not so bad compared to my Leyton House, especially the engine. And then we went straight Into the ’92 version…
“You can immediately feel after one lap whether a car is good or not. When I did my first lap with the F92A at Estoril I realised that compared to the ’91 car, it wasn’t a very good step. It was a strange concept, which didn’t work at all.
“I immediately said to Migeot that I had some doubts that the car would work. But as soon as I said that, the engineers started to follow Alesi a little bit more. He was saying, ‘This car is the best car that I ever drove…”
To make matters worse, the latest V12 was both gutless and hopelessly unreliable.
“At the beginning of the year we were revving to 13,500rpm, and during the year we actually had to reduce the revs because the engine couldn’t last the race. The technical situation was funny; for example at the start of the season we had just two transverse gearboxes for Alesi. I was running until Barcelona with a longitudinal one. For Ferrari it’s incredible not to have enough gearboxes for the two cars…”
On the car’s debut in Kyalami, Ivan qualified ninth and retired when the engine expired. In Mexico engines failed like clockwork every four laps through practice, and he started a lowly 20th. For a while things started to look up; in Brazil he finished fifth, and then in Spain he hauled the thing into fifth place in qualifying. Then the problems really started, and Alesi seized the advantage.
“During the season I had the opportunity to test Alesi’s car. He drove it with a different style, being more brutal with the steering wheel when turning in. Maybe that suited the car a little bit more. My driving style was a little bit cleaner, and it didn’t work at all.
“I wanted to do everything at the maximum, and put a lot of pressure on my driving. But I couldn’t. As soon as you started pushing, the car went nowhere.”
Inevitably there were accidents as Capelli overstepped the limits. In Monaco he landed atop the tyre wall at Rascasse, but a much-publicised shunt in Montreal wasn’t his fault. “In Canada we had front wishbone failure, but for political reasons they didn’t want to say anything. I really worked for the team that year, saying it’s my fault instead of being the team’s fault. I was completely alone with my engineer and chief mechanic who are now both working for Minardi! It was hard mentally being an Italian in an Italian team and being treated like that. Obviously it was difficult to accept”
Like his predecessor Prost, Capelli was kicked out with two races of the season to go. He returned with Jordan the following year, but the damage had been done to his confidence, and after the first two GPs he was again replaced. A spell in touring cars followed, and now Capelli works as a commentator for Italian TV. Goatee beard and shades ensure that he passes almost unrecognised in the paddock. “I was really depressed afterwards, because I realised I had lost my chance. For my career it was the top, and the start of the end…”