Lost in France
The one that got away
Ivan Capelli 1990 french Grand Prix one can only speculate what path Ivan Capelles career might have followed had he won at Paul Ricard. He tells Adam Cooper how it felt to come so close to victory
At the 1990 French GP, Ivan Capelli was within three laps of one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s long history but, as is so often the case in such unexpected situations, he didn’t quite make it, and normality was restored.
In 1988, Capelli had emerged as Italy’s man most likely, as he and the maverick Leyton House team upset the establishment with some impressive performances. He qualified on the second row three times, and took a tremendous second place in Estoril. However, in 1989 the team lost its way, and Ivan failed to score a single point. The situation wasn’t much better the following year, and in Mexico the team’s fortunes hit rock bottom when neither he nor team-mate Mauricio Gugelmin qualified. Leyton House was in disarray.
“The CG901 was really unstable and undriveable,” recalls Ivan. “Myself and ‘Morris’ were having a lot of problems, and it was really a depressing weekend in Mexico before we came back to Europe. Unfortunately Adrian Newey had already moved to Williams but, before moving, he had started to make a new rear floor for the car, focusing on the central part below the gearbox. Gustav Brunner carried on Adrian’s work, so we went to Paul Ricard using that. That was the only change, nothing else.” There was no time for testing, and so it was straight into the race weekend. It was soon obvious that Adrian had left a welcome farewell present. “The car was immediately really, really competitive,” enthuses Capeffi, “even though we had aludd engine that was not as powerful in comparison to the Honda, Ferrari or Renault units. We did our best in qualifying, with me seventh on the grid, and ‘Morris’ just behind me.”
In those days there was no refuelling, but at tracks like Paul Ricard, a tyre stop was considered mandatory because of high wear rates on full tanks at the in the early stages of a race. However, Leyton House decided to ignore conventional wisdom and run one set for 80 laps. “Working in the warm-up, we saw we could go without stopping in the race. We did a tricky thing: we put more front wing on the inside — the front right — to have a car that could save a little bit the wear of the tyres. At the same time, Gustav and I decided I should drive in a particular way, especially in the Signes corner and the double right-hander of du Beausset I was really, really careful not to overstress the tyres on the left side.
“After the formation lap, on the starting grid we decided to again give just a little bit more downforce at the front. It was only a fraction — you know that it doesn’t really change the car, but psychologically it helps a lot!”
“I was 11th on the first lap; I lost a few places because I was really careful not to lock tyres at the first corner. Then Alesi was in front of me with the Tyrrell, and I overtook him.
“The thing that was really interesting was that the cars in front of me didn’t disappear. When I was joining the main Mistral straight, I could see the leaders at the front, and then all the cars in a queue, and this confirmed to me that our strategy was the right one. So then we were just waiting for our rivals to stop.”
And stop they did; Alain Prost on lap 27, Alessandro Nannini and Gerhard Berger on lap 29, Ayrton Senna on lap 31, and Nigel Mansell on lap 32. A lap after that, Riccardo Patrese handed Capelli the lead. “The only guy that I really overtook was Patrese in the Williams, on the lap that he was supposed to stop. And then suddenly we were leading the race, with ‘Morris’ second! “Inside the cockpit! knew the strategy that we planned, so I was just smiling. I was just thinking
we are going on and we are going to continue. It was really good fun to see on the board, ‘P1, P1, P1’ all the time.” Rival engineers scratched their heads as the two turquoise cars continued without interruption. But gradually Prost’s Ferrari, quickest of the cars that had pitted, was reeling them in.
“I saw ‘Morris’ was seven or eight seconds behind me, and that Prost was behind him, going very quick, and trying to find a place to pass. Then ‘Morris’ had a problem with the engine, and after that Main came closer to me in a very few laps; he was really quicker than me, maybe by one or 15sec a lap.
“The Tarmac in Paul Ricard was new, and all the drivers knew that outside the right line we were losing too much time, because the tyres would be overheating or doing something funny. So Prost never had a real chance to overtake me during those final laps. But he was behind me just like a shadow, following me everywhere.
“We had our mirrors not on the cockpit, but on the sidepods. Over a kerb — the one on the exit of the chicane joining the Mistral — I lost my right mirror. The glass inside just broke, because of the vibration. So I could see only on the left side if the Ferrari was there. But under braking for the hairpin, when Prost could have the opportunity to overtake me, I couldn’t see his car. “So I was always braking very, very late, and then turning without taking care if he was there or not At the end, Main said to me, ‘You were driving in a really attacking way,’ and I said, ‘Yes, because I couldn’t see you.”
“With three laps to go at Signes corner I was as usual flat with the gas, but approaching the corner the oil lamp just started to flash. For this reason I backed off immediately to save the engine. Prost was, as I said, a shadow behind my car, and had the opportunity to overtake. Then my engine really started to have a mechanical problem, so I did the last lap knowing that maybe I wouldn’t see the flag. When I finished the race, Ayrton Senna was just behind me. “I was happy because I finished second, but at the same time I was really, really disappointed, because I was missing my first victory in a grand prix. I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know WI was supposed to be glad or not”
What Ivan didn’t know at the time was that he would never get another chance. Reliability problems plagued him for the rest of the season, and Leyton House struggled again in 1991. The following year, the Italian endured a terrible year at Ferrari. Would a win at Ricard have made a difference?
“Absolutely,” declares Ivan. “That race could have changed completely my career; first of all because of your confidence, because when you win a grand prix, you realise that you can do the job. And then because it would have maybe given me the opportunity not just to go to Ferrari, but also maybe Williams or McLaren. “But as we know, the train sometimes just comes round once.”