When Ivan Capelli narrowly lost the 1990 French Grand Prix, few would have doubted that this popular Italian would become a Formula 1 race winner. That promise in Adrian Newey’s fleet Leyton House-Judd was rewarded with a “dream” opportunity with Ferrari in 1992 but that year soon turned into nightmare.
Championship winner in the junior categories
With an interest in the sport awakened by visiting the 1974 Italian GP, his ascent through racing’s junior formulae was all-but flawless. Sixth in the 1982 Italian Formula 3 Championship driving for mentor Cesare Garibaldi, he joined reigning champions Enzo Coloni Racing for his sophomore season. His Ralt RT3-Alfa Romeo dominated with Capelli winning nine times on the way to the 1983 national title.
Championship victory in the 1984 European series was not without controversy and an element of good fortune. Pre-season favourite John Nielsen was severely injured at Monaco (a race that Capelli subsequently won) and Johnny Dumfries battled Capelli for the title. The Italian eventually prevailed but the airbox of his Coloni-run Martini MK42-Alfa Romeo was found to be illegal at Monza and the rest of the championship was clouded in suspicion.
He raced in the new Formula 3000 for the next two seasons although national service delayed his 1985 debut until round four. Capelli’s Genoa Racing March 85B-Cosworth grew ever-more competitive thereafter and he won at the Osterreichring. He finished third in the Donington Park finale and Tyrrell gave him his F1 debut at the end of the season – Capelli’s Tyrrell 014-Renault finishing fourth in the Australian GP after a race of attrition.
Formula 3000 Champion and F1 promise
He remained with tight-knit Genoa Racing team for the following F3000 season and he won twice with a March 86B-Cosworth to narrowly beat Pierluigi Martini to the 1986 title. He also competed in a couple of late-season GPs with the uncompetitive AGS JH21C-Motori Moderni – retiring from both the Italian and Portuguese GPs.
Leyton House had sponsored his F3000 title challenge and it was in their distinctive turquoise colours that he became a fulltime GP driver. He joined March in 1987 and established his reputation over the next five seasons. He scored a first championship point when sixth in the 1987 Monaco GP before finishing fifth on three occasions a year later.
When a couple of cars were disqualified from the 1988 Belgian GP, Capelli was promoted to third but Portugal was even more impressive. He briefly led at Estoril and finished in a fine second place – Capelli seemed every inch a future star.
But the 1989 March CG891-Judd was blighted by unreliability and Capelli was suddenly out of sorts. A non-qualifier at the start of 1990, his form was transformed at the French GP when his Leyton House CG901-Judd was unexpectedly competitive. Seventh on the grid, he led for 45 laps and was only passed by Alain Prost’s Ferrari with three laps of Paul Ricard to go. He was running third in Britain when he retired although the next 18 months with the team continued to be frustrating.
The switch to Ferrari and subsequent career
Leyton House was rocked by investigations into owner Akira Akagi’s financial affairs but by then Capelli had signed for Ferrari for 1992. What should have been the making of the Italian proved to be his millstone. The Ferrari F92A was an uncompetitive disaster and Capelli was fired before the end of the year after just two top-six finishes and a multitude of accidents and misfortune.
With his reputation in tatters, Capelli joined Jordan for 1993 but he only lasted two races – his failure to qualify in Brazil being the sad final act in Ivan Capelli’s GP career. He later raced in German 2-litre touring cars in 1995 and 1996 but he is now an F1 commentator on Italian television.