A chance opportunity to sit in the cockpit of Niki Lauda’s Ferrari was the moment that kickstarted Ivan Capelli’s desire to become a racing driver. With his father providing financial support, the Italian rocketed through the karting scene before making his open-wheel racing debut in 1982.

He dominated the Italian national championship the following year, and moved with the Coloni team into the European championship, winning the crown in 1984 despite some controversy over the legality of an engine airbox.

In 1985, he moved into the International F3000 championship, winning a race before making his F1 debut with Tyrrell in place of the late Stefan Bellof. In just his second outing, he finished a fine fourth on the streets of Adelaide. With no full-time F1 opportunities forthcoming, Ivan remained in F3000 and won the title, also making a couple of Grand Prix outings with the little AGS team.

He was launched full-time onto the Grand Prix stage in 1987, spearheading the return of the March name. He again showed plenty of promise, taking the massively underpowered car to a sixth-placed finish at Monaco.

The following year saw Capelli really rise to prominence as he occasionally got his Judd-powered March to mix with the turbos, peaking with an outstanding second-placed finish behind Alain Prost at Estoril.

Earmarked as one of the next-generation stars of Formula 1, the 1989 season didn’t live up to expectations but he was back in 1990, delivering another groundbreaking drive where he came within a few laps of winning the French Grand Prix.

Less than two years later, Capelli would find himself realising the dream of every Italian racer: a Ferrari drive. Sadly, the 1992 F92A was far too complex for the team and driver, and Ivan was one of several scapegoats when he was fired before the year was out.

His spirit was completely broken, and two dismal outings for Jordan in 1993 proved to be the nail in the coffin of a racing career that had promised so much.

Today, Ivan is a regular in the F1 paddock as a commentator and pundit on Italian television. We were fortunate enough to land a full-length interview with him, where he talked ‘warts and all’ about the highs and lows of his Grand Prix career.

Full Name Nationality Born
Ivan Franco Capelli Italian 24 May 1963, Milan (ITA)
First Grand Prix Last Grand Prix
1985 European Grand Prix 1993 South African Grand Prix
Entries Races Non-Starts Wins Podiums Poles FLs Points DNFs
98 93 5 0 3 0 0 31 67

1983 Italian Formula 3, Coloni Racing Ralt Alfa Romeo RT3, 1st overall
1984 European Formula 3, Enzo Coloni Racing, 1st overall
Monaco Formula 3 Support Race, Enzo Coloni Racing, 1st overall
1985 International F3000, Genoa Racing, 6 races, 1 win, 2 podiums, 13 points, 7th overall
Formula 1, Tyrrell Renault 014, 2 races, 3 points, 17th overall
1986 International F3000, Genoa Racing, 11 races, 2 wins, 6 podiums, 39 points, 1st overall
Formula 1, Jolly Club SpA AGS Motori Moderni JH21C, 2 races, 0 points
1987 Formula 1, Leyton House March Ford Cosworth 871, 16 entries, 15 races, 1 point, 19th overall
1988 Formula 1, Leyton House March Judd 881, 16 entries, 15 races, 2 podiums, 17 points, 7th overall
1989 Formula 1, Leyton House March Judd 881 / CG-891, 16 races, 0 points
1990 Formula 1, Leyton House Judd CG901, 16 entries, 14 races, 1 podiums, 6 points, 10th overall
1991 Formula 1, Leyton House Ilmor CG911, 14 races, 1 point, 18th overall
1992 Formula 1, Scuderia Ferrari F92A, 14 races, 3 points, 13th overall
1993 Formula 1, Sasol Jordan Hart 193, 2 entries, 1 race, 0 points

If we go back to a little boy growing up in Italy, how did you become interested in motorsport?  What triggered this?

Actually, I became interested in motorsport because my father was a cameraman and he was producing the commercial TV for Parmalat, which was supporting a lot of Formula 1 drivers – like Brambilla, Fittipaldi – with sponsorship. I was a child, just 10 or 11 years old.  And I went to Maranello and Fiorano because Clay Regazzoni had to drive the car wearing Niki Lauda’s helmet. They needed this on the commercial because the Ferrari drivers, they had the Parmalat sponsorship as well.  So, I went there because I was enthusiastic about my father’s work, because even for a cameraman, every single commercial is a new challenge, new things, new items, new product.  So, it was really fascinating this, for me.  And I was there.  I started to hear the sound of the engine, 12-cylinder engine obviously, the flat-twelve.

Ivan Capelli, 1986 Formula 3000

Capelli won the 1986 International F3000 championship title.

And I met the crew and the chief of the mechanics’ crew was Ermanno Cuoghi. And Ermanno saw me being a nice boy and not making any trouble while my father was working.

After a while he said: “Look, come here and I will give you a big present.”  Then, I went near Ermanno and he took me and he put me inside the cockpit and he said, “Don’t touch anything.  Grab the steering wheel.  This is just a dream for you probably, but feel what it means sitting inside a Formula 1 car.”

And I just fell in love immediately, I had this big grin in the middle of my face, just painted like that.  And from then, I went on and I start to read Autosprint, buying little cars, drawing cars by myself.

I started to race in go karts from 1978, with my father as my first supporter, not just emotionally but also economically, obviously.

Then, I won the Italian Formula 3 Championship immediately in 1983. I won the F3 support race in Monte Carlo in 1984en route to the European Championship title, and then I won the Formula 3000 in 1986. I had a couple of F1 outings with Tyrrell and AGS as well.

You were instrumental in getting the March name back on the F1 grid. Can you tell us about that?

While racing in F3000 in 1986, I met Akira Akagi in Japan; he was the big boss of Leyton House at the time.  He was like a real – let’s say spectator – just dressed completely in white with a camera hanging off his neck. Very Japanese. I was introduced to him by Mr.  Yasukawa who was again at that time, responsible for Bridgestone in Europe.

Akagi said, “Look, I need a driver in Japan.”  I was interested but also told him I had to complete my commitments in Europe, and he countered that by offering me 50% of the prize money. So we agreed to this kind of deal to find a solution to race.

And as soon as I arrived in Japan, I finished second in the first race in Suzuka, then again on the podium on Fuji, and then we won a race in Suzuka.  So at the end of the year he offered me a full-time contract for $200,000 to race the following year, and I lied to him and said: “Look, I’ve already  talked to a lot of Formula 1 teams like Osella and Tyrell, and I know that I can drive in Formula 1.”  And he said, “No, but you can get some money if you come here.”  And he was offering me in 1987, $200,000 to race in Japan.  I’d already showed what I could do in Formula 1.

So Akagi offered to sponsor me in Formula 1 and basically asked me to name my price. I had no idea what to come back with so I turned to Cesare Garibaldi, my manager at that time, who proposed $4 million to set up a one-car team for me to compete in F1. And Akagi said okay!

We shook hands and he said: “You are in Formula 1.”

So how did March then get involved in the enterprise?

We flew back to Europe; we didn’t have any kind of deal with anybody.  Cesare went immediately to England, knocking at the door of Robin Herd who was part of the March group. They didn’t have a Formula 1 car designed, so we had to modify a Formula 3000 car and put a bigger fuel tank in it to meet the 1987 regulations. We turned up to the first race in Brazil as an 11-man team, including myself, my father, Garibaldi, Akagi and his translator!

Ivan Capelli, 1987 British GP

The March Cosworth 871 was little more than a modified F3000 chassis, but Capelli performed well against the turbo runners to claim a fine sixth on the streets of Monaco.

The car was still in pieces at Rio but you got onto the grid for the next race in San Marino, competing at the back of the field with AGS and Tyrrell for the Jim Clark Cup. How did you find those early outings?

Our biggest problem was always having to look in the two mirrors, because the turbocharged cars like the Williams, Lotus’, McLarens, they would catch up so quickly to you.

But in the right conditions, we were very competitive. We finished sixth in Monte Carlo and were also really quick at Spa-Francorchamps in the wet because the turbo cars couldn’t put the power down while we could use all of the horsepower from our Cosworth V8.

Moving into 1988, you had some mega performances. That was the last year of the turbo era and a year where McLaren absolutely dominated, yet you showed yourself to be a hot prospect.

The turbos were detuned to reduce their power a little bit.  We were still with a normally aspirated engine, but we had the advantage of a brand new purposebuilt car. We were really competitive.  I mean, we finished second in Portugal, we were able to lead the race at Suzuka!

It was the first lap led by of a non-turbo car in Formula 1 after many years, and much of that credit also had to go to Adrian Newey.  We could see immediately that he was a genius.  I think that really – Adrian is probably the only genius that there is in Formula 1 at the moment.

I remember when we did the first installation laps of the Leyton House 1988 in Silverstone. I pulled into the pits and the crew were looking worried because they saw the lap times and they were already very fast.  They said: “Look, you have to slow down a bit”, but I was just trying to find the limit, I wasn’t even close.  So, I was just smiling and I said: “Look, this car is good.”  We had a very incredible leader.  It was Leyton House’s first in-house car and Adrian’s design. It was a precursor to his later success with Williams, McLaren and Red Bull Racing.

Unfortunately the 1989 car wasn’t very good but we bounced back in 1990.

Yes, tell me about the famous race at Paul Ricard. You’d gone from failing to qualify the race before in Mexico to almost winning just a few weeks later. It’s a story that’s synonymous with you and Maurício…

Paul Ricard had a very abrasive tarmac and all the teams were worried about not being able to do the race with one set of tyres.  So we concentrated on finding a setup that would actually manage the problem.  Gustav Brunner, who was the technical director, tuned the car perfectly. We also took a different strategy – factoring in the weight of a full tank – for the Signes corner, the right-hander at the end of Mistral which was the killer on your tyres.

We figured out a line to take through the corner and by playing with the throttle, found a way of not asking too much of the tyres at the beginning of the race.  We knew that all the other teams, they were pitting after 15 or 20 laps.  Our strategy was to stay with them and then when everybody start to pit, we would start to gain position.

Alain Prost changed his tyres and we had a 1-2.  I was leading and Mauricio was second, but then Prost was able to reduce the gap and to stay with me in the last laps. But he couldn’t actually overtake me at the end of the Mistral straight because I didn’t have the right wing mirror – it had fallen off!  After the race everyone said to me: “Look, when Prost tried to overtake you at the end of the straight, you were always closing the doors like a very aggressive driver.”  I just couldn’t see him!

The mirrors were mounted on the sidepod and the glass for the mirror was just glued into the frame. It was all very basic, and the bumps just detached the glass from the frame. I still had my left mirror, so I watched that and just made sure I braked a little bit later than him to keep him behind.

Then we got to the last lap and my oil warning light came on. Mauricio had already had his own engine issue about 15 laps before, so I backed off at Signes and Prost got through. I finished second between the two McLarens.

Ivan Capelli, 1990 French GP

Capelli came oh so close to a famous win at the 1990 French Grand Prix, holding off Alain Prost’s Ferrari until the final laps.

That was the last major high. The team’s performances began to suffer after Newey left and Akagi was arrested in 1991.

I gave up my seat for the final two races and stayed on as team manager while Karl Wendlinger took over my drive. I tried to help Karl and the team anyway but the truth is the team had a lot of financial problems.  We already started to have a problem with getting in touch with Akira Akagi in Japan and the situation was really critical.  We didn’t have the sponsorship to finish the season; Maurício had Brazilian backing and Karl was bringing his own backers. I already had a contract with Ferrari for 1992 in my pocket.

So, the opportunity with Ferrari, when were you starting to talk to them?  How did that all come together for Ferrari?

Again, it’s a very funny story, because I didn’t actually speak with Ferrari but I actually signed a contract with Scuderia Italia for 1992.  In October, I was already talking very closely with the Scuderia Italia management, and I signed a contract with them.  I went to their headquarters in Parma, did a tour of the factory where they built the chassis, had a seat-fitting and did all the steps that we needed at that time.

And one day, I was at home.  I received a phone call from Claudio Lombardi who was the team principal of Ferrari’s Gestione Sportiva, and he simply said to me, “Look, I know that you have a contract with Scuderia Italia, but we are thinking to get you and to give you the opportunity to drive with the Scuderia for us next year.  What do you think?”

What can you say?”  I mean, what can you say…

When Ferrari comes knocking…

…when Ferrari’s is coming and knocking at your door… I was a 30-year-old Italian. Where do I sign?

So, I did all of the steps to become a Ferrari driver.  When I saw the car – the 92A – for the first time, I was excited because the car looked fabulous.  It was beautifully shaped, it featured the novel twin floor, and so on.  It looked very promising.

Unfortunately, nothing worked together. The aerodynamics didn’t work.  The twin floor concept was a disaster. Front shock absorb with the monoshock didn’t work.  The new V12 engine started the year at 12,500rpm and finished at 11,800rpm because we had a problem with reliability.  The car was designed to take a transverse gearbox, but just two gearboxes worked properly.  Jean Alesi got those.

My car was fitted with the older longitudinal gearbox, which meant it had to have different mountings and rear suspension, and I had to run with this ‘hybrid’ car for the first half of the season: eight races. Eventually, I got the transverse gearbox but I had no experience on that car.  Every 15 or 20 days or something, there was a change inside the team, either in the structure of the team or the personnel. The entire operation went through a really difficult transformation.

I remember the first test we did in the car at Estoril. Jean had the F92A and I was driving in the 1991 model which was loaded with 150 litres of fuel so as not to be quicker than the new car. Williams was also there with its FW14B, with its famous active suspension.

On the final afternoon, Ferrari opted to give me the F92A to try. Up to that point, the best Jean had managed was lapping about 1.5 seconds slower than the FW14Bs. I drove the car and in the debriefing afterwards I told the team my concerns. We had a lot to do to improve the car, which was worse than the 1991 model I’d spent the last three days driving.

When I tried this car, immediately, I couldn’t drive it.  The car was so sensitive to the front.  I mean, just a little movement on the steering wheel and it wanted to throw itself off the road.

Jean, meanwhile, was saying: “No, this car is fantastic.  We are going to win races.  We are going to…” How are you going to win races when the Williams is 1.5 seconds a lap quicker?

And for this reason, obviously, the management team listened to Jean, figuring that Ivan didn’t understand anything.

Ivan Capelli, 1992 Italian GP

The ‘twin chassis’ Ferrari F92A of 1992 was ultimately too radical for the Italian team. Capelli suffered most and was fired before the end of the season.

The decision that Ferrari made to part ways and to replace you with Nicola Larini didn’t work because Nicola couldn’t do any better.  What was your mindset at that time?

I really felt completely destroyed because I was an Italian driving for Ferrari and the whole partnership had failed. I had to start to talk with other teams; and actually, I did it because in the middle of 1992, I immediately understood that my experience in Ferrari was already expired and I started to talk with Tyrell, with Jordan.

At the same time, Italy was having its own economic issues and the teams I was approaching needed me to find sponsorship. I was without money.  I didn’t have strong connections, but I managed to find a few Italian sponsors and got a deal with Jordan for 1993.

But they didn’t actually pay. , I had to pay, taking the money from my pocket because the deal that I did with the Jordan – I mean, it was very clear.  I had to pay.  But I said to Jordan, “Look, if after ’93 Grand Prix, I still have to pay to race, I don’t want to do it.”  It’s not something that is correct from my point of view.

Ivan Capelli, 1993 Testing

Completely dispirited after his time at Ferrari, Capelli hoped to find solace at Jordan in 1993. Unfortunately his tenure lasted just two races and his racing career was over.

The Jordan wasn’t competitive and you left after two races.

Jordan was struggling. It was not the Jordan of Andrea de Cesaris or Michael Schumacher or Bertrand Gachot.  It was a very average car, plus there were drivers on the market, such as Thierry Boutsen.  He had the support from Barclays, who I think gave him, I think, $700,000 or $1 million to bankroll a drive.  So, he was able to replace me in the Jordan after two races. That was it, the end of my Formula 1 career.

I must also add that my manager, Cesare Garibaldi, he died in 1989 in a car accident. Cesare had been with me since Formula 3.  He was the first person who gave me the opportunity to drive a Formula 3 car.  So, I also lost a little bit the idea how to focus, how to manage on this occasion.

I didn’t find another person in a position to give me this kind of support. Added to that, the experience with Ferrari was so shocking to me, I completely lost any confidence in what I was able to do.

Today you are heavily involved with Formula 1 on TV with RAI since 1998. It’s been a long stint where you’ve been able to offer your expertise and enjoy the buzz of the sport, which has changed to much in the 20 years since you stopped racing. If you had a magic wand, would you change anything in the sport today?

I wouldn’t change a lot in Formula 1.  Technically, we must follow the industrial evolution or there would be no connection between Formula 1 and road car industry.  Formula 1 is more than a show.

Compare it to the IndyCar Series, they’re still doing very well.  It’s very popular in the United States but they spent a lot less money in comparison to Formula 1, but it’s a different idea of motorsports.  Here, you have the real technology that feeds into the car industry.

If I was going to change anything, I would like to let the drivers do something more when they are behind the steering wheel, in terms or being able to be more aggressive sometimes.  Yes, you have twelve penalty points, but that’s actually discouraging the drivers from taking risks out of fear they will be punished.

What are your thoughts about the new regulations?

They look very different in comparison to the past because the the designers have actually interpreted the rules differently, especially with the front end treatments.  It’s good to see that they can be creative in terms of shape and then solution.  However, it’s a shame that the Formula 1 is so closed, and freezing so many regulations does also mean that designers and engineers can’t actually do a lot in other areas. They are going through the rules but there isn’t a very open window for interpretation.

What was your favourite circuit you ever raced at?

Everyone says Spa-Francorchamps, but I fell in love with Suzuka when I first raced there. It is a great circuit obviously: the atmosphere, the design and the layout of the circuit. I think that the place is just magical.

And who did you enjoy racing with or being teammate to the most?

Maurício Gugelmin. I drove with him for so many years, we were almost a couple! Our relationship was really friendly outside the cockpit but also very competitive inside the cockpit. He is a gentleman and I have a lot of respect for him.

Images via Auto Diva, Auto Limite, Deviant Art, Reddit, Sharonov, Wired

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.