Interview: Ivan Capelli
Ivan Capelli had a Grand Prix career of 98 races, with spells at Tyrrell, AGS. Leyton House, Ferrari and Jordan. Prior to that he was 1983 Italian Formula 3 champion, European F3 champion the following year. His Formula 1 debut was in 1985 at the Grand Prix of Europe with Tyrrell. After a sporadic Formula 1 career, he finally got a full-time ride with Leyton House March, and in 1988 and scored his first podium finish at Spa. In 1990, in a car designed by Adrian Newey the team looked set for a 1-2 in France. Capelli, who led, eventually finished second to Alain Prost’s Ferrari. In 1992, he achieved his dream of signing for Ferrari, but his delight soon turned to disappointment, a period in his career which – as you will read – he is very honest about. Today he is a commentator for Italian TV channel RAI, and still races. We caught up with him at the 2012 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. Enjoy a fascinating read.
Have you ever searched yourself on YouTube? (If so, what’s the best clip?)
Ahh yes absolutely! I found a clip concerning Estoril, 1988. Or at Jerez in 1988. Both are good.
Unfortunately someone posted the ‘parking’ video in Monte Carlo when I crashed with the Ferrari, so probably this is the worst one.
Portugal Grand Prix, Estoril , 1988 – Ivan Capelli overtakes Senna and finishes 2nd after qualifying 3rd.
What was your most satisfying race, whether you won or not?
I think that for sure the French Grand Prix 1990, because from the beginning on Friday as soon as we put the car on the circuit, I understood immediately that we could get a good result that weekend. We were positive for the whole three days and the race was just fantastic. Unfortunately not for the last two laps, but otherwise was great!
What was the first racecar you bought with your own money?
My first racing car – my father payed for that, and again with the money of my father when I moved to Formula 3 in 1982. Basically I didn’t have enough budget for that first year in F3 so I had to borrow some money from my father. That is the first time I put my hand in the pocket.
Who was your fiercest rival and why?
I don’t have a real answer to that. I didn’t have a biggest rival, because I never had the opportunity to stay at the top like some other drivers and to fight for the championship to focus the attention on one person or one driver. I guess the answer is basically all the drivers! We had a very good time at Leyton house sharing the team with Mauricio Gugelmin. Do I would say being my first friend and rival, it would be ‘Morris’ from then. Everybody makes the comparison with your teammate.
Which car you’ve driven is your favourite?
The 1988 Leyton House March for sure was the best Formula 1 car that I drove, and the worst one the 1992 Ferrari, with the double flat bottom.
What is the greatest racing car ever built?
I think putting altogether passion and technique and so on, I really like the McLaren 1988/1989 with the turbo engine. That was really a nice car. It was clean and everything was perfect.
Which racing car would you most like to own?
I would like the 2004 Ferrari because it’s the one that dominated the championship with Michael, and probably is now worth a lot of money! So probably that one – because it’s a dream!
The non-dream answer for sure is my first private car. I remember my first mini when I was just 18 years old, so now I regret not having kept that car with me.
Was racing better then or now?
Every era there is a different F1. I had the opportunity to test F1 cars or historic cars – very, very old – and I was amazed with the feeling. I was thinking of the Mille Miglia race on the gravel with trees near the road at 170-180 kph with those kind of cars. Then to see these Formula1, or modern cars, corner at Silverstone or in other circuits – Eau Rouge and Raidilllon for example – at Spa at 310 kph is just amazing.
It’s something that you just have to appreciate. The moment you are involved in this ‘circus’ that is Formula 1, because every time there is something different that becomes typical from that period. I think that the modern F1 has the opportunity probably to touch more people over the world because of the internet and communications systems, and probably if we could have had this 20 years ago with drivers like Prost, Mansell, Boutsen, etc – human but more personal – F1 could have a better response from the people.
Who is the greatest driver of all time?
Ayrton. Just one word.
I had the opportunity to race him in karting, but I didn’t race him in F3. Then I met him in F1 obviously. But if I close my eyes I can still see Ayton lapping in karts in a special hairpin corner. He was arriving and sliding the kart and then controlling the slide, and at the same time putting one hand on the carburettor to increase the cooling and also the oil in the engine. He was just the only driver who could do that.
(Ed-note: While explaining this in the Melbourne paddock, Ivan was very animated in his chair, imagining himself being sideways with one hand on the wheel, one hand covering the carb. It was very obvious that is a clear image in his mind.)
What was your biggest “holy shit” moment?
Ahhhh… I must say unfortunately Ferrari, because I didn’t have the opportunity to really feel comfortable with the car. And at the same time I didn’t catch how much the pressure was around me, to be able to control it and to get from this pressure more energy to put into driving.
I was not able to do that, and probably that is why I did not continue. There are some drivers that from the pressure and tension around them they can get this and transform this into performance.
Unfortunately I was not able to and this was probably my limit.
What is your favourite racing livery or logo?
From the ‘70s there are a lot of logos. But I think Leyton House colour in the ‘80s was quite particular. The colour was called green, but in reality it was Miami Blue. You can always see our car in the pictures from ‘89-90 – that means that the colour worked well.
Which drivers, dead or alive would you most like to have dinner with?
Hmmmm. Good question. If I had a time machine… Tazio Nuvolrari because to see this little man, thin, he must be a legend.
Jim Clark, because Clark is for me the passion – the passion, the speed, and at the same time I would say just the quality of him as a person.
Then for sure again putting together people like Clay Reggazoni – or those kind of people cause they really had fun. Him for being an F1 driver and not just coming here and doing some work. Just enjoying their life.
Who was the best driver you saw, who didn’t make it to the big time?
It is an Italian driver I raced against in karts in F3 and F1 – Stefano Modena. I think he really had the right mentality and the right speed to become a world champion, but unfortunately he didn’t have the right chance when he arrived in F1 with a Brabham car that was really shit. Then he moved to another team that was not good, then he joined Tyrrell after Alesi left in 1991, the car with the front nose high, but the Honda engine was not good. He still got a podium, but really he was always not having the right chance to prove that he could make it.
What was your biggest disappointment in racing?
Ummmm … Yeah the performance probably Monte Carlo. That moment was embarrassing because it was the Ferrari, because of atmosphere around and us and me.
Otherwise I think it’s probably not being able to really concentrate as an F1 driver.
I can realise today, watching F1 from another point of view that I had a lack of concentration, and being in the paddock after 4 or 5 o’clock where other people are still working and thinking – my brain was already elsewhere. This was probably the biggest weak point for me.
(Ed-note: Ivan, that’s a very honest answer.)
No, no, no. I realise why I didn’t become world champion, so why not say it?
What was the first race you saw in person, and how old were you?
I was just four or five years old and I was following F1 on TV obviously, but the moment where I had the first spark is when I followed my father at Fiorano because he was cameraman and produced the commercials for Parmalat, and Parmalat was sponsoring Emerson Fittipaldi, Vittorio Brambilla and Niki Lauda.
I went to Fiorano to help my father to work and there I had the opportunity to smell for the first time the typical atmosphere and perfume of F1. The fuel, the tyres, the brakes. I met Ermanno Cuoghi who was the chief mechanic for Lauda’s car. Ermanno saw me, and saw me as an educated child, and my father was watching me. I was like a little soldier. So Ermanno understood – let’s say I was well behaved – and came to me and said “I will put you inside the car”. I asked my father what should I do? He said Go! Go, go, go! So then Ermanno put me inside the Ferrari car and I was just 11 years old.
This was 1975, a beautiful car. I was inside it with the Ferrari logo there, for 10-15 minutes with mechanics working and so on just dreaming of an incredible life in the future. Then in 1992 I found myself in that cockpit in Maranello and it was something really special.
Is there an event you would still like to still race in?
I’m still doing GT races in Italy, GT3 and other Tropheo races. The thing that is funny, let’s say, is that I can exercise myself on the circuit with a car without being fit because of all my F1 travelling and so on. But when I jump into these type of cars I’m always as quick as the guy that is racing in the whole championship. I am always saying to myself, “why I am doing something different when I would like to race?” But there is no chance anymore. Le Mans could be another good experience. I did it in ’95 with the Honda team but again the Honda in that era was just a disaster. The car had a gearbox problem after just two hours and I didn’t even drive, so it’s a shame.
What has been the best post-race party?
HA! The best one I think in Monte Carlo 1988 when we had the big boat rented by the owner of Leyton House, Mr Akagi. We had all the mechanics of the team, so basically all the Leyton House people participated in the party from the truckie to me to Mauricio to my father – everybody – my sister! It was all the people who were involved in the team and we had a really good time.
Would you call yourself a fan of racing history?
Absolutely. One thing I understand is that F1 for sure is the top basically, but there are so many categories, so many drivers, people involved in different teams in lower category in different countries that are so attached to this world, so close to the passion of motorsport. Something that really astonished me is, for example, in England when were testing in Pembrey in Wales before GP around the ’88-89. After two to four laps I would pit, and immediately there were spectators coming to look at the car, and a lot of people loving this kind of sport. In the lower category they are not in the spotlight, but still really loving it.
Are you a fan of the historic racing scene?
Yes. I have tried historical cars and I have experienced the technique, and how they were built. In those cars you have to learn to drive them because they have completely different attitudes. But everything that has an engine and four wheels attracts me.
Was there a race where you thought, “wow, how did I get here?”
Yes my first race in 1985. I realised the big step that I had made when I arrived at Brands Hatch without testing the car because Ken Tyrrell didn’t have enough engines, without knowing the circuit because I only tested at the short Brands Hatch circuit. So basically, without any mileage, I just jumped in on the first day at the European GP… And I just started my career in F1 like that. Tyrrell said: “Look if you want your chance, you have to jump in and you have to drive.”
Then on race morning, I looked around me in the drivers briefing. I saw Rosberg Prost, Tambay, Watson… I thought to myself, “what I am doing here? Am I dreaming or what?”
Have you ever complained about something that was written about you?
Yes, not something related to my performance though because obviously people can criticise, but what I really didn’t like when I was racing for Ferrari in Italy, the Gazzetta dello Sport had a big page before Monte Carlo saying that – I don’t know the exact words in English – but it basically said I had anemia: ‘Your blood has not enough amount of red blood cells.’
It was just putting me under pressure saying that I was this kind of disease but for the disease I was not able to drive the car so really this is not helping something has to go at 300kmh on street circuit. And putting some pressure on my family with my mother who was shocked by the news because she was thinking I was hiding something from her and this hurt a lot.
Special thanks to Ivan Capelli