Ivan The Terrible
A Ferrari Nightmare: Capelli's 1992
It was hark back to the glory days of the 1970s. Luca Montezemolo returned as president, Harvey Postlethwaite and Steve Nichols were in charge of designing the F92A, Sante Ghedini took up the role of team manager again, and Niki Lauda was employed as a part-time adviser. But by 1992, F1 was an increasingly complex sport, especially with new 'driver aids', and to be a successful team there needed to be better organisation than ever. Bringing back members of the old school was never going to create order out of the usual Ferrari chaos overnight.
The F92A was a brand new car, not an evolution from previous models. It had a mono-shock suspension at the front, but the rear suspension design was almost four years old, making the machine difficult to handle. Aerodynamically, the car featured a raised nose and a revolutionary double floor, but both were more a case of trial and error than educated gambles. Furthermore, both Capelli and team-mate Jean Alesi, without a win between them (making it the first winless Ferrari driver pairing since 1968) did not begin testing the F92A until two weeks before leaving for the first round in South Africa.
At Kyalami, Ivan put the new car a creditable 9th on the grid, although he was 1.119s slower than Alesi and, ominously, almost 3 seconds slower than Nigel Mansell on pole. In the race, both scarlet cars were put out by overheating engines, after their oil systems were unable to handle the G-forces in one particular corner, an embarrassment for the new engine design. Worse still, the motor was simply down on power, such that in Mexico Alesi was the second-slowest of all in the speed-trap, 14kph down on the best, and both Ferraris were out-qualified by the two Dallaras, using Ferrari customer engines.
Mexico was worse than humiliating for Capelli. He was only 20th and 23rd quickest in free practice, 12th and 24th in the two qualifying sessions, and ended up 20th on the grid, the worst Ferrari qualifying position in the years from 1981 onwards until the present. He then barely made it past the start-line when he was tagged by Karl Wendlinger's March, sending both spearing into the wall. That would have almost come as a relief. Then in Brazil, Capelli finally scored his first points for Ferrari, when from 11th on the grid his car ran reliably enough to finish a lap down in 5th, 30s behind Alesi who was 4th.
So it was clear that the F92A was no world-beater, and victories were out of the question. But podiums were not, and even if the car wasn't going well, it was still not impossible for Capelli to impress by driving to his ability and putting up a good show against Alesi. And if qualifying in Spain was anything to go by, perhaps it was the start of a Capelli resurgence. He qualified 5th behind Mansell, Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna and Riccardo Patrese, only 2.223s slower than the Williams on pole, and 0.333s faster than his team-mate.
But instead, Spain was the start of a horror run. In the heavy rain, Alesi comfortably had his measure, and Ivan was 6th with three laps to go. Senna spun ahead of him, and 5th was for the taking. Instead, Capelli promptly spun off the road as well, and was classified 10th, out of the points. Then at Imola, in front of the tifosi, having got ahead of Alesi at the start, he was quickly repassed by the Frenchman. And while Jean was able to hold onto the McLarens and Benettons ahead, Capelli rapidly dropped back, and retired on lap 12 with a lazy spin into the gravel at the Acque Minerale chicane.
At Monaco, he qualified 1.224s behind his team-mate, and whilst running 5th on lap 61, again with points for the taking, he memorably spun on the left-hander before the Rascasse, riding up the armco and leaving his Ferrari wedged up at a precarious 45 degree angle. Then in Canada, having started 9th, he fell back to 10th while the first nine ran away in a crocodile chain, leaving Ivan in their wake. On lap 19, he hit the wall on the exit to turn 4 in a massive accident (Juan Pablo Montoya crashed at the same place in 2001).
Afterwards, he said: "Everything was normal until the crash. Something went wrong at the rear end. As I accelerated out of the corner the car went straight on into the barrier and hit very hard. I was a bit shaken and they gave me a check in the track hospital. I was lucky not to have been hurt." But even if he was not physically hurt, his run of outs must surely have begun to hurt his pride, and even within the Ferrari team he was consigned to a very distinct number 2 status, although there was no suggestion that Alesi was engineering that himself.
Ever since San Marino, the spare had been exclusively for Alesi's use. A new floor had been developed, but there were only two of them - for Alesi and his spare. The F92A had started with a longitudinal gearbox; when a transverse one was developed, it too went to Alesi. The merciless Italian press, namely the Autosprint magazine, literally put Capelli on trial, running a for and against article about Ivan. And even though Montezemolo came out at the Monaco GP to say that Capelli's position within the team was safe, few believed that Ivan would see out the season.
Having spent so long at March, an English-speaking team, Ivan was allegedly finding it hard to communicate on technical issues in his native tongue. Lauda was a helpful channel to get the drivers' feelings across, but the Ferrari management system was hindering progress. Chassis development had almost reached its limit far too quickly, and engine reliability had been achieved at the expense of power. Moreover, there was no doubt that Capelli had been overdriving at times, and at others he was either not fast enough, or lacked the stamina, concentration and motivation to keep his car on the road.
From that point on, it was a matter of enduring the rest of the season, hoping that some improvement could be made, and that Capelli could score a few more points. In France, he started 8th, but was down to 11th on lap 39 when his engine failed. Then in Britain, where Mansell recorded an unbelievably quick qualifying time, Capelli was 14th, some 5.593s slower, and in fact only the top 12 cars would have been within the 107% mark. In a quiet race, Ivan came home 9th, a lap down, just behind Michele Alboreto and Erik Comas, both of whom he had been unable to pass towards the end.
At Hockenheim, the gutlessness of the Ferrari engine was an even greater disadvantage, with Capelli only 12th in qualifying, 4.788s behind Mansell, and 1.789s behind Alesi. Another engine failure put him out after 21 laps when he was up to 8th. Hungary was better though, with the Ferrari holding on to come 6th, albeit a lap behind Senna, having started 10th, recording only Capelli's third point for the season. But then it was a return to ignominy in Belgium, where he started 12th, 5.530s off pole, 1.637s behind Alesi, and even 0.110s slower than Gabriele Tarquini in the Fondmetal!
In the race, he retired at the one-hour mark with another engine failure whilst in 6th place, and in Italy, where Ferrari came up with a slightly improved engine and debuted a modified F92AT, he qualified in 7th place, only 2.1s away from Mansell. However, the tifosi would be bitterly disappointed when both Ferraris retired on lap 13, Alesi from 4th place with a mechanical failure, and Capelli having yet again spun off the road from 6th. Things went from bad to worse in Portugal, where Ivan started a lowly 16th, and dropped as low as 19th when more engine troubles forced him to retire after 34 laps.
By this stage, Gerhard Berger had been confirmed as returning to Ferrari for 1993 in Capelli's place. Ivan was clearly no longer driving with any motivation whatsoever, and with two races still to go in the 1992 season, he was replaced by the team's test driver, Nicola Larini. His tally stood at three points, compared to Mansell's championship-winning then-record of 108, and although it was by no means a vintage year for the Prancing Horse, even Alesi managed 18 with 3rd places in Spain and Canada. Jean was 7th in the championship, Capelli only 13th on count-back.
In fourteen starts for Ferrari, Capelli's average grid position was just above 11th, a dismal performance really. On average, he was 3.444s off pole position at each race. Although certainly the F92A was a torrid car, and Capelli suffered five engine failures throughout the season, Ivan himself had a dreadful season, and there was little sign of the spark that had taken his March/Leyton House to such heights, especially in 1988 and 1990. His large number of spins and accidents was testament to that, so much so that few even remember the fact that Capelli had a season with the Prancing Horse.
The story of Capelli's 1992 is particularly sobering in view of Ferrari's current dominance of F1. Now it is easy to forget that, just ten years ago, Ferrari was in the doldrums with a car unable to challenge for wins, and a lot of the time unable even to see the chequered flag. It is a reminder that F1 is a cyclical sport. Teams rise and fall. Ferrari will not be at the top of the pile forever, and perhaps the inevitable retirement of Michael Schumacher will signal another downturn in their fortunes. It has happened before, and it will happen again.
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