Italy produced a generation of young and promising drivers from mid-80s to early 1990’s, which had everything to make Formula 1 go back to the glory days of Tazio Nuvolari, Achille Varzi, Luigi Fagioli, Giuseppe Campari, Nino Farina and so on. However, a set of circumstances made that none of these men ever came close to give Italy another World title, which has escaped them since Alberto Ascari in 1953!
Alessandro Caffi was born in Rovato, near Brescia, on the 18th of March, 1964, and from an early age he became interested in motorsport, since both his father and uncle were well-known hillclimb drivers at local level, and this discipline enjoyed huge popularity in northern Italy back then. So, when he was old enough to do it, Alessandro made his debut in motocross and then moved to karts in 1980, with sixteen. In those days, it was common for drivers to start competing only in their late teens and, in the ultracompetitive Italian championship, amongst names such as Stefano Modena, Gabriele Tarquini, Pierluigi Martini, Ivan Capelli, Fabrizio Barbazza, Gianni Morbidelli and Nicola Larini, the young Alessandro soon stood out as one of the best, winning numerous races. Thus, in 1983, he finally jumped to single seaters, signing for Cevenini to compete in the Formula Fiat Abarth championship, the Formula Ford equivalent in Italy, immediately demonstrating an impeccable regularity and smooth driving style, which made him, even without victories, finish his first season outside karts as a runner-up.
With these results, Caffi progressed through Italian Formula 3 in 1984, defending the colours of Euroteam, just confirming what he had done the previous year – an amazingly good series of regular performances, mingled with two wins – which gave him the second place in the championship, not far from the champion Alessandro Santin. Well, one year to learn, another to win, and in 1985 Alessandro signed for Coloni – precisely the reigning champions – to drive one of their Martini Mk45-Alfa Romeo. Unfortunately, that chassis was a little behind the Dallara’s and, in a championship so closely disputed, the difference quickly made some damage and Caffi lost ground on the title fight. However, in the middle of the season, Coloni decided to buy a Dallara 385 which, equipped by the almost ubiquitous Alfa Romeo engine, quickly proved to be much more effective, giving its driver a pretty good tool to fight for victories … It wasn’t enough for the title, obviously, this time won by Franco Forini, but Caffi managed to be runner-up again with two victories and eight podiums, winning at the end of the season the European Cup Formula 3, which had replaced the European Championship, abolished after 1984. Alessandro could be expected to take the next step to F3000 in 1986, but it wasn’t easy to get a budget for that series that, after replacing the ailing F2 in 1985, was growing incredibly, and Caffi opted for a third season in Italian F3, this time defending the colours of Venturini Racing. However, he proved to be wrong when he left Coloni, as their team was “in another league” and dominated the series with Nicola Larini and Marco Apicella, with Caffi ending third with two more victories, as well as a second place in the European Cup, beaten only by Stefano Modena, who would win the F3000 title in 1987.
However, the young driver, known for his red helmet with two crossed gold lists, was already on another league in 1987. Over three years, his performances at the Italian F3 hadn’t gone unnoticed and, on the eve of the 1986 Italian Grand Prix, Osella invited him to drive the second car, replacing the Canadian Allen Berg (who was in great difficulty to find the necessary budget to compete in the last races of the season). With an uncompetitive car and no experience at all with the brutal turbocharged engines (as he didn’t even test the car before the race !!!), Caffi qualified last and finished the race in the same position, six laps adrift from the leader, so he wasn’t classified. However, the talent and analytical skills of the pilot convinced Osella’s managers to sign with him for 1987, reducing the operation to just one car for financial reasons. However, the new Osella FA11-Alfa Romeo was as “competitive” as its predecessor, and Alessandro rarely managed to escape the last places in qualifying – failing to qualify only twice in sixteen races – and, on the remaining races, he never finished, although he was classified in San Marino, after stopping very close to the end without gas. However, again, the consistency of the young driver, who never retired due to any mistake of his own, was noticed by the Italian tycoon Beppe Lucchini, who planned to enter Formula 1 in 1988 with a single-seater built by Dallara.
The BMS Scuderia Italia-Dallara project hadn’t the most auspicious beginnings, as in Brazil the new single-seater wasn’t ready, so the team resorted to a Dallara 3087-Cosworth from … F3000! It is unnecessary to say why Alessandro was the first victim of the return of pre-qualifications to F1. However, in San Marino, the Dallara 188 was ready, but it suffered with a lot of teething problems. Yet, in Monaco, Caffi was an excellent 17th in practice, only to (finally) miss it and crash alone on the first lap. Till the USA round, the season was similar to 1987, but from Detroit onwards the car began to perform much better both in qualifying and races, and Caffi was an amazing eighth on the States. The growing experience of the team was reflected in the following rounds, with a new eighth place in Spa and even better qualifying performances, not forgetting that, despite growing restrictions on turbochargers since 1986, in 1988 the long-awaited parity between atmospheric engines and turbocharged ones wasn’t even close, so these results showed how good Dallara and BMS prepared their entry into F1, as well as the talent of the driver, who would get his best classification of the season with a fantastic seventh place in Portugal, as well as a brilliant top-10 in qualifying in Hungary. And, if the season ended with some retirements, it was expected a huge performance boost in 1989. If there were doubts about Caffi’s talent and progression, it’s enough to know that Frank Williams closely followed him throughout the season and even made a proposal for Alessandro to sign for his squad in 1989, but the compensation Frank would have to pay to Lucchini was too high.
In fact, the ban on turbo engines at the end of 1988 acted as a performance equalizer, especially in the middle of the peloton, since at the top McLaren kept his supremacy, even if it wasn’t so obvious as the previous season. Now equipped with Pirelli tires, BMS Dallara featured the new 189 with a Ford engine, just as in the previous year, but expanded the operation to two cars, hiring the experienced Andrea de Cesaris to partner Caffi. However, this equilibrium in the middle of the pack resulted in some unpleasant surprises, since Dallara was not immune to the pre-qualifications, which were increasingly necessary due to the also increasing number of forces in presence, and Alex failed to beat this “sieve” in Brazil. However, the team quickly got on his ways, and in San Marino, Caffi qualified ninth and finished seventh. The points were there within reach and the Italian was ninth in qualifying for the G.P. of Monaco, finally achieving his first points with an excellent exhibition that culminated in a fourth place. And things were even better in the USA, in the insipid Phoenix circuit. Caffi was sixth in qualifying and, in an elimination event, was running second behind Alain Prost when, while lapping… Andrea de Cesaris, the latter decided not to collaborate, touching his teammate which left Caffi in the wall!!! It is said that, at the end of this event, BMS Dallara’s manager Patrizio Cantú said that the ideal end on that day was to have one of his drivers on the podium and another on the gaol…
Caffi was sixth in Canada, but the second half of the season – already without pre-qualifying due to the points scored – represented a reversal in the team and the driver’s fortunes. Although the qualifying performances remained excellent with a spectacular third place in Hungary for instance – thanks to the special Pirelli qualifying tires – these results couldn’t be reached on race day, precisely because the race tires weren’t as effective as the qualifiers, and both results and performances never again approached the astounding displays of the first half of the season, with Caffi to commit – something that was rare in him, as has been said – several mistakes, getting involved in accidents or crashing himself, strongly implying that the driver was trying to compensate with extra aggressiveness the lack of development of the car. Yet, the season ended on a positive note, and Caffi signed with Arrows for two seasons. Jackie Oliver’s team came from three particularly successful seasons thanks to the experienced and seasoned duo Derek Warwick and Eddie Cheever, and with the strong financial support of the Japanese company Footwork, had already signed an engine supply contract with Porsche for 1991. Thus, in 1990, Oliver wanted a balanced pair, and the departures of Warwick (to Lotus) and Cheever (who moved to the CART championship) were replaced by the hiring of Caffi and the experienced Michele Alboreto… In fact, it was a true dream for Alessandro, who had grown admiring Alboreto, and both would become great friends on and off the circuits.
The loss of a promising engineer called Ross Brawn to Jaguar in late 1989 and, probably, the focus on the promising 1991 package might have diverted the British team, as the 1990 car was no more than an evolution of the A11 designed by Brawn in 1989. With Ford engines, the A11B was a good car but, in an increasingly balanced intermediate peloton, it became extremely difficult to ride regularly on the points. At the same time, for Caffi, the season started badly due to a pre-season bicycle accident that left him out of the opening race in the USA. Returning to Brazil, he did not end with mechanical problems, and then didn’t qualify in San Marino, only to finish in a spectacular fifth place at Monaco. Unfortunately, these would be Caffi’s sole points of the season since, although he returned to his extremely regular performances, both in qualifying and races, it was clear that the car had no more performance to extract from, and there was no other alternative than waiting for 1991, not before an extremely violent crash in Portugal sidelined Caffi for one Grand Prix. Yet, Alex was clearly Arrows’ fastest rider throughout the season, beating Alboreto, although it should be said that Michele’s motivation wasn’t the same as those from his glory years at the Scuderia.
Well, when the renamed Footwork Arrows introduced its new car for 1991, it quickly became clear that the new Porsche V12 engine was no more than a junction of two V6 engines derived from the Porsche 962C prototype from Group C since mid-eighties, which were yet widely used but too aged already, and it was an “ill-advised” solution developed by the renowned engineer Hans Mezger, who had to deal with the German brand recovering from a serious financial crisis and also with an R&D department with very few resources. Extremely heavy, underpowered and unreliable, the Porsche 3512 engine was truly disastrous and, to make matters worse, Footwork could not get its chassis ready for the first races of the season, forcing the team use an evolution of the evolution of the A11, named A11C. Two races, two non-qualifications for Caffi. The presentation of the brand new FA12 in San Marino didn’t bring many improvements, as with that engine neither a McLaren would get any results, and two more non-qualifications followed, as well as another brutal crash while practising in Monaco. Caffi was forced to rest but, shortly thereafter, he had a serious car accident – it was said he was coming from a night off – so he had to be miss four races. The atmosphere was never the same within the team, which quickly showed interest in keeping Alex’s replacement, the veteran Stefan Johansson, until the end of the season, and Caffi was only able to recover his place thanks to a lawsuit. Happily (or not), when he returned in Germany, Porsche had already retired in shame and Alan Jenkins had designed a new evolution of the chassis, the FA12C, equipped with Ford engine, trying to save the season. However, everything was done in a hurry, so the results were equally bad, and Caffi only qualified again on the last two races of the season. Alboreto did a little better, nevertheless it was a season to forget both for the drivers and the team, which signed with Mugen for 1992, and the new engine suppliers wanted Aguri Suzuki on the squad, thus leaving the door wide open to the younger Italian.
Disgraced, Caffi couldn’t find a drive on a good team, and saw a unique opportunity to stay in the “Big Circus” on the new Andrea Moda squad, built from the remains of Coloni early in 1992 by the Italian shoe magnate Andrea Sassetti. Well, the plan was simple: drivers would be Alex Caffi and Enrico Bertaggia, and the chassis would be an evolution of the dreadful Coloni C4 of 1991 who left poor Pedro Matos Chaves on the limits of his patience, but with Judd engines!!!! However, the FIA understood that Andrea Moda was a new team, which meant they would have to pay a large registration fee, and Sassetti declined to do so, which resulted in the exclusion of both cars from the South African Grand Prix. The situation was apparently solved for Mexico, and the team would already have the new S921, designed by Nick Wirth’s Simtek studios, but the preparation and delivery of the single-seater was delayed and the pilots were left on cold. Caffi was fed up with the ridiculous situation – undoubtedly this was one of the most flamboyant adventures in F1 history – and told it to Sassetti, who dismissed him on the spot. Thus it ended the career of Alex Caffi on the pinnacle of motor racing, without honour or glory.
After Andrea Moda’s massive failure, Caffi found shelter on the Endurance World Championship at the wheel of a works Mazda, often sharing it with another lost promise, Brazilian Maurizio Sandro Sala. However, not only the Mazda MXR-01 wasn’t a competitive car, but Group C was on the verge of his death so, apart from two points, the 1992 season was a disaster in terms of results and, with the effective end of the WSC at the end of the season, Alessandro was again driveless, prompting him to withdraw temporarily from motor sport.
However, Caffi was yet a young man and, at the end of 1994, Opel España invited him to test the new Opel Vectra GT and, despite two sabbatical years, he proved to be competitive. Alessandro couldn’t resist and chose to try his luck on touring cars – where many of those Italian stars I mentioned had took refuge – signing for the team to compete in the Spanish Supertouring Championship. Alex quickly gained rhythm and, even if he didn’t manage the same level of his team-mate Jordi Gené, Caffi again provided an impeccable regularity, finishing the year in a reasonable eighth place overall with a win and five podiums in a very competitive championship. However, in 1996, he thought he could return to Endurance and moved to USA, occasionally driving a Chevron B73-BMW in the IMSA championship and, in 1997, a Riley&Scott MkIII-Chevrolet. Unfortunately, the cars weren’t competitive and the IMSA championship was also ailing, after the division between them and the future Grand-Am series.
After testing a single-seater again, with a view on a drive on the 1998 IRL championship, Caffi chose to return to Europe to drive Prototypes in the ISRS series with a R&S MkIII-Chevrolet, achieving two podium finishes. In 1999, IMSA was replaced by ALMS, which gradually revitalized the American Endurance and created one of the best championships of the following fifteen years, and Caffi divided his season between the ISRS (with the Target 24 R&S) and the ALMS championship with a Ferrari 333SP, entered by Doyle-Risi Racing. Alessandro achieved two more podiums and quite a lot of points’ finishes in the European events, as well as a positive fifth place in his debut at Le Mans, while in America the Ferrari was a little bit outdated, but the team often managed the top-10. In 2000 he raced occasionally on both sides of the Atlantic, but in 2001 Caffi came back to Europe again, competing on the FIA Sport-Prototype Championship (the ISRS substitute) with a works Riley & Scott MkIIIB-Judd, alongside ex-F1 driver Mauro Baldi. Thus, Caffi established his career pattern for the following years, gradually leaving the Prototypes for the growing GT scenario, running on both sides of the Atlantic, until settling definitively in Europe in 2005 on the Italian GT Championship, winning the GT2 title in 2006. Caffi was a regular contender in this competitive series until 2010, even managing a third place on GT2 in 1998.
However, after 2010, he gradually left GT’s to drive trucks for fun, as well as entering on historical events. In between, he founded his own team, Alex Caffi Motorsports, and entered the 2011 Monte Carlo Rally. On the recent years, his team focus on the NASCAR Euroseries, and Caffi drove on that championship occasionally, gradually driving less and less as the managing duties increased. He’s also an instructor at the official Subaru Italia safety driving and racing school.
Undoubtedly, Caffi had the potential to drive for bigger teams in Formula One, however, perhaps the monetary factor didn’t help, as well as signing with Arrows at the wrong time. Then he was caught by the end of Group C – and his style suited Endurance perfectly – and never invested too much on a touring car career. Trying to drive on Endurance when it was in a phase of reconstruction both in Europe and America never provided him with a stable drive, which explains why the second half of his career was a journey of immense ups and downs. But there remains no doubt that he was an extremely talented and underrated driver, who could have forged a successful career both on F1 and the WSC/IMSA series.