Carlo Capone – Wheel of Fortune

This is a history which script could have been completely different. The history of a great and truly gifted young Italian driver that could have made his name to the top of the rallying world. Instead, this man became completely forgotten from history, till the sadness of his life raised some awareness. He was Carlo Capone, and if his history inspired a movie, the true story is far more real, tragic and sad. When I first did this article, it touched deeply on my hearth, and it was always my objective to focus on his human side and his career, not on his late life and innumerable problems.  Let’s remember the man at his best.

Carlo Capone was born on the 12th of April, 1957 at Gassino Torinese, on the outskirts of the Piedmontese capital – by the way, the hometown of Fiat and Lancia – and a place used to see the hugely popular Rally Team ‘971 on their roads. It’s quite easy to understand to see a young teenager become enthralled by the motor competition, and it duly happened with Carlo which, in 1977 – even before reaching his twenties – debuted on his home ground with an Autobianchi A112 Abarth. Back then, the Fiat Group management had created the A112 Trophy, a one-make cup to run alongside the Italian Rally Championship with the A112 Abarth, with the patronage of both Fiat and Lancia (now part of the same industrial conglomerate and with merged competition departments), to provide a competitive ground to breed Italian rally talents. 1977 was the first edition and Capone soon established himself as one of the fastest and more regular drivers of the series, won by Attilio Bettega, and on the last round, the Rally 100.000 Trabucchi, surprised everyone to take an amazing and stinging win, raising the attention of the legendary H.F. Grifone team boss Luigi Tabaton, which invited Carlo to drive for him in 1978!

Carlo Capone on his element… behind the wheel (unknown)

It was the beginning of an amazing career, but I dare to say it could also have marked the start of its ending… Capone was paired alongside the promising two-year older Fabrizio Tabaton to do the entire Trophy in 1978 and he duly fulfilled the expectations by ending second on the championship, tied with his teammate. Fabrizio had won more rounds, this being crowned as champion, but it must be said that team orders favoured Tabaton – the last round of the Trophy was the Giro d’Italia Automobilistico and on the last two stages Capone carefully slowed not to win, thus allowing Tabaton to take the title… perhaps being the son of Grifone’s boss had something to do with it. His skills and allegiance to the team led to a renewal of his contract with Grifone and a chance to drive one of the works Autobianchi at the season-ending RAC Rally, alongside Tabaton and Mirri. In his international debut on one of the most technical rallies of the WRC Capone retired early with a broken engine.

Capone dominated the Trofeo Autobianchi entirely on that Giro d’Italia, but team orders prevailed at the end (unknwon).

However, the loss at the Trophy meant that, instead of driving the Lancia Stratos promised to the winner in 1979, he remained with Grifone but had to content himself with a humble Fiat Ritmo 130 early in the season, then switching to a Fiat Ritmo 75 Abarth. The car was by any means the class of the field, but it was good enough for a young driver to learn his trade and show what he could do with a less competitive machine, and in 1979 and 1980 Capone left everyone without doubts concerning his skills, achieving impressive stage times for such a small front-wheel drive machine, and quite a few top placements on bigger rallies such his sixth overall at the Italian ERC round Rally Il Ciocco at the end of 1980, and an outstanding win at the Rally della Lanterna, one of the few overall wins for the small Ritmo. 1981 was more or less the same, being now partnered with young co-driver Luigi Pirollo (which became known later alongside Alessandro Fiorio, Franco Cunico and Giandomenico Basso) and Carlo had his second WRC outing at the Sanremo, sadly ending off the road. It’s interesting to point that Pirollo reminds Capone as a driver who took huge risks to succeed with a notoriously aggressive style, but taking a look to his records major shunts ending in retirements were quite rare. Perhaps what is most troubling while reading “Gigi” Pirollo’s memories is his personal account of Carlo, already saying he was terribly shy and introvert, and had a strange character, appearing really only to be able to express his emotions at the wheel of a rally car. And, apart these personality traits, he was also known to be hugely professional and meticulous with his car preparation and tuning, which was sometimes a true headache for the mechanics that got a little bit tired of that perfectionism.

1981 Sanremo Rally (Jiri Marsicek)

Fiat group was going through major changes, and the competition department focused on the development of the brand new Lancia 037 accounting on the Group B regulations that would be enforced since January 1983, so the drivers from the works team and the satellite ones had to be content with the old Lancia Stratos or the Fiat 131 Abarth. In 1982, after four seasons with Grifone, Carlo was called by another of the usual Lancia/Fiat clients, Jolly Club Milano, to drive their Group A Fiat Ritmo Abarth 125 TC, which proved an immediate success, as Carlo was often on the top-10 among the fastest cars and duly won the Italian Group A title, However, his participation on the Sanremo ended again with a crash on the second leg. By then the 037 was already developed and was a genuine contender for 1983, which meant the 25-years-old Capone expected to finally have the chance to aim for overall wins regularly.

His hopes would be fulfilled because in 1983 Lancia management distributed the 037 by their three satellite teams – Grifone, Tre Gazzelle and Jolly Club – and Capone remained with the latter alongside Miki Biasion (which was the Lancia-backed driver for the ERC). Since the first round, the Targa Florio Rally, he was among the best and ended second, and at the Costa Smeralda, a coefficient 4 ERC round he finished fourth. It was a matter of time till he could win again, but at the 4 Regioni mechanical woes sidelined him while leading. Finally, Carlo reached the highest place of the podium with a superb win at the Rally della Lana, in front of Biasion, Cunico, Cerrato and Tabaton – easy to see how competitive was the Italian Championship back then, plenty of local glories and a big bunch of young guns aspiring to become European and World Champions. He could have won at Piancavallo if not for engine problems, but the second place put him the fourth overall on the championship, while his teammate Biasion won both the European and the Italian titles, effectively launching himself on an impressive international career.

The 037 was one of the best rally cars ever created and it allowed Capone to win his first rally overall on the Italian Rally Championship in 1983, the Rallye Internazionale della Lana (unknown).

For 1984 Lancia put their hopes for the ERC on Capone, so he was transferred to Tre Gazzelle to drive their West-liveried Lancias, as the Giorgio Leonetti’s squad was the chosen one to aim for the ERC, while Jolly Club would do a part-time WRC program for Miki Biaison. Pirollo had left Carlo, which was now co-driven by Sergio Cresto, sadly remembered by his horrific death alongside Toivonen at Corsica in 1986. In those days, the ERC was a fifty-rally season, which was remarkably long, divided in four coefficients, making it very hard to preview who would be the biggest contenders because it depended a lot on the points scored in the earlier coefficient 4 rallies which conditioned the remaining season because the less graded events had almost no weight on the final overall and it mattered a lot to score early points to raise attention to possible additional sponsors. But it was easy to preview that Henri Toivonen – himself a Lancia driver, more about that later – would be his biggest rival, driving a Porsche 911 SC RS entered by David Richards under the banner of Rothmans Porsche Rally Team. There were a lot of tarmac rallies on the championship so the 2WD cars weren’t so down on power against possible 4WD rivals, even if the Audis and Peugeots weren’t focused on this title, save for the German ones of Harald Demuth and Martino Cinotto; but local contenders such as Jimmy McRae, Béguin, Andruet, Zanini and even other Italians could be in the mix.

Boucles de Spa 1984 (Olivier Delhez)

To prevent any eventual teething problems with their first full-time ERC campaign, Leonetti decided to start the season earlier than usual on the co.2 Boucles de Spa, where Capone won his first round of the season after a fine fight with Tony Pond. Yet the first real match against Toivonen & co. was on the foremost co.4, the Spanish Costa Brava Rally, but both contenders ended prematurely, Carlo crashing out on the first gravel stage when he was leading by six minutes and Henri with a broken driveshaft. Then, Capone dominated and won the RACE-Costa Blanca (co.3) and finished second at the Costa Smeralda after a great battle against Toivonen, the Finn winning by 57 seconds while the third, Cerrato, was a massive thirteen minutes behind the Porsche. Next, the Albena-Zlatni Piassatzi in Bulgaria ended with the same two on the top places, but in reverse order – this time luck played for Capone as Toivonen penalized after a pointing error of his co-driver, Ian Grindrod. So, by mid-championship the ERC standings were:

  1. Carlo Capone (Lancia)                     240
  2. Henri Toivonen (Porsche)                209
  3. “Lucky” (Ferrari)                             145
  4. Harald Demuth (Audi)                     100
  5. Adartico Vudafieri (Lancia)             100

As expected the title fight soon turned into a private match between Toivonen and Capone, as even the peculiarities of the championship left almost no margin to the other contenders. Before returning to the ERC field Tre Gazzelle provided Capone a chance to measure himself against the WRC lot again, this time on the Acropolis, an interesting test for Carlo as it was the toughest European rally, but it ended too soon when the differential and suspension broke on the first stage, ironically when he was running as the fast Lancia, the works team being scourged by punctures. Back to ERC for the 24 Hours of Ypres, the legendary rally on Flemish soil providing the absolute place for a royal battle between the title contenders and the cream of so many national championships: McRae, Béguin, Andruet, Colsoul, Snijers, Droogmans et al. As expected, it was full speed since the beginning and Capone was on the dice till he penalized after a gearbox change. Toivonen dominated the second part of the rally in exemplar style in front of the local rising star Snijers in another Porsche, Capone ending third after further problems with the differential, thus minimizing points losses. But he could had lost it all at the breath-taking scenario of the Rali Vinho da Madeira…. Capone was in “maximum attack” mode and atomized his rivals on the first stage, yet on the second he lost control of the Lancia on the wet tarmac and destroyed it, while Toivonen won again and took the lead of the championship 81 points ahead – Capone said it was due to a broken break pipe, but sports manager Gianfranco Silecchia criticized him, leading to some tension.

The 24 Hours of Ypres produced another episode of the epic battle between Capone and Toivonen, the Italian wasn’t so lucky (Herman Sels).

Now Capone desperately needed to win on the harsh Greek stages of the Halkidikis, which he duly complied by smashing the Mehta-led outpowered Nissan opposition, thus reducing his disadvantage to just one point (Toivonen was driving for Martini Lancia on the 1000 Lakes). Facing this context, Tre Gazzelle kept its planned outing at Cyprus (co.3), plus every other round where Toivonen may drive. There remained only one coefficient 4 round, the Tour de France Automobile, overlapping dates with the Sanremo; and it sparked a contractual feud between Lancia and Prodrive concerning the young Finn… The problem dated back to the early season, as a disappointed Henri Toivonen chose to sign with David Richard for an assault to the ERC after failing to secure a top WRC drive. Soon after, Cesare Fiorio offered him some rounds with a works Lancia 037, so Henri found himself with two contracts that led to this explosive situation… Obviously Cesare Fiorio wanted Lancia to win the ERC, which meant Capone; so it was said his intention to draft Henri for the Sanremo was mainly to prevent him to gain precious points (Capone hadn’t the Tour in his schedule), which deeply angered David Richards who saw himself as Henri’s main employer.

Rally Halkidikis gave Capone a good margin over an injured Toivonen (Mario Rossi)

All this controversy was useless because Henri was suffering from back injury (after he entered a go-kart race for fun during a pause on the Circuit of Ireland that year) and was put to rest for two months, having no chances to defend himself. Capone returned for another dose of terrifying rocky gravel roads at the co.3 Cyprus Rally, but retired with a broken engine after being delayed by a sequence of punctures. The decision was further delayed to the co.3 Rally Antibes, and with Toivonen yet injured Capone only needed to finish on the points, nevertheless he took a hard fought win against Béguin, effectively sealing the ERC title, taking the championship with 428 points, against Toivonen’s 369 and Demuth’s 245. It had been an excellent season, and the 27-years-old deserved the title he had achieved on his first international season, despite the setbacks expected from a growing driver; however, the situation was already extremely sour between Capone and Lancia.

Apart his deep contractual problems, Toivonen future was uncertain due to the possible extent of his back injuries and the possibility of being drafted for the military early in 1985, all these things could compromise his place at Lancia. But no one could deny Henri was the man Cesare Fiorio really wanted to partner Alén, and it really hurt Carlo. Shortly after Cyprus, with the title almost on his pocket, Capone gave an interview to Autosprint in which he said that “Many say that in 85 I’ll still be with Tre Gazzelle: it isn’t true. And I want to add that for the next year I don’t desire to drive for a private squad. Works or nothing. I know in Italy it won’t be easy, but I don’t lose my heart. We’ll see” [Autosprint, nº 54:49, p.34]. It was like dropping a bomb, and immediately Lancia reacted, being needed some power of persuasion by Leonetti not to end the season and release Carlo on the spot, so it was a demoralized Capone that drove at the Antibes and took the title, even if totally aware all the doors in Turin were closed.

Capone’s title against Toivonen and his criticism over Lancia/Fiat promotion system ruined his chances to drive for the Italian establishment, but also left himself broken (unknown).

Both Fiorio and Leonetti were deeply angered by his statements, and even if Carlo Capone had reasons for complaining – at Grifone and the first Jolly Club year he was driving less-powerful machinery than his teammates, which generally prevented him to fight for the overall win – it was regarded as too ambitious by Cesare Fiorio, which immediately said it was the drivers’ choice to accept the contract, and if he was unhappy he had the door opened, effectively sidelining him at the end of the season. In fact, Capone was increasingly uncomfortable with the wide preference their bosses had for Toivonen, and the fact he bet him on the ERC without any possible reward deeply frustrated an already insecure and complicated man. We can’t also forget that Italy had a big bunch of young and fast drivers, epitomised on Miki Biasion, so Capone quickly found himself with no chance to secure a competitive ERC or WRC drive in Italy, as Lancia had replaced him with Zanussi at Tre Gazzelle, while Jolly Club hired Cerrato from Conrero Opel. Leonetti himself told on an interview to Autosprint that Capone couldn’t bear the fact the works team preferred Toivonen because the Finn was a world ace, and even if Carlo bet him on the ERC, he was forgetting he had factory-assistance and by far the best car, and at the end of the season there were the aforementioned injuries, so he couldn’t measure against Henri on the same par. It’s quite unfair to put things that way, because even Toivonen would say at the end of the season that, even if he was strong till his back problems were aggravated by the jumps at the 1000 Lakes, he recognized he was fighting against a terrific and talented driver, Carlo Capone.

Nevertheless, all the damage was done. As it was told before, most of the men that was familiar with Carlo remember him as a very introvert and slightly strange man, generally living in his own world, also his way to give his best at the wheel, as he was terribly focused on the career. His adversaries reckoned he was very talented, a fast and neat driver really sensitive and soft with the car who rarely crashed or broke the mechanics, but his personality wasn’t attractive for the increasingly important PR operations for the marques and sponsors, something even the journalists noticed that when Lancia presented their junior programmes earlier in the year. But what definitively defined his fate was the fact he lived in an era in which the Italian rally scene was dominated by the Fiat/Lancia group, and he always suffered from being set aside for rivals (not discussing their talents) with better sponsors or connections… if he had rejected team orders in 1978 it would have killed his career on the spot, so he managed to thrive under harsher circumstances till the top, but by the end of 1984 he was too frank and Giorgio Leonetti and Cesare Fiorio estranged him definitively – one of the things he criticized about the development program of Italian youngsters could be quoted more or less like this: “In Italy, they put us first on the A112 Trophy to gain experience, then driving a Group 1 Ritmo to gain more experience, and then a Group 2 Ritmo to gain yet more experience, and then they say you too old for the works team” [RallyMania Forum].

Even if it was rumoured that Rothmans Porsche was interested in him to replace Toivonen, as the Finn solved his troubles and signed an exclusive contract with Lancia for three years, and even that there were other manufacturers interested, his deception with Lancia was a huge psychological blow and undoubtedly contributed to the radical decision of his retirement at the end of the season, bitterly disappointed with the motoring world, despite having barely reached his prime, and that doubtless he had talent for much more. His father tried to help him and contacted friends and journalists trying to find his son a team, but to no avail, and Capone became more and more introvert and depressed. It’s worthy to say, however, that it’s a mistake to state he retired at all after 1984, because he did occasional regional events till late 80’s, but the passion had waned and his personal life was already totally shattered.

Rare camption of Capone driving a Group N Peugeot 205 on a local rally in 1987 (unknown).

Bad fortune didn’t abandon him after the sad end of his promising career. After his winning season he plunged into a severe depression and his marriage crumbled, but the terminal blow was the sudden death of his baby daughter Cristina. All of these happened few months after the collapse of his career, and definitively plunged Carlo into a heavy depression and dependence on medications. He went back to his parents’ home at Gassino and lived there increasingly alone and depressed, occasionally driving around the places where took his first steps in rallying and reminiscing on what could have been if not the Lancia attitude and subsequent lobbying over the remaining Italian teams… Capone was immersed on a downwards spiral that took a heavy toll over his health, and he became more and more forgotten by everyone, even from his old rally mates. Isolation aggravated his psychological problems and it took another deep blow with his father Aldo’s death late in 2013.

More or less a year and a half later, Carlo Capone and his aged mother were admitted to the Residenza Anni Azzurri, near Asti. It’s a nursing home not only for aged people, but also offering aid to people unable to live alone, mainly with dementia, cognitive impairments and psychiatric problems, and both mother and son remain there till today. However, when these sad things happened, a wave of sympathy rose on the local community and the web, thanks to his friends such as the prestigious motoring journalist Carlo Canova – which was his first co-driver – that created a Facebook page to raise attention to his situation and help him to get adequate treatment and regain a life as normal as it could be possible after so many tragedies he suffered, as well as raising awareness for the problem, instead of the countless rumours. Thirty years ago psychological and psychiatric treatment was far more inefficient than it is today, and even if the problems tend to aggravate after so many setbacks and without attendance, so it can’t be said Carlo Capone will have a normal life ever again, but let’s have hope and faith he may recover as most as he can.

Meanwhile, Matteo Rovere released a movie, Veloce come il vento, allegedly inspired on Carlo Capone’ story, in which an accomplished ex-driver, Loris De Martino (played by the renowned Stefano Accorsi) manages to return to competition after a complicated past, where he lost almost everything – career and family – due to depression and drug addictions, being consigned to some occasional illegal races and rallies, that manages to fight his demons and recover while helping his promising younger sister Giulia to become a leading driver on the Italian scene, ending with the reunion and reconciliation of the family. The movie was launched in April 2016 and Matteo Rovere said Carlo Capone’s sad story was a great inspiration to create the complex character of Loris De Martino. However, there are a lot of different questions also addressed on the movie, mainly the drug addiction, which raised some criticism by the purists and friends and admirers of Carlo Capone. In my opinion, Veloce come il vento is a story of overcoming bad times and fits well for a fiction movie, but shouldn’t be so linked with Carlo’s past, which was a completely different situation and involved a psychiatric condition.

As I said at the beginning, when I first read Carlo Capone’s story, I became terrible saddened, but also fascinated with it, because it is, more than so many others, an epitome of the human side of motor racing. We tend to focus on these men as racing drivers, but there’s so more underneath their performances with fast cars that is usually so ignored, that I decided to do further investigation to this story in particular. I sincerely hope Carlo Capone could improve to live a reasonable life in the near future and that all of us, rally fans or not, remember him as the great driver and man he was, and give him strength to win this rally, against the depression. Ti vogliamo bene, Carlo!

The forgotten Italian legend from the 80’s (unknown).

I learnt the first stories on Carlo Capone on the widely known Rallymania Forum. I remember I did it back in 2015, not properly on a good personal moment. When I published the first version, Angelo Carlo Canova, which was my Facebook friend by then. He had met him and had a strong bond with Carlo, then and now, and we further discussed more things on his career, and we met personally at the 2016 Rally of Portugal. Sadly, Angelo Carlo Canova passed away shortly after the 2019 edition of the Portuguese Rally, which deeply touched me. I knew he was fighting against illness for a long time, and I am sad I never magaed to contact him for some time before he died. This article is also a tribute to someone that was a great man and professional, and that helped me a lot, when I was absolutely unknwon. Ciao Carlo!!!

Carlo Capone/Carlo Canova, Rallye Sanremo 1978 (Carlo Canova).