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A stillborn GP project from Japan



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Marco Apicella


Dome-Mugen Honda F105




Between April and June, 1996


For a man with only a single Grand Prix drive under his belt - and one that only lasted a couple of yards! - Marco Apicella has done some serious mileage on board F1 cars. But practically all of them have been done using cars that would never race. And to go even further, it's very probable that the Italian is the driver with most experience testing for stillborn Grand Prix projects.

Having done a disastrous debut F3000 season with the uncompetitive Euroventurini Dallara in 1987 - although he took 5th at the drivers' circuit of Spa - a young Apicella was brought on the FIRST squad run by Lamberto Leoni for 1988, at a time when Leoni was seriously considering entering F1 with his own car. While Gabriele Tarquini did the bulk of the testing, Marco also got some seat time. The project later fell through and the tub was sold to Life with known consequences…

Then in 1990, by now a three-year F3000 veteran, Marco was offered to test Mauro Forghieri's new Lamborghini-powered F1 creation financed by the Mexican GLAS operation. The design eventually found its way to the Modena Lamborghini team for 1991 but Apicella would not be part of the deal.

Never having won a F3000 race in four years of trying - only Fabrizio Gollin has more F3000 starts (58) than Marco (54) - Apicella's future looked bleak, despite his obvious talent. And so for 1991, with no other offers on hand, Marco headed to Japan full-time to drive in the local F3000 series, setting up a long relationship with the Dome team. His F3000 experience was valuable for the development of the Mugen V8-powered F103, and in his first year in Japan he finally won his first race in the F3000 category, taking the championship's fifth round.

By now a regular among the European driver community in Japan, Marco remained with Dome for 1993, driving a Dome Mugen F103i in the Japanese F3000 series. He finished 4th in the final standings and scored another win at Sugo. The season also saw Marco doing his single GP for Jordan, racing a Jordan-Hart 193 at his home GP at Monza. Sadly his race ended with a pile-up in the first chicane and that was it. But 1994 was to be his year: three wins, one each at Mine, Suzuka and Fuji, saw Marco win the Japanese F3000 crown for Dome in a Mugen-powered F104.

For 1995 Marco stayed in Japan. His Japanese F3000 efforts were low-key, he was only seen twice with his No.1 plate on a Reynard-Judd 95D for Team 5Zigen, not taking any notable results, just a 10th at Suzuka. This was the last year for the F3000 tag, for the next season it was renamed Formula Nippon. Meanwhile, Marco also drove a SARD Toyota Supra GT LM in the Le Mans 24 hours. He remained with 5Zigen in Formula Nippon for 1996 but limited his season to only four events. His only point-scoring position came with a fourth at Mine. With those three points he finished 16th in the final championship table with his ReynardZytek Judd 95D.

Marco's main effort this year were the testing duties for Dome. From his years in the Dome F3000 team, he was a known quantity and he was appointed Chief Test Driver. Dome's earlier F3000 designs were done for their forthcoming Formula One design. This car - the Dome F105 - was first seen in 1996. The aim was to produce a entirely Japanese challenge for Formula 1. It was powered by a Mugen-Honda V10.

Local driver Shinji Nakano got the honours to shake down the car on April 10. On April 21 Marco took his first laps in the the new car. His first run ended after 18 laps with a broken trottle linkage. Marco continued with a busy schedule during April-June. By April 30 the 550km mark had been reached and Dome replaced the Mugen V10 in need of an overhaul. The car was steadily improving but still unbalanced and with a spongy brake, that made Marco unable to use the brakes fully.

By mid-May 900km was on the clocks, with Dome concentrating on trying to find a set-up while fighting naggling faults, such as an oil leak developing from a crack in the gearbox bell housing. Dome was surprised to see the parts for the F1 car wear out and needing to be replaced very often. The durability was far from those for their F3000 car. Marco commented though that the car responded quickly to the changes and the set-up could be done effectively once they had found the right direction. The car tended to oversteer at turn-in and understeer under acceleration towards the exit of corners. The handling was worked on both via wing adjustments and through suspension settings. New rear dampers were successful.

Shinji Nakano took over the testing duties for the F105 towards the end of the year. For comparison reasons Naoki Hattori also drove the F105 at Suzuka after the Japanese GP. The best time achieved by Hattori was 1'46"270 on 'C' compound tyres, comparing with Jacques Villeneuve's pole time of 1'38"909. Hattori's time only beat the DNQ time set by Giovanni Lavaggi's Minardi, 1'46"795. Dome were disappointed to be over 7 seconds off the pace. Just before the end of the session, the oil cap had worked loose and a fire broke up after S-curves. The car was substantially damaged.

Two years later the rebuilt prototype F105 was seen again, testing a new semi-auto gearbox with fly-by-wire throttle, but by 1999 the development had been shelved. Dome were proud of their effort but they were bitterly disappointed at the lack of support from Japan. The lack of sponsorship meant that the planned 1997 World Championship effort came to nothing. Since Dome had traditionally been Toyota men, Mugen Honda was reluctant to supply any engines. The Dome F106 was never built and Dome's F1 dream remains a dream. With the direction Formula 1 has taken since 1997, the chances of fulfilling their dream are now sadly very remote indeed.

As to Marco Apicella, he would again be in Formula Nippon for 1997, driving a Reynard-Mugen 96D for Stellar. Marco was only able to score a few points, and his best result came at Mine with a fourth place. For 1999 Marco returned home and raced in the Italian F3000 Championship for Monaco Motorsport, finishing third in the final standings after scoring two wins, one at Vallelunga and the second at Misano. He was also seen for Monaco at the FIA F3000 Championship at Spa where he did not qualify due to freak weather conditions during qualifying. On occasion Marco also raced a Riley & Scott MkIII in a few European sportscar races, and also at Le Mans.

For the last couple of years Apicella has returned to Japan to drive in the local All Japan GT Championship. He raced a Porsche 996 in 2000 and for 2001 his mount has been a Lamborghini Diablo.