Former Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran is returning to the city of his greatest triumph to become a sports car team boss – and he’s been lured back into the cockpit, too. By Robin Miller
During this decade alone, he’s been a CART champion, Indy 500 winner, television analyst, magazine writer, sporting director, a bit of a scapegoat and unemployed. But, starting later this season, Gil de Ferran is embarking on yet another adventure – team owner.
In what he figures to be the last challenge of his driving days and the beginning of his second career, de Ferran is jumping into the American Le Mans Series with Acura. He’ll be the co-driver, owner and resident wit of Indianapolis-based DeFerran Racing.
“Roger [Penske] is very happy for me, or maybe he’s just happy to have somebody else to beat,” laughs de Ferran, referring to the fact that he’ll be competing head-to-head against his former boss in the LMP2 category of North America’s fast-growing sports car series.
“It’s going to be a funny feeling, going up against a good friend who has meant so much to me, and I understand what Michael [Andretti] must have felt like racing his dad [Mario] and son [Marco]. But my feelings won’t change. I’ll always have a lot of respect for that guy.”
Respect is pretty much synonymous with this affable Brazilian, who scored a pair of CART titles (2000-01) when it was the most competitive series on four wheels before making a successful switch to the oval-heavy Indy Racing League and conquering Indianapolis in 2003.
When he stepped out of the cockpit after winning his final race at Texas in 2003, de Ferran was a rarity in American motor sports – a driver actually quitting while he was still on top form.
“Life is all about moving forward and, for me, I didn’t feel like I was evolving anymore,” he explains. “Yes, I was at the peak of my career and still effective, but I wasn’t learning anymore. I didn’t want to hang around until I lost focus or interest and that’s why I jumped.”
He also didn’t want to lose his life or a limb in the full-throttle, 220mph mayhem of an IRL race on a high-banked oval, so he eased into the role of Indycar commentator. He was insightful, glib and a welcome addition to the stodgy IRL announcing booth before deciding to go swimming with sharks in Formula 1.
In 2005, de Ferran was named as sporting director for Honda’s hopeless F1 programme. While nobody seemed exactly sure what that job entailed, universal opinion was that Gil’s engaging personality, engineering background and overall savvy could help Jenson Button. Of course, as it turned out, nothing short of stealing Ferrari’s designs could have helped Honda’s exercise in throwing away money.
“I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t contributing as much as I could,” he said. “I went there to help and I didn’t think I was, so I decided to go away and do something different. I wanted to gather my thoughts and emotions and decide what to do next.”
Asked if he regrets not sticking around for the arrival of Ross Brawn, de Ferran responds: “He’s a very smart guy and, sure, it would have been a great opportunity to work next to somebody like Ross, I could have learned a lot.
“He’s the right guy and they’ve got a lot of good people at Honda. Their drivers are good and I hope they do well.”
The de Ferran/Honda connection began when he drove for Jim Hall as a rookie in CART, and he became ‘family’ as he won races and respect during the next seven years, first with Derrick Walker and then Penske. Offering him a chance to be part of the growing interests of Acura, a US arm of Honda, was as much about business as it was friendship.
“My relationship with Honda was not damaged by my departure from F1 and it just so happens that the timing was right for me and Acura when they decided to expand their programme,” continues de Ferran. “I see this as a unique opportunity to step into business and I always wanted to do this. But I’m under no illusions – I know this is going to be a big challenge, inside and outside the cockpit.”
Acura’s maiden season in the ALMS last year got off to a successful start with victory at Sebring on its debut, but Penske’s Porsche remains the yardstick and de Ferran’s feedback could bolster the teams of Andretti Green, Adrian Fernández and Highcroft Racing.
“Gil was our development driver in CART, we relied on him extensively,” says Robert Clarke of Honda Performance Development. “Every driver’s style is different but Gil’s was more smooth – he’s not a driver who jabs the throttle. He was progressive, very fuel efficient and his shifting patterns were very smooth.
“I think Honda had the reputation of having the best compromise engine of peak power, torque, fuel economy and driveability. That made it the best overall engine and I believe a lot of that can be attributed to Gil. We found that if you could tune an engine to Gil, it worked well for most drivers.”
The development angle appealed as much, if not more, than the driving for the man who used to be known as ‘The Human Dynamometer’.
“I was not in the market looking for a drive per se and my interest in driving again was limited,” admits de Ferran. “But, from a technical standpoint, the ALMS is one of the few series left in the world with some freedom and I really enjoy developing a car. These ALMS cars look really cool and they are quick – two more things I find very appealing.”
Four years removed from the cockpit, de Ferran doesn’t doubt his ability: “If I decide to strap myself in, I want to be one of the quickest guys out there and I will settle for no less. I know what I need to do to regain that form and it’s not going to be easy driving these cars fast for several hours. I want to find a team-mate who I can measure myself against because I need to know if I’m on the money.”
Starting a racing team from scratch is as new to Gil as talking on television was a few years ago, but he’s already made his first good hire. Long-time open-wheel manager John Anderson has left Andretti Green Racing to run DeFerran Racing.
“I had a real good feeling about John and it’s a good start for our team,” says de Ferran, whose outfit should make its debut at Long Beach in April. “John has done it all before and is very well liked. It’s a good mix between us.
“We talk for hours every day about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do certain things, and I love that. I go to bed thinking about it. Hiring people with the right skills and making sure there’s a nice culture are two of the biggest things in putting a team together. Getting back in the car is exciting, but having my own team is what really excites me.”
Coming back to his home in Fort Lauderdale won’t be too traumatic on de Ferran’s family, despite the fact that his wife Angela grew up in England. “My kids (Anna, 13 and Luke, 10) pretty much grew up in America so moving back wasn’t an issue. It might actually be easier for Angela because at Honda I was always gone and it was a difficult situation for her, so this should be better.”
As he embarks on the second phase of his career in the USA, de Ferran looks back fondly on his open-wheel days and hopes somehow, some day this embattled formula can be restored to its former glory.
“It was spectacular to race those 1000 horsepower cars and they were as much fun to watch as they were to drive,” says the man who still owns the closed course record of 241.428mph (set at California Speedway in 2000). “I’m glad I was in CART when I was because at the time it was the best racing in this country and it made me what I am today. I love open-wheel racing and always will, and I hope some day it gets back to where it deserves to be.”
But sports car racing in America will be better off now that the likeable guy with the crooked grin and goofy laugh is among them.
“The last four years away from the cockpit have been good and bad times,” he says. “But those experiences enabled me to make this move in more ways than one. I haven’t driven a car in anger for a long time but it won’t take long to get me fired up.
“I miss pushing myself to the limit and there’s not many things that can give you that kind of feeling. And having my own team will make it even sweeter. It’s all good.”