IndyCar owner Jim Hall’s recruitment of Gil de Ferran has furrowed a few American brows, but it’s a move which makes sense from all sides
No doubt Gil de Ferran’s decision to go IndyCar racing next year generated considerably less hysteria on Fleet Street than Nigel Mansell’s similar decision in late 1992. Certainly the news of de Ferran’s deal with Jim Hall Racing was greeted with a certain indifference – at best – in some quarters of these United States.
Nevertheless, de Ferran’s defection from Europe’s pre-Formula One mainstream holds important lessons to those on both sides of the pond who fancy themselves students of the business of motor racing. From the European point of view, de Ferran’s decision underscores IndyCar racing’s increasing recognition as a world class racing series. Concurrently, the fact that a prospect of de Ferran’s stature sees IndyCar racing as a viable alternative to Formula One should be a source of satisfaction to American racing fans. And the way that he got to IndyCars should be a lesson to wannabe racers the world over, no matter their ultimate aim.
Disregard the superficial similarities between the paths taken by Mansell and de Ferran. Mansell had run out of viable options in September of 1992 and took a sizable pay cut to join Newman/Haas Racing in order to satisfy his interest in IndyCar racing, not to mention showing the racing world he was bigger than Formula One. It is, however, doubtful that Nigel ever saw himself racing IndyCars into the sunset…
While de Ferran may not have had to hire armed guards to keep emissaries from Williams, McLaren, Ferrari and Benetton from his door, he tested with Footwork in 1993, was hired by McLaren to assist with some filming work last September and had discussions with a couple of mid-level teams about 1995.
But… Gil jumped at Hall’s offer rather than climb aboard the money-hunting merry-go-round just for the chance to drive an F1 car that, when all the planets were in perfect alignment, might have been good enough for the top six.
“To me IndyCar racing was always an interesting proposition, even when I was racing Formula Three,” says de Ferran. “IndyCar is one of the top two series in the world, it’s single seaters, fast cars and the idea that you can be competitive with a good team is very appealing. For sure there are good and bad teams in IndyCars, but I think the difference between the top teams and the good teams is not so big as in Formula One.”
Equally noteworthy is the process by which Mr Hall came to take an interest in de Ferran. Texas and Brazil were brought together at last year’s Michigan 500 at the behest of Reynard’s international diplomat Rick Gorne.
“Gil came over to have a look at IndyCars,” says Hall, “Rick sent him over to introduce himself to me at Michigan and, later, he said ‘If you’re thinking of making a driver change for next year you might want to think about Gil.’ He filled me in a bit on Gil’s background, which of course included a long association with Reynard, and said they’d been very pleased with his showing.”
A couple of weeks later, Hall’s regular driver – Teo Fabi – had a scheduling conflict with a test session and the call went out to de Ferran. Impressed with his attitude and understanding of vehicle dynamics, Hall ultimately signed the Brazilian in October.
“Reynard’s incentive for backing Gil is, I think, the same reason a team owner hires a driver,” says Hall. “They don’t promote a driver just ’cause he’s a nice guy, they promote him because they think they’ll make their car look good.
“From my standpoint, I know that Gil has worked with Reynard for a number of years. He knows them and he knows who to go to if needs to find something out. On the other hand, Malcolm Oastler and I have had a good relationship right from the beginning. So while I don’t expect any special treatment from Reynard because I hired Gil, it can’t hurt. I think it will help make for a real close-knit group.” As noted, de Ferran’s nomination didn’t exactly capture the imagination of the American racing press or some of its fans. The old school reacted predictably, scorning yet another “foreigner” they’d never heard of. And while those whose racing knowledge extends beyond the boundary of their local dirt track were well aware of de Ferran’s talent, they questioned the logic from Pennzoil’s standpoint.
“When Jim first presented the name Gil de Ferran to us our response was ‘Who’s he?” says Pennzoil racing director Ron Winter. “And we kept after Jim to justify Gil as the best guy for the seat, the best possible chance of getting us up on the podium. After all, we want to win races that’s why we’re here. Time after time Jim came back to us saying Gil is the man for the job, and in October we said ‘OK, let’s go for it.’
“Frankly, some of us were still a little sceptical initially. But I’ll tell you, his test results have been simply phenomenal.”
“In the end, I run the race team,” says Hall. “I try to keep Pennzoil informed of what we’re doing and try to take their desires into consideration. But you have to look at what’s available and balance that with the wants and needs of the team and the sponsor. Some may say ‘Another foreign driver’ but my response is ‘Who’s out there that’s not a foreign driver?’ Winning races is what counts. And while it’s too early to say we’ll be winning races in 1995, I think with Gil we’re definitely going to be in contention. And that’s something we haven’t done for our sponsor.”
In the 1980s when talents like Davy Jones, Ken Johnson and Price Cobb were squandered for lack of opportunity while the likes of Jean-Pierre Frey, Guido Dacco and Fulvio Ballabio seemingly found rides at will, the critics of IndyCar racing’s foreign contingent had a valid point. But of course, it was not the cases of Jones, Johnson and Cobb that got the critics’ goat, but those of men like Sammy Swindell and Steve Kinser who plied their trade on the dirt tracks that, like it or not, have become increasingly irrelevant to the upper echelons of contemporary single seat racing.
Fortunately, times have changed and for every Gil de Ferran who gets a ride with Hall, there’s a Robby Gordon driving for Derrick Walker, a Bryan Herta driving for Chip Ganassi, a Scott Sharp driving for PacWest.
Did Herta, Gordon and Sharp come to IndyCars through midgets and sprint cars? No. Did they buy their way into IndyCars? No. Did they spend their nights wringing their hands about how IndyCar team owners only care about foreigners? No. They did what every driver with a lick of sense who wants to get anywhere has always done: they raced in the series that the people they needed to impress pay attention to. And when they weren’t racing they were busy making friends in high places in the case of Gordon at Ford; in Herta’s case, at Ford and (dare we say) the racing press; and in Sharp’s case at Chevrolet.
As for de Ferran, he’s been driving Reynards since 1989 and making believers out of Adrian Reynard, Malcolm Oastler, Rick Gorne & co in the process. It paid off in what may surprise some people as one of the most improved teams in IndyCar racing in 1995. For Fabi had a strong September and October in the Pennzoil Reynard, starting or finishing the final four races in fifth place or better. And if de Ferran has as good a season as many observers expect, how do you think Ganassi, Derrick Walker or PacWest will react when Rick Gorne suggests they give some new prospect a look?
It’s the way of the world, and the sooner a would-be IndyCar driver or F1 driver understands it, the better off he’ll be.