Gordon Kirby – The US Scene

Gil aims to go out in glory

Gil de Ferran drives his last race, at Laguna Seca, on October 11 and hopes to retire as this year’s American Le Mans Series champion. Aboard de Ferran Motorsports’ Acura ARX-02a, the 41-year-old and his 25-year-old team-mate Simon Pagenaud have battled for this year’s championship with the identical car of Duncan Dayton’s Highcroft team, driven by David Brabham/Scott Sharp. The pair of Acuras have traded wins back and forth, usually finishing one-two with no other serious competition. It’s believed that Acura (Honda) will pull out of the ALMS at the end of this season, and both de Ferran and Highcroft are expected to move to the IRL IndyCar Series for 2010. But Gil insists that he hopes to run two Acura P1 cars next year and two Dallara-Honda Indycars.

“We’ve set ourselves some lofty goals by declaring that we would like to run two Indycars and two sports cars,” says de Ferran. “That’s our dream, our target, and we’re working flat out towards it. It seems a bit ambitious for a team that today runs a one-car, factory-supported operation in the American Le Mans Series, but this is the goal. We believe that if we achieve this dream we’ll have the base for our future direction. Right now, we’re focused on the commercial aspects of making this dream a reality.”

De Ferran admits that it’s been difficult to occupy the dual roles of driver and team owner.

“I enjoy the driving, and I think I fulfilled the objectives I had when I came back into it, which was to help develop the Acura motor sport programme and establish our team,” he says. “Establishing our team has always been priority number one and I feel that for me to reach the standards I would like, I need to focus solely on this. When I was solely driving, I felt it was important to have a narrow focus, and I’ve found it increasingly difficult to be able to perform the way I expect of myself if I have to keep dividing my time.”

De Ferran has also found it demanding to be a fighting-fit driver as well as a team boss. “I’ve been trying hard,” he says. “I’m good in the car and I can do the lap times.

I have to do a regular workout programme and that’s been one of the main difficulties this year. This car puts extra demands on your physical conditioning, and the economic situation has put extra demands on the other end of the equation, so just balancing everything has been very hard.”

The Acura P1 car is not easy to drive, according to Gil: “The car has got a lot of downforce. It’s a big and quite heavy machine, as P1 cars are forcibly by the rules. But the car is actually quite nimble. From a physical standpoint everything happens very quickly. I enjoy driving this car, it’s a very high performance car. If you had a little more power with this amount of downforce and grip from the tyres, we would be going extremely fast! Physically, it’s challenging because everywhere we go you’re always pulling a lot of gs.”

Hiring retired American Honda racing boss Robert Clarke as the team’s CEO has been essential to de Ferran’s success this year. “Bringing Robert on board has been a huge help,” says Gil. “The team is doing a great job. We’ve been competitive everywhere and when we think about the future, we think that to be a better team we need to be bigger. There are a lot of things we want to do from an engineering and technical standpoint, and for us to be able to afford those things we need to expand.

“With [team manager] John [Anderson] and the group we have, the skeleton is already there from a technical standpoint. Some of the methodology and technology we’ve developed in our short existence will apply to the things we want to do. We have plans and I’m confident that we can execute them quite well.”

De Ferran could not be more pleased with Pagenaud. “In Simon we’ve seen a guy who’s shown a lot of speed on the race track,” he says. “He’s very intelligent and mature. To me, he’s a key ingredient. In the two years he has been with us he’s delivered in every way. Simon is proving himself to be one of the top sports car drivers today and he’s only 25, so there’s a long way to go before he achieves his full potential. I’ve purposely thrown Simon more and more into a leadership position, and he’s doing a great job.”

The Brazilian is also excited about Peugeot and Audi’s return to the ALMS at the end of the season for the Road Atlanta and Laguna Seca races. “We’ve improved our car since we started this year but it’s such a new concept that the learning curve is still very steep,” he says. “It was clear in Sebring that the diesels had an advantage over our petrol-fuelled Acura. However, I happen to think that our car is the best-handling sports car around. We were able to prove that at Sebring despite our deficit in horsepower, and we’ve made some gains since then. But I’m sure they have improved as well. Laguna Seca, where the straights are not as long, might suit our car quite well.

“We pull a lot of gs in medium- and high-speed corners, and at Laguna all those corners in the section behind the pits and going up the hill and then after the Corkscrew are going to be unbelievable! We’re going to be pulling over 3g through there, no question. Short straights and high-speed corners suit the car best.”

Le Mans winner Brabham said in this column last month that he reckons the Peugeots will be hard to beat at Road Atlanta, but David also believes the Acuras will have a better chance at Laguna Seca. “I see us being a little closer to them around Laguna,” says Brabham. “It should be fun. It’ll add a little something to the championship, and de Ferran and Highcroft might still be duking it out by then.”

In fact it looks like de Ferran and his old friend and rival Brabham will be battling for the title down to the last lap at Laguna Seca, providing a compelling way for Gil to close out his driving career.

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Penske's Briscoe bids for IRL spoils

Ryan Briscoe put himself in a position to beat Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti to this year’s IRL IndyCar Series title by scoring his second and third wins of the year on the Kentucky and Chicago ovals in August.

Aussie Briscoe joined Roger Penske’s ALMS Porsche LMP2 team in 2007 and was promoted last year to the Indycar squad. He won three IRL races in ’08 and finished fifth in the points, but this year he’s been Penske’s lead driver as Hélio Castroneves faced his income tax evasion trial. Briscoe won the season-opener at St Petersburg, and by the end of August had racked up seven second places and a couple of fourths on top of his three victories.

Both the defending champion Dixon and his Ganassi team-mate Franchitti had won more races at that stage with four each, but neither could match Briscoe’s consistency. With two races still to go – at the Motegi and Homestead-Miami ovals – Briscoe led Franchitti by 25 points, with Dixon another eight adrift.

Dixon was disappointed after losing to Briscoe at Chicagoland by just 0.0077 seconds. “The domination we had last year on the mile-and-a-half tracks has really been affected,” he grumbled. “We need to catch up to Penske. They’re clearly a lot faster than us.”

Added team-mate Franchitti: “We’re a little weak at the ovals and it will be really hard to make it happen. But we’ve got to keep pushing.”

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Stewart and Johnson lead the chase

The NASCAR Sprint Cup championship could be shaping into a battle between Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, although the 10-race Chase for the Cup play-off means some longer shots have a real chance at stealing the 2009 title if they run particularly well over the remainder of this very long 10-month season. \

Tony Stewart was NASCAR champion twice (in 2001 and 2005) before starting his own team this year, having taken a 50 per cent share in Gene Haas’s existing Chevrolet squad and transforming the operation with Hendrick Motorsports chassis and engines. Conventional wisdom said Stewart would struggle for a few years, but he and team-mate Ryan Newman have been competitive in many races, and Stewart took the points lead mid-summer.

Johnson is the defending three-time champion who shares lead driver billing with his mentor Jeff Gordon at Hendrick. Johnson has also run at or near the front all year and remains the favourite of many to win his fourth straight title. Gordon has run well, yet doesn’t seem to be the match of his friend and rival.

But qualifying as top seed is their team-mate Mark Martin, who first raced in the Cup back in 1981. The 50-year-old has won four races this year, his first with the Hendrick super-team. He would be a popular first-time champion.

Meanwhile, can ex-F1 star Juan Pablo Montoya challenge for the title? This is his best NASCAR season to date and he has qualified for the Chase for the first time.