"That car was a beast!" – Gil de Ferran

In a time before Indycars were dumbed down, Gil de Ferran and Mauricio Gugelmin set record laps at over 240mph. They’re still the fastest ever
by Gordon Kirby

The fastest laps ever achieved by a race car were set in 1997 and 2000 by Mauricio Gugelmin and Gil de Ferran at the high-banked, two-mile California Speedway. In qualifying for the 1997 California 500 Gugelmin lapped his PacWest Reynard-Mercedes-Benz in 30.316 seconds, averaging 240.942mph. Three years later de Ferran qualified on pole for the same race aboard his Penske Reynard-Honda at 241.428mph, scorching around the oval track in 30.255sec and establishing the world closed-course speed record for a race car.

Over the next few years an increasing series of restrictions on aerodynamics and engines forever changed the face of Indycar racing by substantially reducing horsepower, speeds and the spectacle. Today, it seems unlikely that the speeds achieved by de Ferran and Gugelmin will ever be equalled or even approached.

“Those cars we raced in the late 1990s were true, muscular Indycars,” says Gugelmin. “I feel lucky we lived through an age when Indycars got to that level. The sport went through a lot with the split and now coming back together, and the result is that today everybody wants to do a simple formula, technically and economically. Even Formula 1 struggles with that today.”

De Ferran’s all-time record lap, set on October 28 2000, was the product of Honda and Penske doing everything possible to take pole position and earn with it the additional single point de Ferran needed to help wrap up that year’s CART championship. In those days CART boasted four engine manufacturers (Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Ford/Cosworth and Toyota) and five chassis constructors (Reynard, Penske, Lola, Eagle and Swift), and was much closer to F1 in spirit and investment than is today’s Dallara-Honda IRL de facto spec car.

The California 500 was the last of 20 races that season and de Ferran went into it with a five-point lead over Adrian Fernández, who had kept himself in the title hunt by scoring points in all but three races. De Ferran sealed the first of two consecutive CART titles by finishing a conservative third in the race, two places ahead of Fernández. Here, de Ferran recounts that record-breaking day.

We were locked in a battle going into the last round of the championship. At the time I was driving for Honda, who I always considered to be the most committed manufacturer. They would go to any lengths that were legally available to them to pursue every edge, and I can’t tell you how much fun it is to drive for organisations like that.

“Leading up to the race Penske did a lot of work on the aerodynamics to make sure our Speedway car was the best it could be and Honda came up with this stonker of an engine! It made over 1000bhp. It was a qualifying engine with very little mileage. I recall its limit was 50 miles. So basically you could do two runs in the morning and then your qualifying run.

“I remember going out in the morning and already running very fast. Of course, in practice it’s really hard to see who’s doing what because of the tows from other cars. But we were regularly running above 239-240mph and I think I had a lap at 242 which was helped by a tow.

“When we went to qualify they put the qualifying map on the engine, which was a bit extra. The thing was a rocketship, and without the turbulence from other cars to disturb it and provide a tow, the car was just stuck on the ground.

“You’re running so little downforce that you can easily overdo it on the tyres. There are no tyre warmers in Indycar racing and I brought it up [to speed] really slowly and got it just right. I knew exactly what speed I was [doing] on the exit of every turn. When I came out of turn four to start the lap I was just over 240 and closed it slower than I opened it. So just that one lap was enough for the tyres to drop off.

“The car was totally neutral, and at Fontana it was always difficult to run a car neutral, particularly in turns one and two, because of the bumps. In fact, two years before I lost the car in turn one and did a half-spin and caught it. I was controlling the slide on the throttle and just brushed the wall with the rear wing but the tyres on the right were on the cord. So there was always the risk of simply running the car too loose over those bumps.

“The whole thing about qualifying is you’re trying to run as neutral as possible. So anything that hurts your grip or balance just a little bit will affect you massively. If it’s easy to go fast then you should trim out the car a little more. You always try to trim it out as much as possible, but how do you know it’s enough? You go in there and you’re at the absolute limit. You feel that if you turn it a little bit too much the back end is going to go, and that’s not a fun feeling.

“But when I did that 241 qualifying lap the car was perfect. I remember feeling everything through my hands. Going into turn one I was telling myself, ‘Don’t lift! Don’t lift!’ You’ve just gotta believe in the car because on a big oval, if you wait to feel that the grip is there, it’s too late. So there’s a big commitment factor. You’ve got to throw yourself in there, particularly in qualifying, because the grip changes with the air temperature and humidity.

“As soon as I crossed the start/finish line they said over the radio, ‘You’ve got pole!’ At the time the most significant thing was getting pole and the point that went with it, because we were fighting for the championship.

“The record was great but at the time it didn’t seem very important to me. But as the years have gone by it’s changed. I think it was pretty cool we were able to make that record under racing conditions. A lot of record attempts are done in special conditions away from a race weekend. As far as accomplishments go, that is one I’m very proud of.”

The other ‘record’ Mauricio Gugelmin points out that in practice prior to his ’97 record qualifying run he turned a lap at 242.333mph. “The unofficial record is still mine. That’s the fastest lap ever, I guess.”

Gugelmin echoes de Ferran’s remarks about coping with the car. “What you had to watch was getting up to that speed, because the car was very stiffly sprung with no downforce and plenty of power,” he says. “Once you were running at that speed every single input had to be minute because it was very easy to lose control. You were basically on a wire.

“To get the car up to that high level of speed was almost like doing a perfect qualifying lap on a street circuit. It was like flying a jet. You had to make sure your head was way ahead of it.

“At home I have one of my old cars from those days and a poster of that lap where [engineer] Andy Brown did the throttle traces and the steering input. It’s amazing to look at because you hardly put any lock on the wheel. You just had to turn it very lightly and you could reduce the speed by 7mph, from your terminal speed to your apex speed, just because the front wheels were turning ever so slightly.

“Fontana was a new track and we were running fast right away. We were probably 7 or 8mph off [the limit] but we kept trimming the wings. I had one set of tyres that had a tremendous vibration. A wheel that was a bit out of balance became a big problem at those speeds. The car had to be perfect and all the bodywork had to be carefully taped with no air leaks anywhere. You had to be as smooth as you could and then just hold your breath for a couple of laps. But it was a great feeling.”

Many fans agree that CART’s turbocharged Indycars from that era, in Superspeedway trim with tiny front and rear wings, were some of the most elegant single-seaters ever seen, as well as some of the most demanding to drive.

“I’d been driving Indycars for five years by then,” says de Ferran. “It didn’t matter how many times you [drove them], there was so much power it took a few laps to get your foot and your eyes and hands all in order.

“Some people couldn’t get on with them because they had so much power. On the road courses you touched the throttle and it really responded. The public knew that car I qualified at Fontana was a very difficult car to drive. It was a beast!”