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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

That Way It Is/ Gil de Ferran reflects and looks ahead

by Gordon Kirby
Gil de Ferran drove his last race at Laguna Seca last Saturday. The 41-year old de Ferran and teammate Simon Pagenaud, 25, scored their fifth ALMS win of the year aboard de Ferran's Acura ARX-02a, but it wasn't enough to beat Duncan Dayton's similar Highcroft Acura driven by David Brabham/Scott Sharp to the championship. Brabham/Sharp recovered from a collision with Oliver Gavin's Corvette to finish third overall at Laguna Seca behind Adrian Fernandez/Luis Diaz in Fernandez's Acura P2 car and wrap-up the ALMS's P1 championship.

Educated as an engineer, de Ferran is an intelligent, funny, self-deprecating guy who was renowned by Honda's engineers as the best test driver the company has ever enjoyed. In his CART days Honda's engineers called him 'The Professor' and rated de Ferran on an extremely high plane well above any other driver. De Ferran raced Honda's factory development engines from 1996 with Jim Hall through three years with Derrick Walker's team and two more with Roger Penske, and his high standing with Honda continues today.

Born in Paris to Brazilian parents and raised in San Paulo, de Ferran started racing at home in Brazil before moving to England in 1988. He won the 1992 British F3 championship and raced in F3000 in '93 and '94, winning three races. Gil made the move to America in 1995 to race CART Indy cars for Jim Hall's team and he won the year's final race at Laguna Seca and was named rookie-of-the-year. De Ferran drove for Derrick Walker from 1997-'99, finishing second to Alex Zanardi in the '97 CART series. He joined Roger Penske's team in 2000 and immediately won back-to-back CART championships with Penske in 2000 and '01 and set the all-time closed course world speed record at 241.428 mph in qualifying for the California 500 at the end of the 2001 season.

Penske switched to the IRL in 2002 and Gil won five races over the next two years, including the 2003 Indy 500 and his last Indy car race at Texas in October of '03 before retiring from racing Indy cars. De Ferran did some TV work, then joined Honda's F1 team as sporting director from 2005-'07. Near the end of '07 he announced he was starting his own Acura ALMS team and would return to driving for a couple of years, selecting the promising Pagenaud as his teammate and future number one driver.

True to his word de Ferran confirmed two months ago that he would retire at the end of the season to enable him to concentrate on running and expanding his team. Last Wednesday on Mike Knight's radio show 'The Race Reporters', Knight, retired AP motorsports writer Mike Harris and myself talked with de Ferran about his driving career and move from the cockpit to team ownership. Here's a link to the show:

"When I retired at the end of 2003 I retired because I wanted to do other things with my life," Gil told us on Knight's radio show. "It wasn't that I didn't enjoy racing or driving. I felt like I was plateauing in my driving career, even though I was still enjoying it. I'm the kind of guy who's always looking forward. I want to grow and develop and I wanted to do different things with my life and not be stuck doing the same thing and be looking in my mid-forties for something else to do. That was the main reason I retired in 2003, as I made it clear at the time.

"After I stopped, I went to work for ABC and ESPN and then the opportunity to work for Honda in F1 came along and I did that. And then another opportunity came along for me to set up my own team. That was an ambition of mine from day one. I wasn't really looking for a job as a racing driver. I wasn't calling Roger and saying 'Roger, would you give me a ride?', or anything like that. I wasn't calling anyone asking to become a racing driver again.

"But I felt this was a unique opportunity to set up my own operation. I felt that I could contribute again as a driver to help develop the Acura sports car program and to help develop the team in a role that I know well as a development driver. I feel like I have accomplished that mission and now it's time for me to focus on the team."

Gil said two months ago that he hoped to run two cars in next year's ALMS and two cars in the IRL Indy car series. We asked him what the status of that goal was for next year.

"I feel that for us to be successful as a team we need to be bigger," he replied. "Obviously, I'm setting the bar pretty high because the economy is the worst we've seen in many, many generations. So trying to make our team bigger in one of the worst economic climates that we've ever seen is a tough goal to achieve. But I want to put all my energy into that.

"We're working hard on it. I'm afraid there's no firm update at this point. There are some days that I'm very encouraged that things are moving in the right direction and I'm really positive about it. There are other days where I feel, my God! Things are not going so well.

"At this point, I think it would be wrong for me to commit to one thing or another. I would say it's still very much wide-open. I would hope to accomplish at least a part of that objective. There's also no question that time is against us because I don't want to just be there. I want to try to make the team competitive and there's only one secret to this sport, which is no secret at all, which is preparation. And for good preparation you need time and you need money.

"I'm just plugging away," he added. "At some point, probably in the near future, I'm going to have to decide whether I'm going to turn left or right. Like I said, it would be hard to do a last-minute deal and be able to do it right. That's what's foremost in my mind. Whatever I do, I want to try to do it right."

When he broke into Indy car racing and America in 1995 de Ferran was lucky to do so with Jim Hall who was going into the final two years of his epic career as a driver, engineer, car builder and team owner. Hall was de Ferran's guest at Laguna Seca last weekend and the tall Texan brought a pair of Can-Am Chaparrals with him for the occasion.

"Jim was the guy who, quite frankly, took a chance on me back in '95 and gave me a break," de Ferran remarked. "It worked out great for me and hopefully he feels it worked out well for him. I won a race for him in my rookie year at Laguna Seca, which was my first Indy car win. So I think it was quite fitting to go back to Laguna Seca for my last professional race and to have Jim there. And of course, the #66 is on our car because of him.

"Working with Jim was fantastic," Gil went on. "I had the good fortune to work with Jackie Stewart for four years in the lower formula before that. For those who know Jackie, he's a unique person, and I learned a tremendous amount from him. He understands the sport inside-out. He understands the mind of a racing driver inside-out and there's no question in my mind that I became a lot better racing driver because I drove for Jackie.

"But Jackie's not an engineer and with Jim it was a completely different experience. Jim is a brilliant man with an incredible mindset and an understanding of racing cars like very few people. He taught me a lot about cars and he taught me a lot about how to think about certain things relating to the cars. I'm a curious person by nature so all I had to do was ask the questions and Jim was there to answer. For me, it was a very fun time and an incredibly enrichening experience."

In the September issue of Motor Sport I wrote a story about de Ferran's world record lap at the California Speedway in 2001. Gil talked in the story about what a beast the Penske/Reynard-Honda he drove that day was with more than 1,000 bhp and he fervently believes that's what an Indy car should be--an overpowered, under-downforced car. On 'The Race Reporters' last week de Ferran reiterated his belief about what an Indy car should be.

"It would be wrong for me to go into specifics without actually digging through all the simulations and the potential studies that one can do these days to determine (what that formula should be)," Gil commented. "All I would say is that, to me, Indy car has a strong brand and that brand is the cars are insanely fast. Whatever the new Indy cars become in 2011 or 2012, they need to be insanely fast! That is my opinion. How they achieve that insanely fast, I don't know. But Indy cars need to be the fastest cars on the planet. They need to be recognized as the fastest cars on the planet and that's the end of it.

"I had the good fortune of pedalling a car that was over 1,000 horsepower," he added. "And I can tell you that it's unbelievably challenging. The only restriction is in terms of what tracks you can go to and there are a lot of other restrictions because of safety. Nevertheless, I think that's a worthwhile pursuit--to make the new Indy car insanely fast."

This year, the fewest number of American drivers have competed in Indy car racing in the sport's hundred year history. Only five Americans raced Indy cars on a regular basis this year--Graham Rahal, Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Ed Carpenter--and for the first time ever not a single American won an Indy car race. Hunter-Reay was the last US winner at Watkins Glen in July of last year. Mike Knight asked de Ferran if he would hire an American driver and what role the paucity of American talent has played in Indy car racing's dwindling appeal.

"I think my greater responsibility is to put the best available driver behind the wheel," Gil replied. "As a team owner, I've always thought that way in the sports car program. I have to say, as a driver and being not American-born, I actually benefitted from that attitude from several team owners, including two American team owners. One was Jim Hall and the other was Roger Penske.

"My opinion regarding American drivers is a simple one. I think there are some very good and very talented American drivers. In fact, there are some very good and very talented American drivers currently racing in Indy cars. The one who particularly comes to mind is Graham Rahal who is extremely young and extremely talented and is already getting some great results.

"I think the reason that you don't see more American drivers coming to prominence in Indy car racing is a simple one," Gil adds. "It's because of the success of NASCAR and the draw that NASCAR has on the younger generation, which means that from an early age many, many drivers who would have the potential to be successful in Indy car racing have taken a different branch of the sport and gone towards finding a ride in NASCAR's premier series. But hopefully, if Indy car racing can regain its rightful place in the world of motorsports, that will change."

Mike Knight asked de Ferran if he regretted not racing in F1.

"I wouldn't say it was a big regret," Gil chuckled. "Obviously, the start of my career was totally focused towards going Formula 1 racing and that didn't happen. It didn't happen in many ways because I had a better opportunity in America. I was quite happy to come over here and drive for Jim. He signed me very early in 1994. I believe by September or October we had a deal done for the 1995 season and from there on the timing never worked (for F1) and I always felt I had better opportunities here, particularly when I was driving for Roger. I think Penske Racing is one of the best teams in the business, full-stop.

"I never drove a Grand Prix and that's the way it is. Sometimes you think, well, that's a challenge that was never meant to be. But sometimes in life things happen that way. I don't lie in bed thinking I missed something. I lie in bed thinking, you know what? I had a great career."

De Ferran said he's enjoyed watching the Brawn team chase this year's world championship. Most of Ross Brawn's team were members of Honda's F1 team when Gil worked there between 2005-'07.

"I would say ninety percent of the people on the race team are the same," he said. "I was always of the opinion that they were a good race team and could deliver. It's funny, you take a lot of flak when you say you think our drivers are good enough to be upfront. And everybody says, 'On what evidence?' But I always thought those guys, Rubens and Jenson, were good drivers. God only knows if they're going to win the championship or not, but it's nice to see that with two races to go they're first and second in the championship. They were always a good combination."

De Ferran has taken tremendous pleasure this year from driving the Acura ARX-02a which he's called the world's highest performing sports car.

"This Acura I've been driving this year is just a fantastic machine!" Gil grinned. "It's a very, very high performance car. Acura has done a great job with the car. You saw at the beginning of the Petit Le Mans we were racing with the Audis and the Peugeots. In the wet we could make up some of the deficit that we had on power, given that the diesels have quite a bit more power than we have, and we were able to pass both Peugeots in the wet and move ahead. It's a very fun car to drive."

And how does Gil assess his driving career?

"I always dedicated myself to become the best driver I could be," he said. "I always took a lot of pride in trying to be as fast as I could be and to do everything I could to develop my style. I certainly tried my best."

Now, de Ferran's focus is on finding the sponsorship in a tough market for his team to expand and establish itself for the longterm. Will de Ferran Motorsports race in the ALMS and/or IRL next year? Both series desperately need Gil and his team. So many people will be watching with interest as de Ferran begins the next phase of his racing life and his plans for 2010 take shape.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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