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

The Way It Is/ I'm proud to be a Motor Sport man

by Gordon Kirby
I could not be more delighted to report this week that I've taken on an exciting new assignment as American editor of Motor Sport. As many of you know, Motor Sport is the world's oldest racing magazine, founded in 1924, and recently was bought by Edward Atkin and Paul Dobson who are deeply committed to making a fine magazine even better. Messrs Atkin and Dobson have invited my longtime colleague Nigel Roebuck to take the reins as Motor Sport's editor in chief and I'm pleased to join Nigel as the magazine's American editor. After thirty years with the weekly Autosport, both Nigel and I are ready for the new challenge of making Motor Sport the world's most complete racing magazine.

One of Nigel's first words of advice to Mr Atkin and Mr Dobson was to hire Damien Smith to be Motor Sport's new editor. Damien showed his knowledge and ability during a rapid rise through the editorial ranks at Autosport and he brings youth, energy and fresh thinking to the editor's chair. The rest of Motor Sport's first-class editorial and design team remains unchanged as does the magazine's long list of excellent contributing writers.

My assignment is to write a monthly column about any and all aspects of American racing plus a full feature story each month. The feature will number more than 3,000 words and will be about anything of our choosing from the past, present or exploring the future. Of course, I'll continue to write 'The Way It Is' each week here at gordonkirby.com as a compliment to the wide-ranging work I've been commissioned to do for Motor Sport. To subscribe to Motor Sport go to motorsportmagazine.co.uk or, from the USA, call 1-888-321-6378

*Congratulations to Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and Justin Wilson for finally putting their agreement together for this year. Justin is an excellent driver, undervalued by Formula 1 as well as being a true gentleman, and with N/H/L he finally will be able to demonstrate his great ability. I look for him to be the man to beat this year in Champ Car's admittedly depleted series and to provide N/H/L with tremendous team leadership. Wilson also will be a great mentor for Graham Rahal and will enable the team to continue as an extremely strong force.

And too, Wilson, Rahal and a healthy, thriving Newman/Haas/Lanigan team will provide Champ Car with some much-needed class and a clear target for everyone else to shoot at. So again, thanks to PLN and Messrs Haas and Lanigan for making it happen.

"My aim is to go out there and win the championship," Justin commented last week. "That's what I'm trying to do. Filling-in from where Sebastien left off is not going to be an easy job. He obviously gelled very well with the team. He's a great driver and did a great job. I don't expect to just pick up from where he left off. I know I've got to work at it and find my feet and get used to the team and try to get things working for myself and understand how to make the Newman/Haas/Lanigan car go quick. It's going to be tough, but I'm looking forward to the challenge.

"Obviously, the whole team is full of people that are very keen to go racing and doing the right thing to make the car go fast. That is something that is quite unique, I think. Many teams, not just in Champ Car but all around the world, I've come across it--some people are trying to win, some are trying to survive.

"It's great to see a team where the whole goal is to go out there and win and maximize their attacks. I'm very excited about being part of that and getting to learn their culture and understand the way they go about working. It's going to be a great eductaion."

*I was equally pleased this week to learn about Gil de Ferran's return to racing as a driver and more importantly as an Acura team owner in the ALMS series. De Ferran is a very good-humored, smart fellow who studied engineering in college. He is celebrated by Honda's engineers as the best test driver the company has encountered over its fourteen years in CART and IRL Indy car racing. And let's not forget that he's a two-time CART champion and an IRL champion and Indy 500 winner too. So Gil brings a lot to the table as he puts together his team over the next few weeks and months.

De Ferran's team will be based in Indianapolis and he plans to have the team and himself in action by mid-season. Gil's team will be run by John Anderson, a thirty-plus year veteran of the sport who most recently was one of Andretti-Green's key men, overseeing Dario Franchitti's victory in last year's Indy 500 and run to the IRL championship.

"It's great to have a guy like John with all his experience and knowledge," de Ferran commented. "We're very happy to have him on board. It's a very good thing for our team that we've been able to attract people like him into the program. So it's all happening. We're hiring people and looking for the right place and people. We're nearly there on a couple of these decisions. The next key guy is an engineer and we're working on that.

"In the meantime, I'm trying to stay fit and get myself back into shape. I'm halfway there, but not a hundred percent. It's going to take me a little while to find my (driving) form back again, beyond the fitness aspect."

De Ferran turned forty in November and was interested in driving again only if he could also become a team owner. "Frankly, I wasn't in the market to become just a driver again," he remarked. "But this is an opportunity that is very unique. I will be able to answer some of the cravings I had to drive again and I'll be able to work in a design and development program--and you know how much I like that--and be an owner as well. So to me it's a progression, you know, and that's important."

De Ferran's testing skills first came to Honda's attention in 1996, his rookie Indy car season with Jim Hall's team. When Hall disbanded his team at the end of '96, de Ferran moved to Derrick Walker's team and he raced Honda's development engines over the next three years. When he moved to Team Penske in 2000, the close relationship continued between de Ferran and Honda.

Here's a quote from Robert Clarke about de Ferran's testing ability from my book about Honda's ten years in CART, 'A Winning Adventure,' co-written with John Oreovicz. "Gil was our development driver--we relied on him extensively," Clarke said. "Of course, every driver's style is different but Gil was more smooth. He's not a driver who just jabs at the throttle. He's very smooth and progressive, very fuel efficient, and his shifting patterns are very smooth. You need to match your power and torque curves in a way that the driver is getting progressively smooth power and torque curves.

"I think Honda got the reputatioin of having the best compromise engine between peak power, torque, fuel economy and driveability," Clarke added. "It was the best compromise of all those factors that made it the best overall engine and I believe a lot of that can be attributed to Gil because he's the best compromise driver for all the characteristics. We found if you can tune an engine to Gil, it worked well for most drivers."

And from Roger Penske a few chapters later: "(Gil) is the ultimate professional. He spends more time than probably any other driver we've had actually talking with the engineers and understanding the setups." And this in the same chapter from Tim Cindric: "De Ferran pushed (Honda's engineers) probably as hard as anybody did because he had their respect. He had their ear and he knew what needed to happen to get the job done."

Incredibly, there were times when Roger Penske would half-jokingly complain about de Ferran providing and parsing too much information! Indeed, de Ferran (and Parker Johnstone before him) became known at Honda as 'The Human Dynamometer', and based on his comments from Sebring ALMS testing last week, he's delighted to be back in the thick of it.

"Today, we had a meeting with the Michelin guys and we got straight into how does this this work? How does that work? Right back in the saddle again," he enthused.

"They don't know what's coming!" de Ferran added. "But it's so good, so good!"

During the days of wide-open engine development in CART with competition between Honda, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and Ford/Cosworth, engine power peaked at more than 1,000 horsepower, contained only by annual additional restrictions on turbo boost pressure. In 1997, Mauricio Gugelmin broke the 240 mph mark in qualifying at the California Speedway and despite a series of boost cutbacks de Ferran repeated the feat in the fall of 2000, qualifying on the pole in California at an all-time record 241.428 mph.

"They're becoming part of history now, aren't they?" de Ferran observed about those record laps. "We had over a thousand horsepower in those days and I was thinking how probably people remember them in the same way they remember the CanAm cars that had twelve hundred horsepower and the turbo Formula 1 cars that had fifteen hundred horsepower for qualifying. That's an era in Indy car racing that is now long-gone. But as you cast your mind back you remember how spectacular those cars were! Those years--1998, '99, 2000 and 2001--those cars had anywhere between 950 to just over a thousand horsepower and they were rockets!"

Those cars were spectacular to watch, let alone drive, and I maintain--as does Mario Andretti and many others--that those levels of performance need to be re-introduced if Indy car racing ever is to shine again.

"There's not an easy solution," de Ferran ruminated. "Especially when people are having a hard time raising money to go racing. But I have to say, as I look back, that those were really, really cool cars. At that time, the income was there so the development was there and so on. But it was very exciting.

"I personally think that the cost of racing is directly related to income rather than to the rules," he added. "But I guess I'm among the minority who thinks that way. They keep trying to make rules thinking they're going to reduce costs. Like a friend of mine said to me about Formula 1. 'You want to reduce costs in Formula 1? Take it off TV. That will reduce costs immediately without changing one comma in the rulebook.'."

As I've written in this space, the Acura ALMS sports car program is the way of the future for HPD and American Honda. HPD is gearing up to design, build and develop not only engines but also for the first time the entire 2009 Acura ALMS car. It is the prospect of being involved in this exciting project and racing in a series that encourages competition and technology which has attracted de Ferran back into the cockpit as an owner/driver.

"The ALMS is one of the few types of racing left in the world today where technology and developing technology is still part of the game," Gil commented. "I guess maybe I'm a bit of a dinosaur but I grew up in an environment where developing new technology and racing went hand-in-hand. It's hard for me to fathom racing without that part of it.

"For me, as I was growing up, the coolness factor of the cars was just as important as anything else. Maybe I'm a little bit of a petrol-head, but that for me is what the sport is all about. It's nice to see the different cars running around in the ALMS. I was watching the Peugeot today, and it's very cool. Being part of the creation and development of machines like that, culminating with success on Sunday, I always enjoyed that."

De Ferran is one of many in the sport who has no interest in spec-car racing and fervently believes the element of the machine and new technology cannot and must not be removed from the sport.

"Track and field is a great sport," he reflects. "It's cool too. But motor racing is not track and field. It's the interaction between man and machine and the men behind the scenes who create the machines and all that's involved there. It's a very complex sport and that's what makes it so challenging and exciting."

I welcome Gil to his new life and agree completely with him. I'm sure he'll bring a lot to both Acura's racing endeavors and the ALMS series.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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