Welcome Back, Gil de Ferran
There was a profound announcement yesterday at Mid-Ohio that hardly caught anyone off guard. Actually the announcement contained two parts – the first was that Gil de Ferran was announcing his retirement as a driver in the American Le Mans Series. The more significant statement was that Gil de Ferran Motorsports would be joining the IndyCar Series with a two-car effort for 2010. This had been rumored for a couple of months and he qualified this by saying that this was the plan for now, but knowing Gil de Ferran – it will happen.
Gil de Ferran has always been one of my all-time favorites. In fact, he is well into my top-ten. That’s pretty heady company considering there are names like Foyt, Ruby, Mears, Hurtubise, Unser and Jones that are entrenched in there. It wasn’t so much his driving style, which would rival Mears in smoothness. It was the way in which he carried himself. He was very understated and simply exuded class. His last four years to drive in open-wheel racing found him paired with his direct opposite – Helio Castroneves. Although both were Brazilian, their personalities were about as far apart from each other as they could get. That is probably why they got along so well, and played off each other while they both attained success.
Gil de Ferran started out taking the usual Brazilian route that most drivers from that country take – karting. He then moved to Europe driving Formula Ford and then Formula Three. He won the Formula Three title in 1992 driving for Paul Stewart Racing. By today’s standards, Gil de Ferran got a late start to his CART driving career. Born in Paris (of Brazilian parents) in 1967, he was twenty-seven when he got his first ride – replacing Teo Fabi at Hall Racing driving for legendary owner Jim Hall.
As I’ve mentioned before, when Jim Hall started his second go-around as an IndyCar owner with Rudy Van Der Straten forming Hall/VDS Racing, it was a strange mixture of lots of talent with very few results. They won their first race out of the box in 1991 with John Andretti as the driver, but struggled thereafter for the next two seasons. After the 1992 season Andretti was released in favor of Teo Fabi. Two years later, Fabi was gone and Jim Hall, now sole owner following the death of Van Der Straten, signed a little known Gil de Ferran to drive the Pennzoil Reynard for the 1995 season.
He had a very rocky start to the season, finishing no higher than eleventh in the first six races. He was also caught up in the horrific Stan Fox crash in the opening lap at Indianapolis. Following Indy, his rookie season took an upturn. When de Ferran won the final race of the season at Laguna Seca, he clinched the Rookie of the Year battle. Hall Racing continued one more year in 1996 with de Ferran scoring only one win but finishing sixth in points. When Jim Hall retired at the end of the season, de Ferran moved to Walker Racing for the 1997 season with Valvoline sponsorship.
His first year with Derrick Walker produced a second place finish in the points behind Alex Zanardi. He spent three seasons with the underfunded Walker team. There were many solid drives that produced seventeen top-five finishes over those three seasons, but only one win – Portland in 1999, on a fuel gamble that paid off. Near the end of the 1999 season, it was announced that de Ferran would leave Walker Racing. His big break had come.
Roger Penske was cleaning house after three very un-Penske like seasons. Penske signed Gil de Ferran from Walker and Greg Moore from Forsythe to lead his resurgence for the 2000 season. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Greg Moore was fatally injured in the final race of the 1999 season at Fontana. Helio Castroneves was signed five days later to replace Moore.
With Castroneves as his teammate, de Ferran won the CART championship in 2000. Castroneves had three wins to de Ferran’s two, but de Ferran’s consistent style brought him seven more top-fives and the championship while Helio finished seventh. Gil de Ferran followed up with a second straight championship in 2001, while Castroneves finished fourth. This also marked the year that Marlboro Team Penske returned to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 1994 (they didn’t make the race in 1995). They returned in fine fashion as Castroneves won with de Ferran in second. For 2002, Marlboro Team Penske moved to the IRL as a full-time team and Castroneves won his second consecutive Indy 500.
In 2003, it was Gil de Ferran who took the honors at Indy. He had injured his back at Phoenix and missed the race at Motegi. As he climbed from the cockpit to celebrate at Indy, he grimaced but still managed a huge smile as he drank the milk, amazingly without pouring it all over himself. He won again at Nashville that season and then the final race at Texas, which was to be the final race of his IndyCar career.
Since retirement, he dabbled as an analyst in the ABC booth for about three races before moving to BAR-Honda in Formula One as their Sports Director. He resigned in July of 2007 and formed his own ALMS team for 2008, sharing driving duties with Simon Pagenaud. I don’t keep up with ALMS enough to be real conversant in the goings on there, but from what I understand there is some uncertainty there and de Ferran is accelerating his eventual plan to run a team in the IndyCar Series.
Gil de Ferran should be a fantastic team owner. He has three very different owners in his past to draw from. Jim Hall was very innovative. Derrick Walker was very resourceful. Roger Penske is, well…Roger Penske. Gil de Ferran was one of the few drivers in the paddock that had a college degree. He always had an analytical approach to driving, which will serve him well behind the pit wall.
From Roger Penske, he has learned to not cut corners. He has help from Robert Clarke, recently retired as head of Honda Performance Development. Everything about this team will be first class from the ground up. It should be a big boost to the IndyCar Series, which has had more than its share of bad news off the track, while it has been pretty well dominated this year by the big two on the track. I feel quite confident that Gil de Ferran Motorsports will mirror the driving career of its namesake, and his team may become one of the big three.