Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe
Obituary

Gil de Ferran obituary: Indy 500 winner and two-time IndyCar champion dies aged 56

When Gil de Ferran sealed victory in his final attempt at the Indianapolis 500 in 2003, it crowned a career that epitomised his remarkable battling nature and great racing acumen.

Winner Gil de Ferran, Penske-Toyota

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

De Ferran, who has died aged 56, beat his great friend, and fellow Brazilian Team Penske team-mate, Helio Castroneves by 0.299s after a fierce battle for honours in America’s biggest open-wheel race.

The duo saw off the challenges of Andretti Green Racing’s Tony Kanaan and Michael Andretti, and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tomas Scheckter, de Ferran decisively grabbing the lead from Castroneves in traffic with 30 laps remaining.

Despite immense pressure from Castroneves, who was already a two-time 500 winner at this point, and suffering shoulder cramps in the closing stages, it was the crowning glory on de Ferran’s brilliant open-wheel career. He blended his turn of speed with a remarkable racing intellect, that served him so well that day.

“When you’re racing, you’re so focused on the action of driving and trying to make good decisions and so forth, to deal with the pressure of leading a race like this, you really have to park your emotions to the side,” he told Autosport of his approach to winning the 500. “You need to stay as rational as you can.

“It took me a while to realise what it actually meant. Rick Mears said it best to me, he said to me straight after the race ‘you won’t understand this for another two or three weeks and then it will hit you’. And that’s exactly what happened.”

He retired from IndyCar at the end of that season, having bagged two titles – under its CART guise – in 2000 and 2001.

De Ferran – who was born in Paris, France – started karting in Brazil after his family moved there in his early years. But he would truly make his name in the United Kingdom, following the trend set by Emerson Fittipaldi for young Brazilian racers. He raced in Formula Ford, Opel/Vauxhall Lotus and Formula 3 – winning the British F3 title in 1992 for Paul Stewart Racing.

More: The Vauxhall Lotus double act that spawned a 30-year friendship

Gil de Ferran and David Coulthard

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Gil de Ferran and David Coulthard

He graduated to Formula 3000, where he’d win three times across two seasons, but that meant he just fell short of making it to Formula 1 – despite test runs with Williams and Arrows – and he diverted his attentions to America in 1995.

De Ferran burst on to the IndyCar Series scene in one of its most competitive eras, winning the final race of his debut season in his bright yellow Pennzoil Reynard for Jim Hall Racing at Laguna Seca – up against the likes of Jacques Villeneuve, Fittipaldi, Andretti, Al Unser Jr, Paul Tracy and Bobby Rahal. He was deservedly crowned Rookie of the Year.

He went on to make his name with Penske, and his standing in the sport was immortalised by setting the closed-course land speed record in qualifying at California Speedway with a staggering lap of 241.428mph.

He’d go on to record 12 wins and 21 pole positions, taking his last victory on his final IndyCar start at Texas in 2003.

More: The Brazilian duo that ended Penske's longest drought

In his tribute, Roger Penske said: “Gil defined class as a driver and as a gentleman. As an IndyCar champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner, Gil accomplished so much during his career, both on and off the track.

“Gil was beloved by so many. He was a great friend to the Team Penske and IndyCar family, as well as the entire international motorsports community. Gil’s passing is a terrible loss, and he will be deeply missed.”

De Ferran’s post-IndyCar career was a mixture of sportscar racing, team management and media. He also made it to F1 at last, joining the BAR-Honda team as sporting director from 2005-07.

Gil de Ferran

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Gil de Ferran

He returned to the cockpit in 2008 in a factory-backed Acura LMP2 prototype in the American Le Mans Series as the owner-driver of his team, de Ferran Motorsports, teaming up with Frenchman Simon Pagenaud – who would later emulate Gil as an IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner.

The team climbed to the premier LMP1 prototype class as an Acura factory team in 2009, scoring five victories and seven poles, finishing runner-up in the standings.

He then co-owned the de Ferran Dragon Racing IndyCar team through 2011, and served as a team owners' representative on the ICONIC committee that evaluated designs for the next generation of IndyCar chassis.

De Ferran was appointed sporting director for McLaren Racing in F1 in 2018, a role he held until early 2021. In May 2023, he was rehired by McLaren as a consultant and advisor.

More: The attributes that made de Ferran a potent force

McLaren’s Zak Brown said: “I’ve raced with Gil all over the world and watched him win some of the biggest races. He’s been a great friend for over 20 years and will be greatly missed and never forgotten.”

As well as his racing success, de Ferran will be remembered for his warm personality, sharp-witted sense of humour and friendly nature to everyone he came across in the sport that he was so passionate about.

Gil is survived by his wife Angela – whom he met when she worked for Paul Stewart Racing – daughter Anna and son Luke.

Gil de Ferran

Gil de Ferran

Be part of the Autosport community

Join the conversation
Previous article The remarkable motorsport stories you may have missed in 2023
Next article IndyCar 2023 season review: Arrow McLaren

Top Comments

There are no comments at the moment. Would you like to write one?

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe