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Opinion

The attributes that made de Ferran a potent force

OPINION: The late Gil de Ferran won the Indianapolis 500 and two Indycar titles in a glittering driving career that earned him almost as much admiration across the world of motorsport as his thoroughly decent, engaging personality. In addition to his undoubted speed, an analytical approach borne of an engineering background made him a great inside and outside the car

Gil de Ferran, Walker Racing, Reynard 99i Honda.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Gil de Ferran meant an awful lot to a great many people in motorsport. The outpouring of shocked tributes following his unexpected passing at the age of 56 were universal in their respect for a racer who possessed all the attributes to be effective as a driver, team boss, sporting director and in driver development. Roger Penske, his boss from 2000 to 2003 in a spell that repositioned his team as the benchmark in US open-wheel racing after a few barren years, perhaps put it best when he described de Ferran as a man who “defined class as a driver and a gentleman”.

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

The Brazilian’s career never graced Formula 1 as a driver, despite dominating the 1992 British Formula 3 championship and winning three times across two seasons in International Formula 3000. But F1’s loss was Indycar racing’s gain, and in an era that many consider to be its peak with competing chassis, tyre manufacturers and engine suppliers, de Ferran was a potent force with a technical understanding that made him an engineer’s dream.

In truth, de Ferran was an engineer in all but name. He spent three years studying mechanical engineering at university before heading to the UK to pursue his dream of becoming a professional racing driver.

“I spent all my time studying maths and physics, which by the way I loved, and I never came back really, so I’m a non-graduated engineering student I guess you can classify me!” he recounted to this writer at the Autosport International show in 2018.

“It was something that had always interested me. I went to engineering school because that’s what I wanted to do. It wasn’t like ‘I don’t know what to do, let’s do this.’ I loved math, I loved physics, I loved design, I loved everything to do with it.

“I remember even back in Brazil in Formula Ford, like ‘hey, why don’t we try a different suspension geometry? Just cut here and weld that there’ and whatever. It wasn’t very sophisticated at the time, but still you make the change, drive the car, put back the change, drive the car again and start learning what does what. All those lessons were invaluable.”

That passion had been formed at a young age. He learned as a youngster to take his go-kart apart and rebuild it to understand how everything worked. The same analytical methodology was applied to his racing.

De Ferran utilised his engineering background from the very start of his racing career

Photo by: Motorsport Images

De Ferran utilised his engineering background from the very start of his racing career

“In karting we didn’t have a mechanic, it was my dad and my mum, a friend of mine and myself, that was it,” de Ferran said. “Tinkering and mechanicing was in my blood. My dad was an engineer by trade as well.

“I always loved it and so throughout my career I read a lot, I tried to tap [into] as many engineers as I could to try to understand the subject better and better. I guess because I had a good grounding in mathematics and physics and some of the principles I was able to absorb a lot of the information.”

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

Even if de Ferran had won the F3000 title with Paul Stewart Racing, he revealed, it wouldn’t have made a difference to his career path. He accepted an offer from Jim Hall to make the switch Stateside for 1995 midway through the 1994 campaign, and driving the Hall/VDS Racing Reynard-Mercedes he was a winner by the end of his rookie season in the final race at Laguna Seca.

"I was fortunate to get the transition between a very data-rich environment and hardly any data. When I started racing, there was no data-loggers, hardly any sensors and learning how to use that information was I think also helpful in my development as a driver" Gil de Ferran

The first win for his team since Surfers Paradise in 1991 was perhaps made more impressive by the fact de Ferran was doing all his learning in a single-car operation, without the luxury of a team-mate to fall back on. It would be fair to say that his technical expertise was a significant factor in making it work, where so many drivers with a strong reputation in Europe flounder.

“Everyone is a little bit different, I’ve known many very successful race drivers that really didn’t know what’s what,” de Ferran said. “But for me and the way I am wired, it helped me understand what I was doing, how the car was responding, how the tyres were responding, how I had to change my own driving, why is this happening – ‘oh its happening because of this’ – and making that back and forth parallel I think helped develop my driving.

“I was also fortunate in a way to get the transition between a very data-rich environment and hardly any data. When I started racing, there was no data-loggers, hardly any sensors and learning how to use that information was I think also helpful in my development as a driver.

“Nowadays you get a driver and boom, ‘here’s all the stuff’. But back then we were like ‘okay, what do we do with this? How do we interpret this?’ We were learning how to make the most out of a rich set of data that was emanating from sensors in the car.”

While F1 never came calling, he found great success in the US and proved his worth in single-car teams before getting his break at Penske

Photo by: LAT Photographic

While F1 never came calling, he found great success in the US and proved his worth in single-car teams before getting his break at Penske

A fruitful six-year relationship with Honda began in 1996, when he made up for the disappointment of losing a likely win at Long Beach to a broken hose clamp with another well-judged victory at Cleveland, before he joined Derrick Walker’s team for 1997 along with his engineer Bill Pappas following Hall’s retirement. Although de Ferran didn’t win a race, he was a consistent threat all year and finished the year as the closest challenger to Ganassi’s champion Alex Zanardi.

Running on Goodyear tyres, as opposed to the superior Firestones used by Ganassi, his development input was crucial in limiting the damage and meant he usually made the best of them. Although he slumped to 12th in 1998, four engine failures carried a larger share of the blame than the driver, who was until 1999 (and even then at most of the races, as Naoki Hattori and Memo Gidley alternated aboard the part-time second car) the team’s focal point.

“At the height of the tyre war, we were doing a lot of tyre testing,” he said. “I think the most testing I have ever done was 75 days in a season, plus 22 races, and you can’t help but learn a lot and absorb a lot of information! I can’t explain how much you learn and how much you develop yourself as a driver is nowadays very different – it’s a very different environment.”

But while testing isn’t every driver’s cup of tea, that wasn’t the case for de Ferran. His comments on the subject to this writer in 2022 were revealing of a team ethic that endeared him to those he worked with.

“I absolutely adored that work,” he said. “Because for me motorsport is not just about the driver, it’s a mixture of driving and understanding the car. It’s not athletics, it’s something a little different. You do rely on your equipment, and part of your skill is to learn and understand not only how to make the most of the equipment you have, but to help the equipment move forward with a team of people. I always loved that work.”

Victory in mixed conditions at Portland was the Walker team’s first since 1995, and his body of impressive work was becoming impossible for one of racing’s big beasts to ignore. Team Penske engineer Nigel Beresford remembers watching qualifying for that year’s Toronto race alongside Roger Penske when de Ferran nailed pole.

“Everybody goes out on their new set and they’re throwing the things around, bouncing off the wall doing their hero act to get the car in the race,” he says. “De Ferran was just out there rolling around, finding a gap, getting the tyres just right and boom, he stuck it in there. It was such an impressive display of intellect, patience and skill.”

Once Penske came calling, de Ferran hit new heights and remains the holder of the fastest closed circuit speed circuit record

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt

Once Penske came calling, de Ferran hit new heights and remains the holder of the fastest closed circuit speed circuit record

His arrival at Penske in 2000 coincided with a switch from its own chassis to Reynard, trading Mercedes engines for Honda and ditching Goodyears in favour of Firestones. And de Ferran was the final piece of the jigsaw. He scored Penske's 100th Indycar win at Nazareth in 2000, the team's first since Paul Tracy's victory at Gateway in 1997, and duly swept to back-to-back CART Indycar titles.

Along the way, he took a closed-circuit speed record of 241.428mph at Fontana, while his 2001 victory at Rockingham courtesy of a final lap move on Kenny Brack was arguably the pick of the bunch.

PLUS: How Penske ended its longest drought

The success kept on coming following Penske’s move to the all-oval IRL in 2002, and his victory in the 2003 Indianapolis 500 - his first race back from a back injury sustained at Motegi - is the stuff of legend. He fittingly won his final open-wheel start at Texas, a race overshadowed by Brack’s horrifying accident, and when he returned to the cockpit several years later with his own Acura-backed team in the American Le Mans Series it was as though he’d never been away.

The impact of an analytical-minded driver is undoubtedly less today, de Ferran would concede in 2018, not long after he’d joined McLaren’s F1 team as a sporting director: “The premium on shall we say a ‘deep engineering understanding’ I think still exists, but it’s less important.” But it only serves to underline how de Ferran was ideally equipped for success with his blend of speed and nous.

"When I became a manager and one of my jobs was to identify who were the most promising talents and who is likely to become a standout, it’s very difficult to look at a snapshot without really understanding where the driver is in their development, both psychologically and in terms of driving skills" Gil de Ferran

“Back then, which sounds like it’s 50 years ago but it’s not that long, the driver was probably the best sensor you had,” he remarked. “Yes, you had a lot of squiggly lines and information coming out of the car, but the understanding of aerodynamics, vehicle dynamics and so on was much less than what it is [now]. Tyres in particular were much less, so there was a lot of subjectivity. Nowadays, there is less and less that the driver can contribute in their analysis.”

It’s perhaps unsurprising then that de Ferran’s input was so well-regarded in his post-driving career, first with Honda and then across two spells at McLaren. Refreshingly, his impression of drivers was not based on the strength of one season, or one race. In keeping with his lifelong approach, he adopted a bigger picture view of their trajectory.

“Both from a developing skills perspective but also from where you are mentally,” he said in 2022. “Are you improving or not? The mistakes you made three years ago, are they less prominent or more prominent? Or do you keep making the same mistakes over and over? You really have to step back and look at a bigger history than one season.

De Ferran has mentored many up and coming drivers, while he also oversaw Alonso's Indy 500 debut in 2017

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

De Ferran has mentored many up and coming drivers, while he also oversaw Alonso's Indy 500 debut in 2017

“Drivers coming through tend to be quite young age-wise, and people mature in different ways. Also, in terms of background, some people started racing later, some people earlier. When Jan Magnussen went to drive Formula Fords in Britain, I remember watching his races and it looked like a Formula 1 driver because he had so many racing skills that the others hadn’t quite acquired at that point. It looked like he was just playing with people, but he was three-time world karting champion and obviously in a completely different stage of development than most of his competitors.

“When I became a manager and one of my jobs was to identify who were the most promising talents and who is likely to become a standout, it’s very difficult to look at a snapshot without really understanding where the driver is in their development, both psychologically and in terms of driving skills.”

After he was engaged as a consultant by McLaren during its return to form in 2023, team boss Andrea Stella hailed de Ferran’s qualities as a coach and a strategic thinker, noting how “you can talk to Gil more as an engineer than as a driver”. And although he remained in the background, his quiet influence was certainly felt. Just as it was by all he encountered.

Gil de Ferran just got it. He will be sorely missed.

Tributes have been pouring in for de Ferran since his sad passing

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Tributes have been pouring in for de Ferran since his sad passing

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