Oct 10

Another turn: Obrigado Jim and Gil

For the second time in a remarkably diverse and successful career

Gil de Ferran will retire as a race driver at the conclusion of Saturday’s Monterey Sports Car Championships presented by Patrón at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.  In contrast to his first farewell, announced after he won the 2003 IndyCar Series season finale at Texas World Speedway, de Ferran gave everyone plenty of warning about his Swan Song II, revealing his plans at Mid-Ohio in August.

Fittingly, Jim Hall – one of the most iconic (if least public) figures in American  racing – is on hand for de Ferran’s final drive, the first high-profile appearance at a race by the father of the Chaparral race cars in some time. 

To those who do not know, or who have forgotten, Hall was instrumental in de Ferran’s career, offering him a job driving for his Hall/VDS Indy car team back in 1995. 

At the time, de Ferran was coming-off his second season of F3000, having contended for the championship both years, although ultimately coming-up short.  While he had some options in F1, the elite teams weren’t exactly falling all over themselves to offer him a contract.
Fortunately, a couple of influential fellows named Adrian Reynard and Rick Gorne knew what they had in de Ferran after he’d raced their F3000 cars for Paul Stewart Racing, and made a point of introducing him to their Indy car customers. 

When his regular driver, Teo Fabi, had to miss a scheduled test, Hall – having met de Ferran briefly at the Michigan 500 – asked the Brazilian to pinch-hit for the pint-sized Italian. 

Battered and bruised by a monumental shunt at Monza in an F3000 car, de Ferran unhesitatingly accepted Hall’s offer and the rest, as they say, is history.

Although it might have seemed an odd combination – the outgoing, self-deprecating Brazilian and the legendarily taciturn Texan – the two formed a singularly effective partnership, to say nothing of friendship. 

Hall, after all, has engineering in his DNA and raced cars of his own design; similarly, de Ferran was well on his way to an engineering degree when the racing bug intervened.  He never got that degree, but de Ferran retains a methodical curiosity about how things work. 

Rather than Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, de Ferran and Hall turned out more like Butch Cassidy and Sundance.  But for Pennzoil’s decision to withdraw its support from Hall/VDS amid the tumultuous split in American open wheel racing, the pairing would surely have enjoyed more than their two wins together.

“There was definitely an affinity there,” de Ferran recalled a couple of years ago.  “From an intellectual standpoint, I really get on well with Jim.  I remember people talking to me, whispering, ‘How are you getting on with Jim?’ Because I guess Jim had this reputation of being a really hard guy.  I was like, ‘Fantastically well!’ 
“I really enjoyed him.  I enjoyed his intellect.  I enjoyed his personality, even though he was a 60-year-old Texan and I was a 27-year-old Brazilian.  We were from two different planets, nearly. 
“Driving with him was great because he was so technically inclined.  And in a way I am too, so we had some great conversations; to work with a guy who totally understood what was going on and what I was talking about.  We would talk about it and talk about it.  I learned and I learned and I learned, about vehicle dynamics, principles of handling.  Even though I was fairly polished already, it was important to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.  
“And he ran the team that way: very technically focused.  When he thought there was something from a technical standpoint that could give him an edge, he would invest in it and go after it.  And he understood, as a team owner and former driver, what that one thing could do for you.  He had a deep, deep understanding of what made the needle move and what didn’t.”
De Ferran went on to bigger and better things of course, winning another Indy Car race for Derrick Walker’s team, then taking two CART titles and the Indianapolis 500 with Penske Racing, to say nothing of establishing a closed-course speed record of 241.426 mph in qualifying for the 2001 California 500, a record unlikely to be eclipsed in our lifetime. 

Take a moment to consider those names: Jackie Stewart, Jim Hall, Derrick Walker, Roger Penske.  One would be hard-pressed indeed to name four more respected figures within the motorsports industry. Certainly de Ferran’s career benefitted immeasurably from his association with Messrs. Stewart, Hall, Walker and Penske.  Just as certainly, it was no accident those pillars of the sport sought out and hired de Ferran.

What’s more, in the process of working for Hall, Walker and Penske, de Ferran formed something of a symbiotic relationship with Honda, one that – ultimately – saw him appointed sporting director of the BAR/Honda F1 team.

Although the team had its moments, in the end Honda’s most recent foray into F1 ended in failure.  And while de Ferran absorbed much about the operation and management of a top flight racing organization, in the end, he resigned a couple of years before Honda pulled the plug on the whole business, observing that he hadn’t been able to make the sort of contribution to the effort he had envisioned.

De Ferran would, of course, resurface on the Honda agenda, forming his own American Le Mans Series LMP2 team with Acura last year and immediately attracting some of the best talent in America to the program, at least in part, because they recognized it was a chance to work with a man known throughout the racing industry for his commitment and professionalism.

With the No. 66 emblazoned on its car (in deference to Hall’s Chaparrals), de Ferran Motorsports very nearly won its debut event, then moved into LMP1 to battle friendly rivals Patrón Highcroft throughout an ’09 season that – but for Audi’s 11th hour withdrawal from the 2009 campaign – would have seen de Ferran reveling in the development of the innovative Acura ARX-02a.

That said, de Ferran accomplished virtually everything he could have asked of himself and his team in the 16-month reprise of his driving career.  In his early 40s, he proved capable of matching his brilliant young teammate Simon Pagenaud lap for lap.  The team won four races this year, challenged for the LMP1 title and generally established itself, organizationally, to take on whatever challenges the coming years have in store.

Just what those challenges will be remain anybody’s guess, although just about anybody and everybody expects de Ferran to return to his open wheel roots with an IndyCar Series program next year in addition to continuing his American Le Mans Series effort. 

No matter where and what the team races, though, you can be sure that Gil de Ferran the “pure” team owner will be the same man he was as a driver/owner or, for that matter, a “pure” driver.  And that’s a man who is on much the same wave length as the tall guy in whose honor the Panasonic/XM Satellite Radio Acura is decked-out in classic Chaparral livery this weekend. 

“I wanted to learn,” de Ferran told me some years ago when asked about his fundamental motivations.  “I wanted to gain more understanding.  I wanted to be better tomorrow than I am today.  And, generally speaking, not only about driving race cars.
“I think if you go through life not trying to understand what the hell is going on, tomorrow has the same feel as today and the same feeling as yesterday.  From an intellectual standpoint, you don’t move forward; you understand as little today as you did yesterday if you don’t make an active effort to try and understand the variables that surround you on that particular day.  And driving was a similar thing.”
Obrigado, Jim and Gil.

source: ALMS – by David Phillips

David Phillips is one of North America’s most respected and renowned motorsports journalists. His ‘Another Turn’ feature appears regularly on americanlemans.com. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Le Mans Series.