The beginning of a new set of features. I hope you all enjoy.
My next series of features will be looking at each driver who competed in my first ever major international motorsport race, the 2001 Rockingham 500, the first time the American CART Championship had raced in the UK since 1979.
Having been confirmed the previous July, the race was held in front of 38,000 people who witnessed, at the time, the fastest ever laps on a British circuit, with cars hitting speeds of over 215 mph. It was also the first full length oval race in the UK since before the war, when cars roared round Brooklands.
I was seven when I watched the action at a very cold Rockingham, I remember my parents either side of me keeping me warm. However I also remember the excitement of watching a major motorsport event trackside for the first time, having been to the official opening that May. The speed the cars hit was mind blowing and something I can still recall now.
The race was won by Gil de Ferran who executed a superb move on the last lap to beat Swede Kenny Brack. It was de Ferran’s first win of the season so it is he who begins this series of features.
Gil De Ferran was born in Paris, France on the 11th November 1967, moving to Sao Paulo when he was nine months old later being inspired to start racing by Brazilian legend Emerson Fittipaldi, who was winning his F1 World Championships when Gil was a young boy.
He began racing go karts at the age of 14 in 1981 before graduating to Formula Ford in 1987, winning the Brazilian Formula Ford championship at his first attempt. This prompted him to move to the UK to continue his development.
1889 was de Ferran’s first season in British motorsport, competing in the Formula Ford 1600 championship, in which he finished third. He moved up the ranks in 1990 to Formula Vauxhall Lotus, racing for Paul Stewart Racing with David Coulthard as his teammate. The duo fared well with Coulthard ending the season fourth however Gil went two better, finishing second 27 points behind Italian Vincenzo Sospiri.
1990 also saw Gil compete in the inaugural EFDA Nations Cup, a country verses country competition for drivers all using the same machinery. Each nation entered two Formula Opel/ Vauxhall Lotus cars, of which seventeen participated with de Ferran representing France. Other drivers on the grid included Coulthard once more as well as Pedro Lamy and Rubens Barrichello. The event was held at Spa in July with Gil, along with teammate Olivier Hulot, finishing tenth.
It was his only year in the series as for 1991, de Ferran had graduated to British Formula 3, racing for Edenbridge Racing in a Reynard 913 Chassis alongside Mikke Van Hool. The grid that year was full of talented drivers who would progress to become household names around the world such as Rubens Barrichello, Pedro Diniz and David Coulthard, with guest appearances from Tom Kristensen and Jorg Muller.
Amazingly, amongst a very competitive field, de Ferran finished the season third, only behind West Surrey Racing’s Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard, who continued to race for Paul Stewart Racing. 1991 also saw de Ferran make his Macau GP debut, again racing for Edenbridge Racing although he failed to finish. The race was won by former teammate Coulthard.
De Ferran remained in British Formula 3 for the 1992 season, switching teams back to Paul Stewart Racing, his seat at Edenbridge Racing taken by future MG BTCC star Warren Hughes. With Coulthard and Barrichello graduating, Gil dominated the 1992 season, only failing to finish off the podium twice all season ending the year on 102 points nearly double the amount of second placed Philippe Adams. His year included seven wins, five second place and two three third placed finishes.
Gil also returned to Macau for the season ending Grand Prix, where he was joined once again at Paul Stewart Racing by Coulthard. Rubens Barrichello also raced having competed in International Formula 3000 in 1992. The race was won however by Swede Rickard Rydell, as Gil finished sixth.
It would be his last Formula 3 race as he graduated to International Formula 3000, again with Paul Stewart Racing alongside his team boss. International F3000 is the equivalent of Formula 2 now, and featured the biggest junior teams in the world such as DAMS and Pacific Racing.
Gil drove well during his debut campaign winning in only his second race at Silverstone, ending the season fifth following a further two podiums in a year which saw Olivier Panis win the championship.
1993 also saw Gil’s first taste of a Formula 1 car as he tested the Footwork Arrows at the F1 young driver test following the conclusion of the F3000 championship. He was joined in the Footwork by Jos Verstappen however his times were not as fast as the Dutchman, who went onto race for Benetton in 1994.
Gil remained with Paul Stewart Racing 1994, now being joined by Frenchman Didier Cottaz in a year which saw him win a further two times in F3000 at Paul Ricard and Pergusa as well as an additional two podiums. It ensured Gil took the championship down to the final race of the season, ending the year third, just eight points behind eventual champion Jean-Christophe Boullion.
Following this success, he was invited to test drive a CART by legendary American driver and team owner Jim Hall, a move which defined his career as he joined the team ahead of the 1995 season. Team sponsor Pennzoil were concerned that he was not a large enough name to put in the car however de Ferran was immediately on the pace, winning Rookie of the Year as well as a single victory at the final race of the season at Laguna Seca.
de Ferran ended the season fourteenth and ensured he remained with Hall/ VDS Racing for 1996. Another victory followed that year around the Cleveland streets, combined with more consistent results saw Gil finish 1996 sixth in the standings with 104 points, beating his 1995 tally by 58 points.
Gil left Hall/ VDS Racing at the conclusion of the season, joining rivals Walker Racing in the Valvoline sponsored Reynard 97i. Despite not winning a race in his debut season with Walker Racing, de Ferran went four better in the standings, coming second only behind Alessandro Zanardi. Gil’s finishing position was solely down to his consistency across the season, only failing to finish outside the top ten four times, in which he finished on the podium seven times.
It was a great season by de Ferran, who remained with Walker Racing for the next two seasons, finishing twelfth and eighth respectively. Although his results were not at the same level as they had been previously, he did add to his win tally, winning at Portland in 1999, beating Juan Pablo Montoya to the victory, his first since mid 1996 and Walker Racing’s first since 1995.
1999 would be an end of an era as both Valvoline and Goodyear left CART, a move which saw de Ferran move to giants Penske replacing Al Unser Jr alongside Brazilian Helio Castroneves for the turn of the millennium. de Ferran had originally been signed alongside Greg Moore however Moore was tragically killed at the final race of the 1999 season.
In the classic Marlboro livery, de Ferran was back to form, now on the superior Firestone rubber, de Ferran won twice in 2000 being closest rival Adrian Fernandez to the title by ten points. It was de Ferran’s first championship triumph since winning the British Formula 3 title in 1992. Like his previous best result of second, de Ferran’s title was won due to his consistency across the season, only finishing outside the points five times all season.
2000 also saw Gil become “The Fastest Man in the World” as he qualified for the Marlboro 500 at the California Speedway, now the Auto Club Speedway, at an average speed of 241.428mph. It currently stands as the fastest lap at an official event ever recorded.
Gil remained with Penske alongside Castroneves for a second season in 2001, in what would prove to be the duo’s last season in the CART championship prior to Penske’s move to the rival Indy Racing League.
Despite the season being the last before an off track shift in momentum towards the IRL, the racing on track was hugely competitive with multiple drivers going to each round with a chance of victory.
de Ferran’s closest competitor however was 2000 Rookie of the Year Kenny Brack, who finished fourth in 2000 and was leading the championship going into my first race at Rockingham, having just won the previous meeting at Lausitz.
Amazingly, it took until Rockingham and Round 17 of the season for de Ferran to win his first race of the season, which he followed up with his second in Texas next time out. These two victories ensured he retained his crown ending the year on 199 points to Brack’s 163.
Following Penske’s withdrawal from the CART series at the conclusion of the 2001 championship, it proved to be de Ferran’s last in the series as he moved over to the Indy Racing League with Penske, once again being joined by Castroneves.
Target Chip Ganassi also joined the series in which already included A.J Foyt Enterprises and Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
Penske were immediately on the pace, Castroneves winning his second consecutive Indy 500 for the team, with the Brazilian duo finishing second and third respectively behind Sam Hornish Jr, who retained his crown. Gil’s first season in the IRL saw him win twice at Pikes Peak International Raceway and the Gateway International Raceway from which he won from pole.
He remained with Penske in what would be his final season in IndyCars, fulfilling a lifelong dream of winning the Indy 500 as well as his final ever race at Texas Motor Speedway. Gil also won at the Nashville Superspeedway as he ended his final season second behind Australian Scott Dixon, who claimed his first of five IndyCar titles. Gil only missed out by 18 points, showing how competitive he was until the end of his racing career.
Throughout his career, Gil was known for his consistency and his methodical approach to motorsport, his ability to maximise a car in any condition was admired by many around the paddock.
Following the conclusion of his racing career, in 2005 Gil joined BAR-Honda as their Sporting Director, although he resigned two years later. Gil also had a stint as a team owner, founding de Ferran Motorsports fielding a factory backed LMP2 Acura ARX-01b in the American Le Mans Series, making their debut in mid 2008.
Despite immediate success in which the team started on the front row four times, led six races and finished on the podium three times from eight races, the team folded at the conclusion of the 2009 citing a lack of funds as the reason, after Acura withdrew all motorsport funding due to the financial crises.
This has not stopped de Ferran’s passion for motorsport as more recently, he has become Chairman of the Extreme E series, an all electric off championship using off-road cars around the world competing in a Dakar Rally style three day event in the most remote parts of the world.
The series has been founded by the same group who created Formula E, with the series debut planned for Senegal from 22nd to the 24th of January 2021. The car which will be used was launched at the 2019 Goodwood Festival of Speed with the the aim of the series is to highlight the impact of climate change in the most extreme areas of the world and promote the adoption of electric vehicles.
Currently seven teams have announced their intentions to compete such as Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing and Abt Sportsline as well as a plethora of star drivers from a variety of motorsport backgrounds such as Sebastian Ogier, Jamie Chadwick, Andre Lotterer and Billy Monger.
It is the exciting next step in Gil’s superb career in motorsport. I feel very lucky to have watched him race in 2001, his red and white car is something which will stay with me forever and how it appeared to effortlessly glide from one turn to the next.
A part of me has always wondered “what might have been”. I am sure he does not think this with such a wonderful career in CART successfully on his CV, however had he got his big break in F1 which he appeared to deserve, he would have been up against the likes of Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher during the mid-nineties. That would have been amazing to see.
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