Team Penske returned to victory lane and championship contention because of Gil de Ferran.
His career goes beyond just his five years racing with Roger Penske, but the correlation between his time as a driver and the team’s return to prominence in early 2000’s is no coincidence.
De Ferran’s career was short in the major open-wheel series in America, from 1995 to 2003, but he left his mark and accomplished a lot that put him above many drivers considered greater than him. Even after his career behind the wheel ended, he was never truly gone. The smiling, soft-spoken Brazilian was a friend to so many in the paddock and a wise sage as he was a constant advisor or liaison to teams through the last two decades. His short stint as an owner in IndyCar was probably not as fulfilling as he wanted, but not every former IndyCar winner made it stick. Just ask Bryan Herta, Eddie Cheever and Jimmy Vasser.
Still, he was respected highly enough that he was sought after to represent IndyCar owners’ interests in the committee that reviewed and developed what became the Dallara DW12 chassis which is still used in the series. Other activities included managing the BAR-Honda Formula 1 team, in a time when the manufacturer was not as dominant as they have been in recent years. There were no wins and he left after a disappointing two years in the heavily political F1 world. Even that lack of success wasn’t a detriment as he made two more forays into the series he never drove in to serve in advisory capacities.
To many American racing fans though, de Ferran’s impact was in the IndyCar racing world.
The quiet and humble Brazilian landed in the then-PPG IndyCar championship in 1995, driving for Jim Hall’s Pennzoil Reynard, which hadn’t visited victory lane since John Andretti was behind the wheel in 1991. Surprisingly, the unknown rookie, without any previous Toyota Atlantic or Indy Lights experience, showed he belonged in his first year. At Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport circuit, he notched his first pole and led 67 laps. However, while being hounded by the savvy Michael Andretti, he crashed while hastily lapping Scott Pruett.
That disappointing result didn’t cause a hangover, because he found the winner’s circle just five races later at the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
The next year, he returned with Hall’s team, but with Honda power which was becoming the dominating combination. This would start a long-term relationship with the Japanese manufacturer that continued in his post-racing career. He improved from 14th to sixth in the standings, earning points in 10 of the 16 races as well as his second career win at Cleveland which made up for the mistake the year before.
After Hall retired, de Ferran moved over to the Valvoline sponsored Derrick Walker Racing Honda Reynard. His first year in 1997 was a good one in the standings, a second place which was his highest yet, but no race wins. Finishing with seven podiums wasn’t enough to overcome the newly crowned Alex Zanardi.
Over the next two years, de Ferran struggled to get back to victory lane. As other young rookies came in – like Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya – the smaller Walker Racing wasn’t able to be a front-runner every week. However, circumstances aligned for the team at Portland in 1999, when de Ferran took advantage of a Montoya pit crew mistake after he led them into the pits under yellow. A miscue requiring the rookie to lift back up on his jack gave de Ferran the opportunity he needed to overtake Montoya for the lead. Even an aggressive Montoya, one of the most aggressive drivers ever to strap into an IndyCar, couldn’t catch de Ferran who stretched out the gap, not even to be challenged during a late splash for fuel. De Ferran held on for his third win, beating out a young driver that would win the championship that year, win multiple races in F1 and then drive in NASCAR. That type of drive wasn’t overlooked in the paddock.
Considering how events later unfolded, maybe it was his most important win ever.
At the end of the 1999 season, Roger Penske was making changes, and that included bringing in a new driver that had already proven himself on the circuit. The team was moving from the in-house chassis and Mercedes-branded Illmor engines to the preferred Reynard-Honda combo. And guess who had experience with that set up? That’s right, de Ferran.
He was chosen to replace Al Unser Jr. in the Marlboro car that had been relegated to mid-pack entries. After the team’s horrendous 1995 Indianapolis 500 experience, in which none of the cars made the race, they floundered in the series. Four wins in 1995 were followed by none in 1996 and three in 1997. The worst was to come the following two years when the team was winless and finished outside the top 10 in points for the first time since 1979, when CART began. That wasn’t the Penske way.
Heading into 2000, de Ferran was signed to team with Helio Castroneves, a young, neatly-groomed fellow Brazilian. The duo returned Team Penske to victory lane relatively quickly, erasing the squad’s longest winless drought in history. It was also a unique combination for Penske and a sign of the international talent that was sweeping through the series. This was the first time Penske had race winning drivers who were not American-born in all his cars, joining the ranks of other owners who were looking across the globe for the best to compete in the open wheel series. De Ferran was at the head of this new Penske revival.
For good measure, by the way, it was in Penske machinery that de Ferran set the world closed course speed record at Auto Club Speedway, with a lap of 241.428 mph during qualifying for the 2000 Marlboro 500. De Ferran’s record still stands, 23 years later.
In the best equipment, de Ferran had his two best seasons in CART, winning four races, earning 15 podiums and capturing two championships, the first for Penske since Unser Jr.’s in 1994. He led 286 laps in 2000, a career high, which he then beat the following year with 328. Remarkably, it wasn’t pure dominance that won him each title, but his consistency and ability to get to the finish. In that era of IndyCar racing, as the engine wars were at their peak, getting to the race’s end could be an accomplishment at times. Having the right combination of engine and chassis only worked if the right driver was there too, and Penske had it in de Ferran.
Return to Indy
It was a matter of time. Penske couldn’t stay away from the Indianapolis 500 forever. Politics within open-wheel racing were not going to prevent him from jumping back to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. In 2001, he did just that and de Ferran was in the best seat possible.
Unfortunately for the Brazilian, he had finished only one lap in his only Indy 500 in 1995. The first lap crash involving Stan Fox and Cheever snared de Ferran as well. Then the Split happened and he continued with CART, so no further opportunities to return were available. After Chip Ganassi Racing made a run, and won in 2000 with Montoya, the gates opened.
The new, bulkier chassis of the Indy Racing League were not the slick machines outfitted with extensive horsepower in CART. But what de Ferran and Team Penske brought was experience, professionalism and race strategy.
In 2001’s Indy 500, de Ferran followed his race-winning teammate Castroneves across the finish line, making it a one-two finish for the Captain in his return. De Ferran followed Penske to the Indy Racing League the following year, and competed in the all-oval series. The 2002 Indy 500 almost was his, but a wheel came off during his last pit stop with 20-to-go and relegated him to 10th.
Then in his fourth try, he won the race, holding off his teammate Castroneves, who was looking to win his third 500 in a row. The sly smile of the personable Brazilian was shown to millions across the world as he lifted the winner’s wreath over his head.
This highlight of his career would be the swansong. He didn’t return in 2004 to defend his win, instead retiring at the end of the 2003 campaign. Even though he was only in the series for two years, he played a critical part in establishing the organization in a new environment. He won five races over his two full seasons in the IRL, including his finale at Texas. When he stepped out of the IndyCar cockpit for the last time, he was 36 years old, relatively young when compared to current drivers like Scott Dixon and Castroneves who are racing in their 40s. And he showed he could win. But there were other pursuits such as sports cars and racing management that he could devote more time to after hanging up the helmet.
In totality, de Ferran spent eight years in IndyCar, winning 12 races, two championships and one Indy 500. But perhaps his greatest feat wasn’t just the trophies but how his time at Penske positively influenced the team’s future trajectory, when he helped return the famed operation back to contenders again.
About the author
Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.
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