Genuine. Unselfish. Underrated. Brilliant. Fearless.
Those are some of the words used by various members from the IndyCar paddock to describe Gil de Ferran.
The sudden passing of the French-born Brazilian has sent a shockwave through the industry, with an outpouring of emotional messages and tributes on social media. Seemingly everyone has ‘a favorite Gil story’, and quite a few were shared with me over the phone late into last night and early this morning.
Although de Ferran became a two-time CART champion and was victorious in the 2003 Indianapolis 500, his impact in motorsports extends well beyond statistics.
When de Ferran scored his first win in 1995 season finale at Laguna Seca, the scene in Victory Lane was as beautiful a moment as could exist as he kissed his wife, Angela, and held their daughter, Anna, who couldn’t stop touching the microphone of interviewer Gary Gerould. He helped lead the charge of a Penske resurgence in the early 2000s, while also mentoring a young Helio Castroneves. Heck, even recently Castroneves shared his fellow countryman was his favorite team-mate. When Simon Pagenaud’s path in open wheel racing appeared over after the 2007 season in Champ Car, he found a home – and wins – at de Ferran’s sports car program in the American Le Mans Series. These are just a few instances of his influence.
Among the tributes last night, Marco Andretti credited de Ferran as one of the reasons for his Formula 1 test in 2006. Additionally, two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso’s quest to learn ovals and race in the 2017 Indianapolis 500 was aided by de Ferran’s teachings.
Whether it was IndyCar titles, Indy 500 wins, or other opportunities, there was so much of de Ferran’s life that helped vault others to find success. Every story told to me over the last 24 hours carried a heavy weight as each respective person battled through the emotional acceptance of losing de Ferran while also wanting to express a memory of happiness they’ve held close.
Out of respect to each of the representatives, those stories will remain private.
There was an overwhelming theme of how kindhearted and thoughtful of a human de Ferran was. Anytime the spotlight found him, it was always shared with family, a team-mate, an engineer, a team owner, or an industry colleague; all of which echoed the significance of his friendship.
I only had a handful of interactions with de Ferran in the last decade-plus of being in the sport, each one few and far between but always a privilege.
Everything that I learned about de Ferran prior came through a television in my youth. He was that blistering fast Brazilian in that sleek Valvoline machine for Derrick Walker, and seemingly the only one that could cause fits to the dominant Chip Ganassi Racing Reynard/Honda of Alex Zanardi. The battles at Cleveland were Cleveland in 1996 and 1997 were certainly something to witness (look it up, kids).
Photo by: DPI
Gil de Ferran
The fact that de Ferran stood out in an era of drivers that were so stacked the likes of Al Unser Jr., Bobby Rahal and others were struggling to finish in the top 10 of the championship was sign enough of his talent.
There were so many moments, whether you were a casual or diehard fan, that left you in awe. Certainly, Rockingham in 2001 stands among those, with his daring outside pass on Kenny Brack on the final corner of the last lap to win, which was only a week after Zanardi horrific accident at the Lausitzring in Germany.
“Gil was one of the most complete drivers ever,” said 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser, in a statement. “An engineer’s mind, blindingly fast, fearless, and always a gentleman. It was an honor to have shared podiums with him and to have called him a friend.
“I will miss his immense sense of humor, unique laugh and beautiful smile. He was a Champions champion.”
Everyone has expressed how their lives were touched by de Ferran, with every positive adjective possible used to describe his character.
Simply put, he is and always will be beloved.