Gil de Ferran made a big announcement during the American Le Mans Series stop at Mid-Ohio in August, but the news the 41 year-old Brazilian team owner and co-driver delivered during the post-qualifying press conference on that Friday afternoon wasn’t what had been widely reported in the motorsports community for months- namely, confirmation of a two-car IndyCar team for 2010 with ALMS co-pilot Simon Pagenaud in one seat and an experienced driver (Scott Dixon?) in the other. de Ferran hopes to stage that press conference in the not too distant future, but on this mid-August afternoon he informed the assembled media that 2009 would be his last as a driver.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always been driven by challenges. While I’ve enjoyed my time behind the wheel of the No. 66 XM Radio DFM Acura ARX-02a, my main focus moving forward is to continue to build our team into a world-class motorsports organization, he said.
Before he hangs up his helmet this time, de Ferran still has some business to attend to as a driver. He and Pagenaud are currently locked in an intense battle with the Patrón Highcroft Racing for the championship in ALMS’ premier Prototype 1 class. With two races left on the calendar, Highcroft has a slim 17 point lead. Originally, de Ferran came out of retirement in the spring of 2008 to help get his fledgling Acura-powered ALMS team off the ground, but now feels that the development of the car (the team moved up to P1 from P2 this season) is in good hands and his time would be better spent attending to the commercial aspects of de Ferran Motorsports.
“I feel that by returning to the cockpit for the past year, I have been competitive and added value to our team as a driver,” he added. “Overall, I also feel we succeeded in developing this program to a point where I can now step down and dedicate 100 percent of my time to expanding our team.” One of the aspects of ownership he`ll be tending to is trying to secure sponsors to underwrite the cost of the team’s planned expansion into IndyCar racing in 2010. de Ferran told PRN during an interview in August that he indeed wants to run a two-car IndyCar team to go along with an expanded two-car ALMS team next year. “Ideally, I`d like to run two cars in IndyCar and two sports cars. I think a team of greater size would be advantageous for everything we do. Not only from a financial standpoint, but also a competitive standpoint running two cars seems to make a lot of sense to us. We could realize economies of scale, and also from an engineering standpoint there are a lot of programs where we can share costs,” he said, explaining the rationale behind the expansion plans.
de Ferran feels that his suburban Indianapolis-based team is ready to grow in order to meet the challenges of running two cars in two different series. “I’m very confident from an infrastructure and personnel standpoint that we`ll be able to do the job. Certainly we’ll have to make some upgrades in our infrastructure and increase our personnel, but it’s a job that I am confident we can take on,” he said. Assuming the money can be found to expand the team, upgrade its facilities and purchase the necessary equipment, who would drive those hypothetical de Ferran Indy cars? Pagenaud seems almost a certainty to land in one of the seats. The 25-year old Frenchman has been impressive behind the wheel of both ALMS prototypes (3 poles and 4 wins this season with two races to go), and also has some impressive open-wheel accomplishments on his resume.
He won the Atlantic Championship in 2006, and scored six top-five finishes in the final season of the Champ Car World Series in ’07. de Ferran’s stated preference is to pair a younger driver with a proven veteran, and the name that has been most associated with the potential seat is Dixon. The defending IndyCar Series champion already has an existing relationship with de Ferran through the ALMS team- he serves as the team’s third driver during the long-distance races, including the upcoming 10-hour Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta- and is in the final year of his current contract with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon’s public statements regarding his contract status suggest a new deal with Ganassi will get done, but de Ferran seems intrigued by the possibility of landing IndyCar`s top driver. Although he did not confirm that any discussions with the talented New Zealander had taken place, his description of what the team would be looking for in a driver sounds a lot like Dixon.
“The philosophy is a simple one: basically we`re looking for the best available. You need the best drivers you can possibly get behind the wheel. I’m somebody who believes having the right guy pushing the pedals makes a huge difference. If we’re able to enter the series, we’ll be a new team and would really benefit from having one of the top names, someone who has experience. Having one of those top guys is definitely something we’d like to do. Now whether we’re able to do that from a timeframe standpoint is a different question. The top guys usually go early and are committed sometimes one or two years ahead. You usually don’t find a top driver out of work,” he explained.
The pairing of de Ferran and Dixon is an intriguing possibility. Nicknamed the ‘Iceman’ for remarkable consistency and coolness under pressure (and at times his distant personality), Dixon is, in many ways, a philosophical heir to de Ferran’s painstakingly methodical and calculated approach in the cockpit. Dixon’s win in at Mid-Ohio earlier this year vaulted him past Sam Hornish, Jr. for the most IndyCar wins (20) since the series began racing in 1996. Known during his nine-year CART/IRL career as one of the series most analytical and thoughtful drivers, de Ferran regularly dazzled team engineers with the precision of his feedback. His exacting style helped him earn back-to-back CART titles (2000-01) for Team Penske.
Following the team’s move to the IRL in 2002, he won another five races over two years, including the Indianapolis 500 during his final season as a driver in 2003. His first outing running a race team came in the spring of 2005, when he was hired to be the Sporting Director for the BAR Honda F1 team.
Despite feeling optimistic at the outset, de Ferran eventually resigned in the summer of 2007 after becoming disillusioned and feeling increasingly uncomfortable working for a team mired in mediocrity. His experience with Honda, however, both with the F1 team and as a CART and IndyCar driver proved to be valuable when American Honda`s racing arm, Honda Performance Development, was looking to add a fourth Acura entry in the ALMS P2 category in early 2008. de Ferran Motorsports made its series debut last May at the Utah Grand Prix and showed immediate pace, although it wasn`t until the team moved to the P1 class this season that de Ferran and Pagenaud reached the top step of the podium (Long Beach).
That victory was the first of four consecutive victories for the No. 66 entry, which helped to close the gap between itself and Patrón Highcroft. With a maximum 40 points up for grabs in the remaining two races, a championship remains a distinct possibility, although the level of competition in the P1 category at Petit Le Mans will be considerably greater than it has been for most of the season with the confirmation that both Audi and Peugeot will be bringing two-car teams to Road Atlanta. As for 2010, de Ferran told PRN that he would like to return to the ALMS regardless, but acknowledges it is a decision that will rest with others. “Our return to the series will mostly depend on what Acura wants to do in the future. We are certainly attached to them, and will do whatever they want to do,” he said. He is hopeful, however, that he’ll be able to continue running his Acura ALMS team next year.
“It’s been a great series for our team. I personally enjoy it very much, and I`ve made no secret of my plans for the team. I would like to expand into IndyCar racing in addition to what we’re doing in sports cars,” he explained. As is the case with everything in motorsports, all plans are contingent on being able to “acquire the necessary finances” as de Ferran put it. Asked during the retirement press conference if he would be willing to prioritize one program over another if the available financial resources would not allow him to do both, de Ferran refused to be pinned down.
“It’s impossible to answer at this point. We`ll just to see how the negotiations develop with our potential sponsors and partners- it’s certainly not a decision one can take alone. It’s TBD (to be determined),” he said. Given that the economic uncertainty in motorsports will likely spill over into 2010, de Ferran’s decision to temper his intentions with plenty of caution seems wise. As tempting as it might be to assume that expansion is a done deal, his plans could remain on the drawing board for a while yet.