IndyCar

IndyCar legend and ex-F1 team boss de Ferran dies aged 56

by Scott Mitchell-Malm, Matt Beer
5 min read

Indianapolis 500 winner, two-time CART champion and McLaren Formula 1 advisor Gil de Ferran has died aged 56.

According to the Associated Press in the US, de Ferran’s compatriot Tony Kanaan said de Ferran “apparently suffered a heart attack and could not be revived”.

"I am shocked and devastated to hear of the loss of our great friend and team-mate," said McLaren chief Zak Brown.

"I’ve raced with Gil all over the world and watched him win some of the biggest races.

"He’s been a great friend for over 20 years and will be greatly missed and never forgotten.

"My deepest condolences to his family. RIP Gil. The next win is for you! Godspeed."

De Ferran was part of a great line of Brazilian drivers to win the British Formula 3 title as a young driver, in 1992, and though he did not make it to F1 he forged a successful career in the United States.

He swiftly became a race winner in the US and though it took a while to fully convert the potential, de Ferran became a two-time champion in the latter years of the series’ CART identity in 2000 and 2001.

De Ferran went on to win the 2003 Indy 500 then retired for the first time at the end of that year.


DE FERRAN: CEREBRAL CART HERO

De Ferran's two championships came in the final CART seasons before it lost its superiority over IRL IndyCar - a status switch largely triggered by de Ferran's Penske team taking itself and its drivers to the other side of the split boundary for 2002.

Those titles were the perfect examples of the cerebral and determined racer de Ferran had by then become. He won two races each season and it was usually his Penske team-mate Helio Castroneves producing the raw speed and fireworks (Ganassi's Juan Pablo Montoya too in 2000), but de Ferran was no slower - just better at knowing how to make results count in an ultra-competitive, wide-open and often chaotic era.

It wasn't long since he'd been the grid's explosive young talent himself. Repeatedly linked with F1 drives in the mid-1990s, the fact he found a happy and competitive home in what was then the CART Indycar World Series rather than being stuck in the F1 midfield (where most seats he'd been linked to went to pay drivers instead) made him a poster boy for those who argued the American scene was a much better option for talented young racers at the time.

With first Hall Racing in 1995-96 and then Walker Racing from 1997-99, de Ferran never had the absolute best chassis/engine/tyre package but was still a win threat more often than not - though it was relentless consistency that ended up making him Alex Zanardi's last title rival standing in a winless 1997 campaign.

Second in the championship on Goodyear tyres was a huge achievement for de Ferran given Firestone's superiority that year. And he was only 0.027s away from a win in 1997 as he so narrowly came out second-best in the legendary Portland photo finish with Mark Blundell and Raul Boesel.

It was at Portland two years later that he finally took what was amazingly his only win of three impressive Walker seasons limited by tyres. Though best known for being a thoughtful racer not a hard-charger, that day was a prime example of how the speed was always there if needed, as he blew away fuel-saving rivals by charging off to build enough of a gap to make an extra stop and still win.

De Ferran was an ideal pick when Penske took drastic action to revive its struggling programme for 2000 (dropping its old talisman Al Unser Jr and its own chassis and long-time partner Mercedes in favour of Reynard-Hondas), and would've been an intriguing pairing with intended team-mate Greg Moore but for Moore's death in the 1999 finale. De Ferran's subsequent double title revived Penske as an IndyCar force.

A classic road racer, he wasn't especially well-suited to the then all-oval IRL when Penske made its move. But that didn't stop him adding a fully deserved Indy 500 win to his CV too before retiring.


A brief racing return followed with his eponymous team in the American Le Mans Series in 2009, and he briefly took the team into IndyCar too, but before then de Ferran had dabbled in management roles in F1 - which he would reprise towards the end of his life.

De Ferran held the role of sporting director for the BAR/Honda F1 team from 2005 until he resigned in 2007, then returned to F1 in 2018 as sporting director of McLaren.

That came as part of a reshuffle instigated by McLaren Racing CEO Brown, and though de Ferran left in early 2021 he was brought back to the fold in 2023 in another reshuffle led by Brown and his new team principal Andrea Stella.

This was in a “non-executive, non-operational role”, effectively operating as a consultant after Stella reshaped the technical organisation early in 2023.

"Gil was an important and integral part of our racing team," said a McLaren statement.

"He was a formidable force on and off track and made a lasting impact on everyone racing and working alongside him.

"He will be missed by everyone at McLaren Racing."

In a statement released by IndyCar, de Ferran's former team boss Roger Penske, chairman of the group that now owns IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said de Ferran "defined class as a gentleman and a driver".

"As an indyCar champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner, Gil accomplished so much during his career, both on and off the track," said Penske.

"Gil was beloved by so many. He was a great friend to the Team Penske and IndyCar family, as well as the entire international motorsports community. Gil's passing is a terrible loss and he will be deeply missed."

De Ferran was also enlisted to help and advise Fernando Alonso adapt to the Indy 500 back in 2017 as McLaren first dipped its toes back in IndyCar racing.

The F1 squad then initiated a full-time IndyCar team for 2020 by buying into Schmidt Peterson, and de Ferran was key here.

He oversaw the establishing of a small group of personnel to work on IndyCar from McLaren’s MTC base and the integration of McLaren staff into the existing Schmidt Petersen structure.

It undoubtedly helped lay the foundations for the team it has become, contending for wins and championships. He left the role in 2021.

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