2003 Indy 500 Champ Gil de Ferran, 56, Has Died

Gil de Ferran at Indy in 2003 - Ann Miller Carr photo
Gil de Ferran exits the pits in Texas during his final 2003 Indy car race – Anne Proffit photo

French/Brazilian Gil de Ferran, who died Friday, December 29 at age 56, was a racer, innovator, speedster, prankster, husband, father, friend, and competitor. He’d been racing with son Luke at private road-course venue The Concours Club at Opa-Locka, FL., when he realized something wasn’t right, so he pulled over. Sources at the scene cited cardiac arrest; this is not yet confirmed.

As a racer, de Ferran’s achievements are legendary. In his open-wheel career, one that began internationally in Britain where he aligned with Paul Stewart Racing, de Ferran recorded a British Formula 3 title in 1992 and came third in the 1994 Formula 3000 (now Formula 2) championship. Without a Formula One offer, de Ferran migrated to the United States to take up an offer from road-racing legend Jim Hall to compete with his Hall/VDS CART Indy car team.

Family was most important to de Ferran, shown here with Anna and Luke and the BorgWarner Trophy after winning the 2003 Indy 500 – Anne Proffit photo

It was in the final race of the 1995 season that de Ferran, driving Hall/VDS’ bright yellow Pennzoil-sponsored Reynard/Mercedes-Benz, recorded his first CART victory at Laguna Seca, impishly imploring everyone in Victory Lane to keep quiet as he held daughter Anna in his arms. At the close of the 1996 season, Hall disbanded his team and de Ferran joined Derrick Walker’s squad. He remained at the Goodyear-shod Walker Racing team through to the 1999 season, recording a single victory at Portland in that final year, against vaunted competitors like Alex Zanardi and Dario Franchitti.

Team Penske owner Roger Penske and president Tim Cindric saw the potential in Gil de Ferran, known throughout the CART paddock as “The Professor” for his methodical manner in dissecting his competition and evaluating different setup situations. He was hired to replace outgoing Al Unser Jr. for the 2000 season; his intended teammate was to be Greg Moore. Moore’s death in the final 1999 race at California Speedway in Fontana, CA placed Brazilian countryman Helio Castroneves on Team Penske to cement the Brazilian invasion of CART/Champ Car.

de Ferran in his Team Penske racecar at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Anne Proffit photo

As the century turned, so too did Gil de Ferran’s fortunes. He won twice in 2000, earning seven podiums en route to his first of two consecutive championships, driving Team Penske’s Reynard 2K1-Honda. At Fontana where, a year earlier he lost his pending teammate, de Ferran set the closed course record – one that stands today – of 241.428 mph on the 2-mile banked oval. A year later, with Team Penske  having moved from CART/Champ Car to the rival Indy Racing League’s oval championship, de Ferran won the 2003 Indianapolis 500, using a G-Force chassis and Toyota power, with his teammate Castroneves, already a two-time Indy 500 winner, in second place.

At the end of the 2003 season, after winning the Texas Motor Speedway finale, de Ferran retired from racing in open-wheel competition. At the close of his open-wheel driving career, de Ferran had notched 12 victories and 21 pole positions. He took a hiatus from the driver’s seat, in 2005 becoming Honda’s sporting director of its BAR-Honda Formula One team. He left after a couple of years, stating his discomfort with the team.

de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud helped Acura develop its ARX-02a LMP1 race car – photo courtesy HRC USA

In January of 2008, de Ferran announced his return to competitive racing, fielding a factory-backed ARX-01b LMP2 prototype in the American Le Mans Series. de Ferran Motorsports started competing in ALMS races halfway through the 2008 campaign, as the team owner shared driving duties with Simon Pagenaud. A year later, after scoring five outright victories and seven poles in only eight races, they were runners-up in the championship. Midway through the 2009 campaign, de Ferran again stated his intention to retire from the cockpit.

But like most drivers that exit the cockpit, he realized there was no cure for this motorsport addiction, and de Ferran elected to merge his team with Jay Penske’s squad, Luzco Dragon Racing. In the 2009 season, they accrued four Top Ten results with Raphael Matos at the wheel. As the IndyCar Series, which had merged with CART/ChampCar in 2008, began its search for a new chassis, de Ferran’s engineering and technical expertise found him representing team owners as development of what would become the DW12 chassis commenced.

Gil de Ferran and team owner Roger Penske celebrate his closed-course record that still stands today – HRC USA photo

After shuttering the Indy car team in 2011 due to lack of funding, Gil de Ferran had managerial stints with both Honda and McLaren and had, in 2023 returned to the papaya-liveried team to assist their multi-pronged assault on F1, INDYCAR, ELMS and other projects team principal Zak Brown had in mind. His technical prowess enabled him to see things that needed to be done that, perhaps, those closer to the team couldn’t see. He was part of McLaren’s unsuccessful attempt to put Fernando Alonso in the Indy 500 in 2019.

As news of de Ferran’s death hit social media, those who worked with him and those who competed against him were singular in their effusive memories of the man. Team owner Roger Penske led them: “We are terribly saddened to hear about today’s tragic passing of Gil de Ferran. Our thoughts and prayers go out to [wife] Angela, Anna and Luke, and the entire de Ferran family,” Penske said. “Gil defined class as a driver and as a gentleman. As an INDYCAR champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner, Gil accomplished so much during his career, both on and off the track.”

Honda Racing Corporation USA’s president David Salters remarked, “American Honda and HRC USA extends its deepest sympathies to the family, friends and many fans of Gil de Ferran, former Honda Indy car champion, world record holder, Indianapolis 500 winner and Acura sports car racing team owner, who passed away today in Florida.” Mario Andretti agreed: “My heart sank at the news of Gil de Ferran’s death,” he said. “It’s heart-wrenching. Thinking of him now and savoring every conversation. He will be missed by so many. A wonderful man and a dear and loyal friend.”

Gil de Ferran at Indy in 2003 – Ann Miller Carr photo

Marco Andretti chimed in: My friend,” he said of de Ferran. “One of the real ones. One of the reasons for my F1 tests. Loved your passion and love for our sport. Thank you for what you contributed to my life.” Prime competitor Paul Tracy, who won the 2003 Champ Car championship recalled his adversary: “He was so good technically,” Tracy told Racer. “He knew how to have a good time away from the track and was very serious on it. If we ever had IndyCar’s equivalent of Alain Prost, it was Gil.”

Racing Junk extends its condolences to wife Angela, whom de Ferran met when she was working with Paul Stewart Racing, to Anna, to Luke and all of his racing family.

About Anne Proffit 1280 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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