Wednesday
Apr302008

De Ferran Motorsports gearing up for race debut

Photo courtesey of American Le Mans Series Gil de Ferran has enjoyed a storied career behind the wheel of open-wheel machinery. But after retiring from driving in 2003, the two-time CART Champion and Indianapolis 500 winner sought a new challenge in sports car racing, also itching to get back in the cockpit.


In January, de Ferran announced the formation of his own team, de Ferran Motorsports, which will campaign an Acura ARX-01b in the American Le Mans Series. De Ferran confirmed details of the program two weeks ago in Long Beach, naming Frenchman Simon Pagenaud as his co-driver and Panasonic as the car’s primary sponsor. With the team making its race debut at the next round in Salt Lake City, it’s full throttle ahead for the series’ newest LMP2 team.

De Ferran’s arrival adds yet another world-class name to the arsenal of stars that have made the transition to sports car racing. The likable Brazilian began racing in go-karts at age 14 before moving to England to race professionally. There, he won the British F3 Championship title in 1992 and was on the fast track to Formula One. De Ferran stepped into Paul Stewart Racing’s Formula 3000 operation for two years. But in 1995, he moved to the U.S. to race in CART.


De Ferran claimed Rookie of the Year honors that year, winning his first of seven CART races. He also went on to claim two championships in his seven-year span in the series. De Ferran then moved full-time to the IRL IndyCar Series in 2002, following team owner Roger Penske. In his two seasons there, he pocketed five wins, including the 2003 Indianapolis 500 and his final IndyCar start at Texas Motor Speedway.

After spending one year in the announcer’s booth helping call IndyCar races for ABC/ESPN, de Ferran moved back to Europe to serve as the sporting director for the BAR Honda F1 team. He held that position until 2007 before taking up his new challenge in the ALMS.

The deal to compete in the series was only finalized in January, meaning de Ferran would miss the opening few races. The Brazilian has been on a rollercoaster of emotions since, as he’s witnessing his own team assemble from the ground up.

“Considering this started as a conversation about a potential race team only a few months ago, it is quite emotional to witness what has happened and see it evolve, develop and become reality,” de Ferran said. “I was in the workshop last week and we had all our mechanics, engineers and technicians there. We had more than 20 people working incredibly hard inside a facility, which didn’t exist a couple of months ago. The car was nearly finished, the new truck had arrived and it suddenly really hit me – wow, this is for real.”

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photo by: American Le Mans Series
The next chapter for the new organization unfolded three weeks ago, when the team unloaded at Sebring to test its Acura for the first time. For de Ferran, it was the first time he was back behind the wheel of a race car since 2003, and his debut in a sports car. It was also a new experience for Pagenaud, as it was only his second time piloting a prototype. The test went well for both the team and drivers, and they hope to clock more miles in advance of their first race in Salt Lake City.

“We are trying to do as much testing as possible prior to our debut at Salt Lake City,” de Ferran said. “We began the programme in Sebring and will return back to Florida for a second test before our race debut. Hopefully we will have an opportunity to run at Miller Motorsports Park before the race as well.”

De Ferran faces a unique situation in not only making sure the car is ready for action, but also confirming the team is up to par to contend in the highly competitive LMP2 category. With relatively short notice, De Ferran has assembled a high caliber organization, led by former Andretti Green team manager John Anderson. But there’s still an unknown factor given much of the crew are new to the series’ unique procedures and regulations.

“We are not only looking at getting the car up to speed,” de Ferran said, “but we are also working at training the crew on pit stops, learning more about the Acura ARX-01b and gelling together as a team. We have an extensive list of tasks that we will be looking to complete during the testing programme.”

One of the new faces is Simon Pagenaud. While he may be a rookie to the ALMS, Pagenaud is no stranger to success. The 23-year-old Frenchman got his start in European karting series before making his mark in the open-wheel ranks. He competed in various Formula Renault championships, and then moved stateside in 2006 to compete in Champ Car Atlantics.

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photo by: American Le Mans Series
Pagenaud won the Atlantics championship in his rookie season and rocketed to the Champ Car World Series the following year. There, he picked up eight top-six finishes, driving for Derrick Walker’s Team Australia squad. As 2008 dawned with a unified open-wheel series, Pagenaud opted to move to sports cars, joining de Ferran’s squad.

“I am really delighted to get this opportunity,” Pagenaud said. “It is not every day that a two-time CART Champion and Indy 500 winner calls and says he wants you to be his co-driver. At this stage of my career, it is an outstanding chance and I can’t wait for the first race.”

At age 23, Pagenaud becomes the youngest driver in the four-team Acura squad. He joins the likes of Adrian Fernandez, Christian Fittipaldi, Bryan Herta and Scott Sharp as ex-open-wheel stars turned Acura ALMS racers. With that pool of knowledge to fall back on, Pagenaud hopes to lay a solid foundation for years to come.

 


“I think it is going to be a fantastic combination with Gil,” Pagenaud said. “His is the type of person who doesn’t do anything less than 100 percent, so I think it is going to be great. We have a lot of excellent guys on the team. Including a few people I know from various Champ Car teams. I have seen the shop with absolutely nothing inside and now we have a complete race team ready to roll, so it is a very exciting time to be part of this project.”

When looking for a co-driver, de Ferran was immediately impressed by Pagenaud’s performance. Not only did his on-track results speak for itself, but his “overall package” and determination to succeed made de Ferran’s decision all that much easier.

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photo by: American Le Mans Series
“My old friends at Walker Racing spoke very highly of him,” de Ferran said. “Once I met Simon, I found him to be very a very impressive young man. He is very sure of what he wants and I think he has the type of personality that will work well with me and the rest of the team. This is very important. Simon is also a very young guy and has already had some good results. Hopefully, however, he is yet to reach his full potential.”

Another factor, as de Ferran mentioned, was age. At age 40, de Ferran knows he isn’t going to race forever and wants to develop a new crop of drivers that will grow with his team.

“As a team, we can develop together,” de Ferran said. “For de Ferran Motorsports, it is also important to have some young talent on board. I am looking forward getting back behind the wheel but I won’t be driving forever. Simon has a very long career ahead of him and hopefully he will be with us for many years to come.”

As a Frenchman, one of Pagenaud’s ultimate dreams is to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. While he is hoping to make it happen one day, possibly with Acura, he’s focused on the task at hand in the ALMS first. That includes adapting to new challenges sports car racing provides.

“There will be lots of new things, not least traffic with the four different classes that I will have to get used to,” Pagenaud said. “But the most important thing for us will be patience. We don’t want to throw a race away because we are trying to dangerously sneak past a GT2 car. Traffic is also a very important factor, but it is also very exciting as well.”

Another new element both de Ferran and Pagenaud will face is the co-driver aspect. Compromise is often the name of the game when it comes to car setup in endurance racing. But Pagenaud hopes that he and de Ferran’s likes and dislikes are similar behind the wheel.

“I think it is going to be important for Gil and me to get used to the car and develop a set-up that suits us both,” Pagenaud said. “We are going to have to try and not be too selfish. It is not just about our own performance – it is what we achieve together. It will be vital to develop a good consistent race car. This is more important than just the qualifying pace.”

De Ferran realizes other keys to success in sports car racing, including race tactics. In years past, endurance races have all been about getting the car to the finish. Instead, races like the Twelve Hours of Sebring have tuned into 12-hour sprint races, with drivers going flat-out to land in victory lane.

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photo by: American Le Mans Series
“My impression is that it is becoming long sprint events, rather than endurance races where you have to nurse the car,” de Ferran said. “The technology in the car, the tires and the engine means that nothing really goes off. So you have to go flat out, you have to push as hard as you can for as long as you can dare.”

While de Ferran said he doesn’t have any specific goals for the team’s first year in the series, the Brazilian is eyeing long-term success down the road. De Ferran hopes the team’s debut in Salt Lake City in two weeks will only be a small part of things to come.

“It is really big picture objective, but we have to keep our eye on the ball and concentrate on the issues we will have to face,” de Ferran said. “We’ll navigate those waters carefully. The road to nirvana is not always in a straight line. To walk that road well, you really have to be paying a lot of attention on the day-to-day and concentrating on each decision you make.”

 

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