Gil de Ferran, 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time CART series champion died on Friday at 56. The French-born driver, who raced under the Brazilian flag throughout a career that spanned over two decades, reportedly suffered a heart attack while racing with his son at the Concours Club near Miami.
“It is heartbreaking to learn of the loss of Gil de Ferran. His accomplishments on the racetrack were significant, but I, along with so many in our paddock, were fortunate to know how wonderful he was as a person. Gil was a true INDYCAR ambassador whose charm and wit were second to none. Our condolences are with the de Ferran family during this difficult time.” said Mark Miles, President and CEO of Penske Entertainment.
In addition to his triumph in ’03, de Ferran was a mainstay in American open-wheel racing throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, competing in both CART and the IRL, capturing 12 wins across the series. The Brazilian most notably found success with Team Penske (then known as Penske Racing), even staying with Penske and teammate Helio Castroneves when the team switched from CART to IRL before the 2002 season.
de Ferran got his start in the lower single-seater ranks in Europe, with moderate success. He won the 1992 British Formula Three championship and competed in Formula 3000 throughout 1993 and 1994, eventually testing with the Footwork Arrows Formula One in ’93. de Ferran’s first shot in America came with Hall/DVS Racing, which led to one win and Rookie of the Year honors for the Brazilian.
Another win ensued in 1996 for de Ferran, before two consecutive winless seasons in 1997 and 1998. The turn of the century brought a change of pace, as de Ferran partnered with the late Greg Moore, and later a then-unknown Castroneves at Penske. In 2000, the French-born Brazilian set the record for the fastest speed ever on a closed course during qualifying at California Speedway. At 241.428 mph, it is a record that still stands to this day.
de Ferran captured two wins in both 2000 and 2001 on his way to back-to-back championships, becoming the first Brazilian CART champion since Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989. A few more wins came through after Penske’s move to the IRL, as de Ferran cemented himself as one of the series’ top oval drivers.
That legacy turned into legend at Indianapolis in 2003 as de Ferran fended off back-to-back defending Indy 500 winner and Penske teammate Castroneves. In a post-race interview, he showed off some of his trademark humor and humility.
“It’s hard to describe in words what I’m feeling right now, it’s such an unbelievable moment for me. You always dream of winning a race like this and to say something smart… but I’m afraid words escape me right now.– Gil de Ferran after winning the 2003 Indianapolis 500
2003 turned out to be de Ferran’s last season behind the wheel of an Indy car. He capped off his ninth and final campaign in the only appropriate way – with one final win at Texas Motor Speedway.
But Gil stuck around both Indy and racing as a whole up to his passing. He served in various adversarial roles throughout the late 2000s and 2010s with Honda and McLaren in F1, along with de Ferran Dragon Racing for a few seasons in IndyCar. He also played a critical role in developing the series’ new chassis in 2012.
de Ferran returned to racing in 2008 with the American Le Mans Series, competing as both owner and driver for de Ferran Motorsports, finding success in both the LMP1 and LMP2 classes with teammate Simon Pagenaud.
Pagenaud was one of the first to pay tribute to de Ferran on social media late Friday night:
Fellow countryman and friend Tony Kanaan expressed his love for GDF as well: