Gil de Ferran looks ahead to his team's debut in this month's Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring
With just two weeks to run before this year's Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring (21 March), opening round of the 2009 American Le Mans Series, de Ferran Motorsports is gearing up for its first appearance in the annual Florida classic. Team Principal and race car driver Gil de Ferran (pictured right) talks about his team's debut at Sebring and its step up to the premier LMP1 category with the new no.66 XM Radio de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-02a.
What are your first impressions of the new XM Radio de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-02a, which will be making its first competitive appearance at Sebring later this month?
"You only have to look at the Acura ARX-02a when it's standing still to know it's pretty interesting. It's clearly a highly-sophisticated machine with some of the most advanced technology that you'll find on any racing car. When we started the on-track test program, it was immediately evident that the car had plenty of potential. Being a brand new design, though, it was also clear that we needed all the time we could muster to ensure that we were getting close to unlocking its full potential before Sebring."
From a driver's perspective, how does the new LMP1 XM Radio de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-02a perform in comparison to the LMP2 Acura ARX-01b that you raced in 2008?
"It feels improved in every account. It's not like jumping from a Formula 3 car to a Formula 1 but it is definitely on a slightly higher level all round. The brakes are a little better, it has a little bit more downforce, the engine is a little bit more powerful... everything is a small step up from last year and that shows on the lap times, too."
Having won the Indianapolis 500 and two Champ Car titles you retired from racing at the end of 2003 only to make a return to the cockpit with the formation of your own ALMS team in 2008. How much are you enjoying your comeback?
"I do enjoy driving the Acura very much - it's been a great challenge because it's such a very high performance machine. Last year I worked hard to get myself back into physical shape and to get my hand back in. After a five-year gap that wasn't an easy task. Now, the new Acura ARX-02a is even more demanding and, once again, I'm having to increase my personal fitness programme to ensure I can get the most out of the car. It also means managing my time between being a driver and my responsibilities as a team owner is becoming increasingly difficult."
From a team perspective, what lessons have you learned from your debut ALMS campaign in 2008?
"Preparation is the key... not that I didn't know that before! Long races have a way of exposing any box that you've either failed to highlight or forgotten to tick."
The new Acura ARX-02a was only unveiled at the end of January, how much testing have you done pre-Sebring and how happy are you with the progress?
"We have done a couple of days at Homestead Miami Speedway, but mainly we have been focusing our preparations for Sebring by testing at Sebring. Most recently we completed a 12-hour simulation test and we are fairly happy with our progress. Given that this is a new and very complex project, we could do with another month prior to the first race, but we have made significant advances and now we'll just have to wait and see whether that's enough."
What are your hopes for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring? How will you approach the race - will it be a test or a race for your team?
"We have no control over the performance of our competitors, so our strategy will be to push on with our own development with an 'us versus us' approach. In other words the first challenge is for us to get the most out of what we have. That said, we never enter a race with the intent of finishing second or third - we will certainly go for it on the day. We'll have to wait until the curtains open, though, before we know whether we'll be competitive enough to be fighting for the outright win."
There have been some revisions in the technical rules in an attempt to provide a more level playing field between the diesel-turbos as entered by Audi and Peugeot and petrol-engined prototypes such as the Acura ARX-02a? Do you now expect to be on the same performance level as your diesel rivals?
"It's really too early to say. In theory, the rule changes should ensure that our petrol-powered Acura is more competitive with the turbocharged diesel machines that have been dominating sportscar racing in recent years - and that must be a good thing in terms of putting on a close race for different types of car. However we won't know until Sebring just how successful these revisions will be."
At Sebring you are sharing the no.66 XM Radio de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-02a with your regular co-driver Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon, the reigning Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar champion. You must be delighted to have put together such a strong team.
"I'm very pleased with our driver line-up. Scott is one of the best in the world today. The success he has achieved in IndyCar racing is quite remarkable and, having him in the team, it's easy to see why. He's very fast, very consistent and knows what he's talking about. As we witnessed last year, Simon is a very promising young talent. The three of us make a great combination and I'm pleased we've been able to put together such a strong team."
Having never raced at Sebring before, what are your impressions of both the track and the world famous Twelve Hour race?
"Sebring certainly poses some unique challenges. It's a very old circuit and it's extremely bumpy which makes the 12 hours a true endurance race. In fact, it will test the durability of both cars and drivers probably more than any other race track in the world. The history is pretty special, too. You only have to look at the great names and the legendary cars that have won to understand just how prestigious this sportscar race is. That's why I'm honoured to be a part of it."
Along with Patron Highcroft Racing, de Ferran Motorsports is one of two teams chosen by Acura to race the new Acura ARX-02a at Sebring and in the 2009 ALMS. Will you be working with Highcroft or will they be your main rivals?
"The two teams are collaborating really well during this important development phase and will continue to work together throughout the year to increase the overall level of the Acura program. But, come the events, we will be competing against each other as we are here to go racing."
Looking beyond the season-opener at Sebring, what are your thoughts for the rest of the 2009 ALMS? With Audi opting not to contest the full series, where will the main opposition for race wins come from?
"Right now we will probably be competing mostly against Highcroft. It's a team that has done very well in last year's championship and, running a similar Acura ARX-2a, it will be a formidable competitor at Sebring and thereafter. I'm certainly hoping that Audi will reconsider its decision not to race in ALMS as it would be great to have them as regular competitors beyond Sebring."