INDIANAPOLIS, August 5, 2003 - Let's face it. Auto racing is a roller coaster ride for drivers and teams. It's certainly been one for Gil de Ferran, the French-born Brazilian now in his fourth year driving for Marlboro Team Penske, and his second full season contesting the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series.
At this point, Gil is the hottest driver on the IndyCar Series circuit and he's had a great season despite the interruption of missing the Twin Ring Motegi round, the Indy Racing League's first race outside the United States. He's finished outside the top three only twice since Indy, in the night race at Texas (8th) and seventh at Michigan.
"Even before the season we thought we'd be competitive, we'd be in contention for the championship," de Ferran admits. "After the accident in Phoenix," where he suffered back injuries along with a nasty concussion, "we picked up where we left off and we've been good ever since. The important thing, though, is from now on. We have to concentrate on the races ahead" at Marlboro Team Penske, where he drives the #6 Dallara/Toyota.
Last year, his first in full-time IRL competition, de Ferran was in contention for the title up to the penultimate event at Chicagoland, where he crashed, unable to contend in the final Texas round. That left the amiable driver third in the points tally after taking two victories (from pole) and four MBNA Pole Awards, more than any other driver.
Following an extremely tight 2002 battle, everything changed for IndyCar Series competitors. They've got new chassis and engines for the three-year period up to the close of 2005 competition. "Toyota has done a fantastic job this year. I've been up and working with them on engine development since the middle of last year. You've got to give them credit for their preparation before the season started. It was awesome.
"To have this kind of success in their first year of competition, well, I'm not surprised. I was an insider to the process," after all. Meeting the challenge of the new Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 shouldn't be much of a problem for Toyota Racing Development (TRD), de Ferran believes. "Toyota is constantly working on developing the engine. We certainly had more power at Michigan than we did in Homestead. Engine power is never a constant; you have to push the boundaries on and on and on."
Gil de Ferran and Marlboro Team Penske come into the Emerson 250 this weekend at 1.25-mile Gateway International Raceway as defending winners. Teammate Castroneves finished second to de Ferran last year. "Gateway is a very physical and difficult track, but that's the nature of short ovals where you pull more Gs. It's very demanding physically, and last year it was quite hot. Guys are always twitching around" the egg-shaped circuit. "It's not an easy track.
"The keys to success at Gateway were laid down last week in testing. It went well for us and we believe we've made good preparations. If we can turn that into a good race weekend, with good qualifying, good pit stops and a good clean race, yeah, we can contend for the win again this year. But everybody's been testing and it will be very tight once again, a very physical race."
Sometimes, being with the same team for a while, the relationships tend to get stale, but Gil de Ferran doesn't "really have a problem getting out of bed each day. I'm searching for new heights and it's hard to imagine the other end of the coin. At Marlboro Team Penske, there's excitement everybody feels with success and you always want it more. Work doesn't have to have negative connotations. I look forward to testing and enjoy the entire process," something he's emphasized throughout his career.
"There's no one reason for Team Penske's success," Gil believes. The team is good at lots of aspects in racing and the people are extremely talented. Roger seems to hire the best guys at what they do in this industry and we're all well motivated. Everybody reaches farther on this team and I don't know how Roger does it. He gets people to go beyond their possibilities but we're still not pressured. It's friendly competition. It's an exciting environment where we focus on the next big thing."
"There was a tight battle for the championship [last year] and I think it will be even tighter in 2003. I think there will be 4-5 guys fighting for the title on the last lap of the last race. It would mean a bunch to win the IRL title; that's the highest priority to me. The races here are exciting and there's a high value attached to winning the title. The racing is very, very good and guys value how tough the competition is."
He also looks forward to the Indy Racing League's possible - no, probable - future events on road circuits. "I've made no secret of my desire to go road racing again. I would welcome such a move." De Ferran doesn't think adaptation of road course settings would be difficult for either Dallara or Panoz G Force, the IRL's two chassis designers, or for its engine suppliers, Honda, Toyota and GM Racing. "I haven't spent time looking at that, but probably it would not be that difficult to modify brakes or suspensions to go road racing," he says with a smile.
Gil de Ferran is fighting off a head cold as he heads for the St. Louis, MO suburb of Madison, IL and this weekend's Emerson 250, but despite a persistent cough he thinks he'll be ready to take his second win in a row at this short oval. "Racing, you know, is like building a house," he shrugs. "You do it little by little. There's really no magic way to do it." He's prepared to "drive a qualifying pace all day" if that's what it takes to win. And yes, he will "never give up."