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Gil de Ferran jumps back in cockpit next weekend
Gil de Ferran is wearing a wide smile these days.  The 2003 Indy 500 winner and two-time CART champion is back to doing what he loves, driving a racing car.  And he has a few other duties too.

The 40-year-old open-wheel legend left the pressurized world of Formula One last year after three years as the sporting director for the Honda F-1 operation. And he looked for a new challenge.

Now, on May 16-18 at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah, de Ferran debuts his new de Ferran Motorsports organization and his new racing machine, the No. 66 Panasonic ELS Acura ARX-01b prototype sports car in the American Le Mans Series. 

It wasn’t until last November that de Ferran, the personable Brazilian who set a stunning record in CART and IRL in the late 1990s and early 2000s, thought he would like to run his own team.  And he knew he wanted to get back in the driver’s seat too. 

Watching close friend David Brabham and past open-wheel rivals Adrian Fernandez and Bryan Herta driving the Acura machines in 2007, de Ferran heard how much fun the LMP2 machines were to drive.  High-tech, ground effects and exciting wheel-to-wheel racing convinced Gil to jump back behind the wheel.

So, de Ferran, known as the “Professor” for his knowledgeable approach to driving, set his sights on developing a racing team.  He worked with Acura and Honda Performance Development officials to form de Ferran Motorsports and announced his new operation at Sebring in January.  He hired racing veteran John Anderson to spearhead his new program as general manager with the team headquarters in Brownsburg, Ind, just outside of Indianapolis.

Last month, the new team hit the track for the first time.  De Ferran and his co-driver, young open-wheel star Simon Pagenaud, piloted the No. 66 Acura through its paces at Sebring.  The smile got even wider on de Ferran.  He also added Panasonic ELS sound systems as the team’s primary sponsor.

Less than six months since the thought went through his head, de Ferran and his new team will enter the high-competitive ALMS tour at the beautiful Miller Motorsports Park for round four of the 11-event road racing campaign.

It will mark the first time since Oct. 12, 2003 that de Ferran has competed as a driver.  He walked away from the cockpit after winning that day at Texas Motor Speedway.

But the urge was too strong to keep him away.  Over four years later, one of the sport’s most accomplished racer returns to the driver’s seat in his own machine.  It is a dream realized for de Ferran.

Gil de Ferran Questions and Answers:

After all the work that has gone into creating the team, what is it like to see it all come to fruition?
“Considering this started as a conversation about a potential race team only a few of months ago, it is quite emotional to witness what has happened and see it evolve, develop and become reality. 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 finished, the new truck had arrived and it suddenly it really hit me – wow, this is for real. All our guys on the team have been working extremely long hours and pulled out a superhuman effort for the Sebring test.”

How did you decide on Simon Pagenaud as your co-driver?
“Simon has a very good reputation in the industry - that was the first thing that attracted me to him. That goes beyond just his on-track results which of course have been very impressive. It is about the overall package – how he works with the team, his work ethic, fitness, how he relates with sponsors, etc. My old friends at Walker Racing spoke very highly of him - he won his Atlantic championship with them in 2006 and was very impressive in Champ Car last year. Once I met Simon I found him to be 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 great results – hopefully however, he is yet to reach his full potential. As a team we can develop together. For de Ferran Motorsports, it is also important to have some young talent on board. I am looking forward to getting back behind the wheel but I won’t be driving forever. Simon has a very long career ahead of him.”

How important is it for your team to welcome a major sponsor like Panasonic prior to your debut?
“Panasonic ELS. We are delighted to announce that they will be supporting us this year. Having partners of this caliber is a tremendous endorsement for our race team – particularly in the early stage of our development.  We are still in the process of fine tuning their branding on the car, but it is great for the American Le Mans Series to welcome another high quality brand like Panasonic – it is great to see companies like this recognize the potential of this series and the benefits it can provide. We will be working very hard to enable Panasonic to use our race team as a valuable marketing tool to promote the ELS Surround sound system.”

How difficult has it been to create an entirely new race team from scratch? Have you been pleased with the personnel you have been able to recruit?
“We have been very fortunate that our program seems to have generated quite a bit of interest within the industry. I am delighted with the team of people we have been able to assemble. We have a very experienced group of guys who come from a variety of backgrounds. We have a lot to learn but I feel we have a very good group together.”

You were known as “The Professor” during your open wheel days, now you have moved to sportscar racing, what are some of the key differences you have researched?
“I can also only speak about sports car racing at the moment as an outsider, because we haven’t started a race yet – but my impression is that it is becoming long sprint events, rather than races where you have to nurse the car. The technology in the car, the Michelin tires and the engine means that there is no increase of the chance of failure by driving throughout the race at qualifying speed. In many ways, they are becoming like very long open wheel races. The key difference I have observed is the traffic which you have to deal with because of the four different classes on track at the same time. Unquestionably, this is a area in which that Simon and I are short on experience.”

How have you balanced your time between setting up your team, and getting back in race shape to get behind the wheel?
“As we are getting closer to hitting the track, my time split has been shifting. Obviously, getting the team set up has taken a huge amount of my time, but now I am starting to concentrate on becoming a racing driver again. I have been working very hard on my fitness – both physical and mental fitness to prepare myself to get back behind the wheel.”
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