Gil de Ferran, a 47-year-old Brazilian, has participated as a driver, team director and team owner in several of the world’s leading open-wheel and sports car series, including working as sporting director of the Honda Formula One team from 2005 to mid-2007. De Ferran began racing go-karts as a child — inspired by the Formula One exploits of his compatriot Emerson Fittipaldi, a two-time world champion — before pursuing a racing career in Europe. He won the British Formula 3 title in 1992 and then joined Formula 3000, the Formula One feeder series at the time, racing in both F3 and F3000 for the team owned by Jackie Stewart and his son Paul. Narrowly failing to become a Formula One driver, he moved to the United States in 1995 to compete in the top levels of open-wheel racing there, winning the IndyCar title in 2000 and 2001 and the Indianapolis 500 in 2003. De Ferran retired from racing that year, and two years later was called back to Europe to join the Honda team in Formula One as sporting director. In 2006, the team won its first and only race, at the Hungarian Grand Prix, with Jenson Button driving. In 2008, De Ferran founded a team in the American Le Mans Series of sports car racing and returned briefly to driving. He now works as a consultant and serves as global ambassador for Safe Is Fast, a web-based group that helps educate aspiring racing drivers. He spoke recently with Brad Spurgeon of the International New York Times.
Q. What is Safe Is Fast?
A. It’s particularly aimed at young drivers, with educational content, mostly through videos. When I first saw it I thought it was interesting, but then they kept developing it and my thought was, ‘I wish something like this was available when I was starting.’ And believe me, I was one of the lucky ones. My dad was a prominent engineer in Brazil and a very good guy to learn from; I had a mentor in Brazil, as well, when I was growing up, who was very knowledgeable about motor sports. And then when I came to Europe, a couple of years into my European adventure, I had the good fortune of driving for Sir Jackie Stewart, and I couldn’t possibly have had a better mentor. And even then, I read all the racing books that you can imagine — Emerson Fittipaldi, Alain Prost, all of them. But still when I look at the material that is there today on Safe Is Fast, I think, ‘That would have been useful.’
Whether it’s about driving, setting up the car, marketing, promoting yourself, promoting your sponsors, it’s all on the site, by very high-end drivers and professionals and journalists. You have top IndyCar and Formula One engineers talking about how to set up your car. The site is supported by Honda, and one of the reasons I agreed to do it is they want to push the initiative internationally, to expand globally, to have people in Europe, Asia, South America looking at this, and I’m all for that. It’s my ‘giving-back program.’
Q. You were in Formula One at Honda for two and a half years. Honda has had a disastrous return this year. Why?
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A. I have very little knowledge of what’s going on behind the scenes. Obviously I have a soft spot for Honda. Some guys are still involved who I worked with in the F1 program, and even in the IndyCar program back in the 1990s. I want them to do well. I know these guys are very passionate.
But Formula One is very difficult, it’s difficult to go out of and get back in. Because essentially, the know-how is in the people. And when you stop a program, you lose the people. Or even if you keep the people, it is hard to stay current with the latest thinking. I don’t care how good an engineer you have, you need that competition to test your ideas. And being out there in the fight tells you how good you really are and if your ideas are as good as you think.
Q. What chance does the new U.S. team, owned by Gene Haas, have next year?
A. Define chance! First, I hope he is fully aware of, and prepared for, the size of the apple that he is trying to take a bite of. Because to be successful in Formula One is a monumental task. The last team that did it well was Red Bull. And it really requires Red Bull-level of commitment and funding, and skill — managerial skill and business skill — to achieve success in Formula One. Nothing less will suffice. You saw how long it took Red Bull to achieve the level of success that they have. They were finding their feet for some years.
Putting a team together with the right people is not easy, and it will take years and commitment and a lot of investment to accomplish the dream. Personally I think it is a great initiative. Because I want to see Formula One do well in America and I think that is one more piece of the puzzle.
Q. There has been lots of talk about changing Formula One’s technical rules to make the races more exciting. What do you think that the series needs?
A. Maybe I’m getting old and nostalgic, but my favorite period in Formula One was the 1990s and the early 2000s. The cars were super fast and loud. You watch in-car cameras from those days, and still I look at it and go ‘Wow!’ It had everything I have always loved about Formula One.
My view is that anything that brings the human aspect more into the sport, that makes it more fallible, and the fallibility of human beings and the drama, if that can become more prominent and more apparent, I think any initiative that falls under this category would be an awesome thing for motor racing. But we have to be careful that we don’t put concrete boots on Usain Bolt to make sure he has a good race! I don’t like that, either, because I’m a purist. I want to see Bolt beat everybody because he’s that good. I hate that kind of fake, ‘Let’s put the guy on the back of the grid to make it interesting.’ If the guy is that good, we have to see that. So we have to be very careful in balancing those things.