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The British Racing Drivers’ Club joins the motor racing world in mourning the unexpected passing on 29 December of Gil de Ferran, at the age of only 56, from heart failure while participating in a private race meeting at the Opa-Llocka circuit in Florida. Tributes have been pouring in across social media from the many friends and colleagues whose lives were enriched by knowing the Paris-born Brazilian driver whether in his earliest days racing karts in Brazil or when he rose to the heights of IndyCar/CART racing.

In the 1991 Autosport Yearbook & Directory covering the 1990 racing season, in which Gil had competed in the major Formula Opel/Vauxhall Lotus Championships, he was described as ‘one of the nicest guys in motorsport, Gil uses his head to stay out of trouble, his smooth style should see him at the front in F3’. By all accounts he never really changed as he ascended the ladder of single-seater success, only falling short at the final financial hurdle for Formula 1.

While studying engineering at university, Gil decided to concentrate on a career as a racing driver after winning the 1987 Brazilian Formula Ford Championship. He moved to the UK where he was put in touch by fellow countryman Ayrton Senna with Ralph Firman at Van Diemen. After a frustrating first season in 1988 running with a poor team and engine, Gil finished third in both the RAC and Esso FF1600 Championships the following year. In those days, the natural progression for aspiring F1 drivers was to follow FF1600 with Formula Opel/Vauxhall Lotus and so it was that Gil joined Paul Stewart Racing alongside a young Scottish driver, David Coulthard. By the end of the 1990 season Gil was second in the British Championship (to Vincenzo Sospiri) and third in the GM Lotus Euroseries to Rubens Barrichello and Sospiri.

Next came two years in the British Formula 3 Championship, the first with Peter Briggs’s Edenbridge team which produced third in the final standings behind Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard while Gil, back with Paul Stewart Racing, ended 1992 with six race wins and the title with nearly twice as many points as runner up Philippe Adams. Continuing the conventional upwards progression, Gil stayed with PSR for two years in Formula 3000, winning once (at Silverstone) in 1993, second twice and fifth in the final points while there were two wins – Pau and Enna-Pergusa – in 1994, a second (at Silverstone) and a couple of third places but also a couple of accidents which left a disappointed Gil only third in the final reckoning.

For someone with less than a full Formula 1 budget within his reach, Gil decided to abandon his ambitions in that direction and instead opted for Champ Cars (CART) initially with Jim Hall’s team which brought him three victories, followed by Derrick Walker Racing for whom Gil placed second in the1997 standings behind Alex Zanardi. Midway through 1997 Gil featured in one of the closest ever finishes in front line single seater racing when he lost out by 0.027 sec to Mark Blundell at Portland. Raul Boesel was 0.055 sec further back in third place. 

After mixed fortunes with Derrick Walker, for 2000 Gil switched to Team Penske to drive the Honda-powered Reynard 2KI. There may only have been two victories in both 2000 and 2001 but Gil’s cerebral, analytical approach ensured that he finished in a podium position on numerous other occasions and in both years, he won the championship. One of his two wins in 2001 came at Rockingham which was particularly appropriate given that Gil’s racing career had been largely centred around British teams. The speed was very much there as Gil showed by setting an all-time record for the fastest lap ever recorded at an official race meeting when he lapped in qualifying at 241.426 mph at the Fontana Speedway in California. A couple of years later Gil, still suffering from the effects of a crash a few weeks earlier, achieved his ambition of winning the Indianapolis 500 although he had to cede the championship title to Scott Dixon by 507 points to Gil’s 489. At which point Gil retired from race driving having finished in the best possible way by winning his last race ahead of Scott Dixon by 0.2 sec.

After a short spell with the Honda (formerly BAR) Formula 1 team as sporting director, which included Jenson Button’s groundbreaking victory in the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix, Gil set up his own team to run in the 2008 American Le Mans Series, with Honda support. Initially in LMP2 with Simon Pagenaud as team mate, Gil returned to the cockpit and finished in third place at Utah in their first race which was followed by another third place in Detroit and ninth in the final standings. For the following year Gil and Simon moved up to LMP1 and won five of the 10 races, taking second in two others but no points from the first two races meant that they were pipped for the championship by the Honda Acura of David Brabham and Scott Sharp.

Unable to raise a sufficient budget to continue with the ALMS team, now known as De Ferran Dragon Racing, in the way that he wished he stepped aside, leaving Roger Penske’s son Jay to take over the reins. Gil went on to serve as an ambassador for Formula E. In 2018 he became sporting director for McLaren in succession to Eric Bouillier but left in early 2021 only to return in an advisory role in May 2023.

Gil was elected as an Honorary Member of the BRDC in 2003. Those words in the 1991 Autosport Yearbook were indeed prescient. Gil may not have made it to the top F1 rung of the ladder but his successes at the highest level in track racing in the USA will ensure that he will never be forgotten and always highly respected. He will be much missed. To his wife Angela and children Anna and Luke, the BRDC offers it most sincere condolences.

The Club regrets to report the death of Stan Collier, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1988.
The Club regrets to report on the death of Neville Hay, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1993
The Club regrets to report on the death of Alan Minshaw, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1984
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