Gil de Ferran, who won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 and two INDYCAR SERIES championships, died suddenly after a brief illness Dec. 29 near his home in Florida. He was 56.
De Ferran edged Team Penske teammate and fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves in a scintillating finish in the 2003 edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” earning his victory by .2990 of a second after passing Castroneves for good on Lap 170. De Ferran earned his sole “500” victory in the last of his four career starts in the race, as he retired as a driver after the 2003 INDYCAR SERIES season.
While de Ferran denied close friend Castroneves a record-setting third consecutive “500” win in 2003, de Ferran’s drive to victory circle was the third straight Indy win for Team Penske. He also finished runner-up behind Castroneves in 2001.
The Indianapolis 500 victory was the zenith of a remarkable career that also included INDYCAR SERIES championships under CART sanction in 2000 and 2001 while driving for Team Penske. In both seasons, de Ferran used a combination of speed, consistency and racecraft to win the championship despite not being the driver with the most victories. That encapsulated the meticulous, analytical approach to his craft that de Ferran showed during his entire career.
De Ferran ended his INDYCAR SERIES driving career with 12 victories and 21 poles, with his final win coming in his last career start, on Oct. 12, 2003, at Texas Motor Speedway. His first victory came as a rookie in 1995 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca while driving for Hall/VDS Racing. He earned CART Rookie of the Year honors in 1995.
The Brazilian moved from Hall/VDS to Walker Racing in 1997 after Hall/VDS owner Jim Hall retired from the sport. De Ferran finished second in the CART standings in 1997 despite going winless that season. But he still gained notoriety that year by finishing second to Mark Blundell at Portland International Raceway by .027 of a second, the closest result ever in a CART-sanctioned event.
De Ferran’s career blossomed when he joined Team Penske for the 2000 season, pairing with Castroneves for the next four seasons. He won the first of his two-straight championships and made racing history during qualifying at California Speedway when he set the closed-course land speed record with a lap of 241.428 mph, a mark that stands today. De Ferran also earned Team Penske its 100th INDYCAR SERIES career victory in 2000 at Nazareth Speedway.
After his INDYCAR SERIES career, de Ferran mixed driving in sports cars and his budding career in team management with his usual blend of courtesy and class.
He joined the BAR-Honda Formula One team as sporting director in 2005, remaining in that role until 2007. Then de Ferran returned to the cockpit in 2008 in a factory-backed Acura LMP2 prototype in the American Le Mans Series as the owner-driver of his team, de Ferran Motorsports, sharing the wheel with future INDYCAR SERIES champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud.
The team climbed to the premier LMP1 prototype class as an Acura factory team in 2009, with five victories and seven poles en route to a runner-up finish in the standings.
De Ferran retired as a driver after the 2009 season and co-owned de Ferran Dragon Racing in the INDYCAR SERIES through 2011. During this time, de Ferran also served as a team owners’ representative on the ICONIC committee that evaluated designs for the next generation of INDYCAR SERIES chassis, with his immense technical and managerial acumen adding greatly to the process.
In July 2018, de Ferran was named sporting director for McLaren Racing in Formula One, a role he held until early 2021. In May 2023, he also was rehired by McLaren as a consultant and advisor.
De Ferran started racing in karting in Brazil, where he moved as a toddler with his family after being born in Paris. He advanced through junior open-wheel formulas in Brazil before moving to Great Britain to race.
He finished third in the 1991 British Formula 3 championship, behind only future F1 race winners Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard. In 1992, de Ferran won the British F3 title for Paul Stewart Racing with seven victories. He raced in Formula 3000 (now Formula 2, one step below F1) in 1993 and 1994 for Paul Stewart Racing, finishing tied for fourth in 1993 and third in 1994 before moving to America to race in 1995.
De Ferran is survived by his wife, Angela, whom he met when she worked for Paul Stewart Racing; daughter, Anna; and son, Luke.