IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran dead at 56


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The motorsport community has been shocked by the death of former IndyCar star Gil de Ferran at the age of 56.

De Ferran, who has passed away following a heart attack, enjoyed huge success in IndyCar racing in the early noughties with Penske. He won back-to-back titles in the CART championship before switching to the rival Indy Racing League where he scored a memorable win in the Indianapolis 500.

He followed fellow Brazilian stars such as Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet by impressing in the British racing scene, winning its national Formula 3 championship with Paul Stewart Racing in 1992. Two seasons in Formula 3000, the top junior series of the time, yielded a win in his second start plus a victory in the Pau Grand Prix. In all De Ferran won three of his 17 starts.

Lacking a route into F1, De Ferran opted to enter the CART series, which was at the peak of its popularity. He showed consistent improvement over his rookie campaign with Hall Racing, culminating in second place in the penultimate round at Vancouver and victory in the Laguna Seca season finale, He built on that the following year with a campaign which only included a single further win but lifted him to sixth in the standings.

That improved continued into his third season, at Walker Racing, where despite not taking another win De Ferran stood on the podium seven times and finished runner-up to champion Alessandro Zanardi. Although Walker struggled to compete with the leading teams over the following two seasons, De Ferran’s form had caught the eye of top squad Penske, who hired him to join Helio Castroneves in an all-Brazilian squad for the 2000 season.

De Ferran was quick to deliver, winning his fifth start for the team at Nazareth. In an enormously competitive season De Ferran only took a single further victory, at Portland, but his consistent points-scoring lifted him into the championship lead with four races to go. Third place at Fontana behind fellow Brazilians Roberto Moreno and Christian Fittipaldi – the latter the series’ 11th different winner of the year – secured the title for De Ferran.

He successfully defended his championship the following year. Once again, over a long and competitive season De Ferran’s consistency paid off and saw him take the points lead in the latter stages. A pair of wins back in the UK at Rockingham and on the streets of Houston propelled him into a 36-point lead by the year’s end.

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De Ferran’s success came at a turbulent time for American open-wheel racing following the split between CART and the rival Indy Racing League in 1996. Penske chose to switch series in 2002, taking De Ferran with them to what was then an all-oval series. In 2003 he finished runner-up in the championship but took his biggest win of all in the Indianapolis 500, pipping Castroneves by less than three-tenths of a second in a memorable finish.

He left open-wheel racing at the peak of his abilities, winning his final race at Texas Motor Speedway. De Ferran returned as a driver with his own team in the American Le Mans Series, and even tested a Formula E car in 2014, but increasingly focused his efforts on management.

De Ferran worked for Honda’s factory Formula 1 effort, joining as sporting director before leaving during a 2007 season where the team struggled.

Most recently, de Ferran returned to Formula 1 with McLaren as sporting director from 2018. Despite departing that role in 2021, he was brought back by McLaren early this year as a consultant, working with the team right up until his sudden death. A statement from the Brazilian Automobile Confederation said the 56-year-old suffered a heart attack while at a private motorsport club in Florida where he was taken to a local hospital but did not survive.

A statement from McLaren said the team were “shocked and deeply saddened to learn we have lost a beloved member of our McLaren family.”

“Gil was an important and integral part of our racing team. He was a formidable force on and off track and made a lasting impact on everyone racing and working alongside him. He will be missed by everyone at McLaren Racing.”

Penske chairman Roger Penske said the IndyCar community were “terribly saddened” by news of de Ferran’s death.

“Gil defined class as a driver and as a gentleman,” said Penske. “As an IndyCar champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner, Gil accomplished so much during his career, both on and off the track.

“Gil was beloved by so many. He was a great friend to the Team Penske and IndyCar family, as well as the entire international motorsports community. Gil’s passing is a terrible loss, and he will be deeply missed.”

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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16 comments on “IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran dead at 56”

  1. So sad to here this. He was part of the post-Senna golden generation of Brazilian single-seater drivers, most of which resided in IndyCar/CART.

    1. Very true I think it was a golden era in general. Started watching when Mansell moved over remember it fondly. Great couple of years racing. Emo was still around, Tracey, Andretti, Little Al, JV, young Greg Moore RIP, Kanaan, Zanardi and Montoyo later on and of course Gil in the yellow car always easy to spot!

    2. Indeed. And, regardless of pedigree, it’s simply always sad to see someone die too early. While he wasn’t a spring chicken, at 56 you’re still in your intellectual prime. So, robbed of some very valuable years.

  2. Damn. I just realised he is 3 years younger than me.
    What a tragic and untimely loss…

  3. A very classy driver, almost Prost-like in his approach. And that pole lap at Michigan… epic.

    1. Sorry, just realised, it was at Fontana / Auto Club Speedway.

  4. That’s a huge shame. A real icon in Motorsport and seemingly a very nice chap, too.

    1. Always remember that day in Fontana when he broke the closest circuit speed record, 241.48 MPH, over 250 MPH on the back strait, one of my favorite drivers of the era

  5. I’m deeply saddened to hear about Gil de Ferran’s passing. His legacy in IndyCar racing and motorsport as a whole is truly monumental. He showcased incredible talent, winning back-to-back titles in the CART championship and securing a memorable victory in the Indianapolis 500. His journey, from British racing success to dominating in IndyCar, was inspiring. His impact extended beyond the track, contributing as a sporting director and consultant in Formula 1. His loss is a tremendous blow to the racing world, and he will be greatly missed. Rest in peace, Gil de Ferran.

  6. The toll plaza on the NY State Thruway had about six lanes that narrowed down to two. As I was going through the gate I saw a sleek motorhome in the next lane. With “de Ferran” on the door. As I out accelerated him he too hit the gas… racing to the narrowing. No contest but I looked over and we were both laughing.

    1. @kcrossle We feel sad at someones passing, but it’s often strange because we mostly watch these people from a distance. As a kid watching CART on the TV, they were these exotic drivers with ridiculously cool names, working twice as hard as F1 drivers in cars that just looked faster and tougher.

      It’s lovely to hear a first hand anecdote about him as a person, thank you, I’m sure many more will be will be shared by those that came across him. It makes him very real for a moment. Cheers.

  7. While racing with his son. Shocking. RIP Gil.

  8. That’s very sad news to hear. Gil will always hold a special place in my heart because he was responsible for the most exciting live motorsport moment I’ve seen.

    2001, Rockingham CART race. The race was building towards the end, a race that De Ferran had controlled throughout. Brack was chasing, but De Ferran always seemed to have a back marker or two between them – that is until 2 laps from the end and De Ferran got blocked, slowed up and Brack swept through into the lead right in front of me into turn 1. All very exciting stuff and that seemed to be that.

    7 turns to go, 6, 5, 4, 3… Then Brack also got blocked by a back marker coming up to the final turn on the final lap…. De Ferran pounced and toughed it out on the outside line and too the victory!! Breathtaking stuff. De Ferran and Brack showed the UK fans how exciting US single seaters racing on ovals could be, all just a 45 minute drive from my little village.

    RIP Gil

  9. Such a shock to read this, and so young.

    I remember when he first arrived on the scene – took a few races to hit his stride but lived up to all the hype.

    Rest in peace. Condolences to all his family, racing family and friends.

  10. vaya con dios Gil de Ferran

    Always respected him as a driver and being a very good person.

    Regards to his family and friends.

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