De Ferran pleased with business role on Honda team
After 10 months on the job, things are running smoothly for Gil de Ferran and his new team.
"My job has evolved and developed as I have integrated and found my own feet within the team," de Ferran told ESPN.com. "I feel like I am a greater part of the team now in all the decisions we make than I was when I started."
After a racing career that spanned from 1981 through 2003 and culminated with winning two Champ Car titles and the Indianapolis 500, de Ferran retired at the end of 2003. He spent 2004 working as an expert race commentator for ESPN and ABC. In April 2005 he joined the BAR Honda F1 team in a newly created role of sporting director.
The idea was to give team CEO Nick Fry more time looking after the overall company and the commercial side, and to give technical director Geoff Willis more time to concentrate on the design and development of the car.
"With Gil's skills we can form a bridge between the operational side at the race circuit, the drivers, because he knows firsthand what it is like, and the engineering side," Fry said when de Ferran was hired.
De Ferran's first race with the team could not have been much worse. Jenson Button and Takuma Sato finished second and third respectively in the San Marino Grand Prix only to be disqualified because of an illegal fuel ballasting system. The sport's international governing body, FIA, punished the team by banning it from the next two races, including the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix.
BAR Honda had been the second-best team in 2004 but struggled with handling and aerodynamic problems in 2005. This year things have started off a lot smoother and faster for the team that is now wholly owned by Honda.
Button and new teammate Rubens Barrichello have been quick in winter testing in the new Honda RA106.
"It is very important that we start the season well," de Ferran said. "We would like to be challenging at the front end right from the start. Winter testing gives us some indication of our competitiveness, but you truly don't know where everybody stacks up until the curtain opens in Bahrain."
"It is going to be a very tough year," he added. "We are expecting Ferrari to be very competitive, and I am absolutely sure that the other teams will raise their game. And I have no reason to believe that McLaren and Renault will have a drop in performance. So it is going to be a very tough year. You may see a lot of different winners."
De Ferran has a lot of faith in Honda's driver lineup of Button and Barrichello.
"They are two of the best drivers in F1," he said. "They are more than capable of achieving all the goals that we want.
"On Jenson's front, I am a fan of his. Before I joined the team I was a casual admirer of his abilities and his fine touch behind the steering wheel. Now that I can see him operating at close quarters I think he is a unique talent. He has all the raw materials to go all the way."
Barrichello, who spent the past six seasons with Ferrari, is fitting in well at Honda.
"All I see is enthusiasm coming out of his ears!" de Ferran said. "He is calling everyone all the time to see what is going on. His integration with the team, because of his demeanor and personality, has gone quicker and smoother than I expected."
Button has started 100 Grand Prix races but has yet to win one.
"His day will come," de Ferran said. "He is that good that he shouldn't worry about it. The less he worries about it, the easier it will come for him."
When he was driving, de Ferran had several offers to get into F1 but things never worked out.
"When I was racing in America, at different times we had a few conversations [with F1 teams], but it was something that never really materialized for all sorts of different reasons," he said. "Most of it was timing.
"Certainly, when I signed with Roger Penske Racing at the second half of my career in America, I was very happy there. I had no real desire to move. Driving for Team Penske was really a fantastic experience. Not only do I like Roger very much personally, but also the way the whole team operates is absolutely first-class."
Of course, now that he is one of the bosses of an F1 team, it would be easy for de Ferran to hop in an F1 Honda just for some fun track time. But he has no desire to do that.
"I am out of practice and out of shape," he explained. "These cars are not to be underestimated. They are very difficult cars to drive. Very difficult cars to control as well.
"When I was driving I was 100 percent focused on driving. Part of my success as a racing driver came from that focus. Now I am focused on being a successful businessman. For me driving a F1 car, yeah, it would be fun, but it would be a distraction. There are many reasons for me not to do it."
De Ferran said he is happy with his new job and his new team and has no desire to race again.
"When I retired and laid my head on the pillow, I was happy," he said. "I was not frustrated nor had any big regrets."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.