De Ferran hits ground running
IMOLA, Italy -- Gil de Ferran is going flat out again.
He's used to it, of course, having driven Champ Cars and IndyCars at 200 mph. He's no longer driving, but now he's going flat out in his new job as the sporting director for Lucky Strike BAR Honda.
"It has been a very hectic couple of weeks," de Ferran said in the paddock at Imola on the day before practice began for the San Marino Grand Prix.
"As I see it, my first task is to really get to know everybody well," he said. "I hit the ground running last Monday (April 11), and went around the factory making a special effort trying to meet and talk to everyone and get a good understanding on how the team operates."
BAR announced it had hired de Ferran to fill a new position of sporting director on April 6.
"It was something that we successfully employed in my prior life in rallying," said BAR's CEO Nick Fry, "which is to have someone who is really first hand on the racing side who has some background in that field."
With two CART championships, an Indy 500 win, a British Formula 3 championship and much more on his resume, de Ferran certainly has some background.
"The idea is that I can spend my time looking after the overall company and the commercial side and being chief executive," Fry said. "[Technical director] Geoff [Willis] until now has been not only doing the design, development and testing of the car, but also overseeing the racing of the car. With the appointment of Gil, it will give Geoff a little bit more flexibility to spend time at the factory if need be to work on the design 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 first hand what it is like, and the engineering side. Educationally, Gil has quite a good engineering background [having studied it in college in Brazil.]"
As de Ferran said, he got plucked straight into his new job, immediately attending a test session at the Paul Ricard circuit in France.
"Geoff [Willis] is probably already fed up with me since we have spent a lot of time together," de Ferran quipped. "We traveled together to Paul Ricard -- it was my first test. It was the first time I had the opportunity to see the team working first hand. There have been lots of meetings, lots of conversations and very little sleep.
"But it's been great," de Ferran added. "The team is a very capable team and the atmosphere is very friendly. Everybody is extremely motivated."
Last year, BAR Honda drivers Jenson Button and Takuma Sato finished on the podium 11 times and earned enough points to put the team second in the Constructors Championship. This year, BAR's drivers have yet to score a point.
One of the first things de Ferran noticed when he joined the team is that motivation remains high.
"I tell you, coming in with a fresh pair of eyes, you can't even tell that they had a disappointing first three races," de Ferran said. "Everybody in factory, in the test team, and in the race team is extremely motivated, very energetic and looking forward to the race in Imola."
Top-level racing is top-level racing, but the IndyCar Series and oval racing are a lot different from F1 and road racing. How will de Ferran be able to take what he learned in the IndyCar Series and with Team Penske and translate it to F1?
"For sure there are a lot of things about F1 that I don't know about at this point, and I look forward to learning them," de Ferran told ESPN.com when the team met the media in the Imola paddock. "I think that over nearly 23 years of racing on three different continents I have learned a lot.
"I have learned many things, to do a bit of name dropping, from Jackie Stewart and Roger Penske. It gave me a good experience. What specifically I will be able to apply to this job, I don't know."
The first thing de Ferran is going to do is nothing. Well, not exactly nothing, but he's planning to charge in and start making changes.
"In the short term," he explained, "the worst thing that I could do would be to disrupt a good thing. Obviously the team is the same team that finished second [in the Constructors Championship] last year, and I see no reason why the team should not succeed again. In the short term my plan is to observe and listen and learn how the team operates. Hopefully over time my contribution will increase."
After three dismal races, BAR Honda should make a good leap forward this weekend. The team put in some 3,700 miles of testing since the last race.
"We knew that the car was quick," Willis said, "and now we have understood why we got ourselves in a bit of a mess with a combination of aero development and car set-up. We now feel a lot more confident. We have broken lap records in Barcelona and Paul Ricard.
"One of the reasons Gil says he feels so much confidence in the team is because there has been frustration because we know that the car is good but we couldn't quite get the performance out of it. Now we believe that we have found what the problems are. We have put some aerodynamic developments on the car. We have the latest engine step here, which we have tested [the equivalent of] three sets of double race weekends."
De Ferran has already formed a good relationship with Button and Sato.
"I spent time with them at the Paul Ricard test," de Ferran said. "I see Jenson as one of the best drivers in the world today, a potential world Champion.
"Takuma is a nice guy and driver with great potential. Last year, I was at the United States Grand Prix when he finished third. I am also aware of his F3 record: He won more races than I did. The potential is there and it is our job to bring that out."
De Ferran won't be giving Sato and Button any driving tips.
"My job is to more provide an environment to them where they can work at their best all the time," he said. "Whatever I can do to help them be at their best 100 percent of the time I will look into doing."
He may be easing himself into his new role in some ways, but de Ferran has been flat out since he joined the team. His responsibility and stress level will increase a lot this weekend. It's only his first Grand Prix, but he, working alongside the chief race engineer and the drivers' engineers, will be in charge of the race strategy.
De Ferran is in the fast lane again.
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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