- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Gil de Ferran's nomination as sporting director of the BAR-Honda Formula 1 team has been hailed as a surprise move that most observers attribute to the Brazilian's close links to Jackie Stewart or Reynard Racing Cars, which formed the basis of the BAR team for its 1998 inception.
But the truth is that de Ferran has landed in Formula 1 thanks to the influence of Honda, which now owns 45 percent of the BAR team. Bringing in a man they implicitly trust is a way of protecting their substantial investment.
Renowned as an engineering-based company, Honda's philosophy is to prevent its people from becoming stagnant in any individual field or specialty. Many of Honda's engineers started with the company on the production car side before being transferred into racing operations and vice versa.
Significantly, a number of key engineers responsible for Honda's dominance of the CART Champ Car series from 1996-2001 are now members of Honda's F1 team, including Honda Racing Development's new president, Yasuhiro Wada. Mr. Wada joined the Honda CART project in 2000 before taking over as president of Honda Performance Development (Honda's California-based American racing skunkworks) in 2003, where he led Honda's charge to the top of the IndyCar Series field.
De Ferran first ran Honda engines with Jim Hall's Champ Car team in 1996 and when he joined Penske Racing for the 2000 season, he was instrumental in convincing Roger Penske to switch to Honda power. That in itself was remarkable, given that Penske owned 25 percent of Ilmor Engineering, the company that designed and manufactured the engines Penske used since 1986.
Hindered by its uncompetitive Ilmor/Mercedes-Benz engines, Penske's open-wheel team endured a 2½ year winless streak before de Ferran and Honda led 'The Captain' back to victory circle at Nazareth Speedway in May 2000. De Ferran went on to win the 2000 and 2001 CART championships, bringing Honda's total to six consecutive titles and making him a hero in the minds of the engine-maker.
Indeed, de Ferran was the heart and soul of Honda's CART program during the six years he raced with the Japanese engine. From his first test with Honda before the 1996 season, de Ferran was recognized as something special by the manufacturer.
De Ferran's key role in Honda's emergence as the dominant force in American open-wheel racing was documented in the book I co-wrote about Honda's CART program titled, "A Winning Adventure."
"Gil studied engineering in college and he has very good knowledge of engineering," explained Akio Aoki, Honda's CART project leader from 2000-02 and now a key member of the company's F1 program. "When he was at Homestead with Jimmy Vasser for the first drive with Honda engines, Michihiro Asaka (HPD president from 1993-2002) made a telephone call asking who is the better driver for development? I said Gil de Ferran, because when he makes comments and gives feedback to us, his comments are more engineering based, with finer expressions in engineering terms. Especially when we changed the settings of the engines, his feedback was precise in terms of the engineering content. He could express himself in terms that engineers would understand.
"He had a very good sensitivity to the drivability side of the cars, and his feedback was very valuable," Aoki added. "For instance, he said that it was very important to have very good drivability to run fast on the road courses. So we listened to his feedback very intently and we improved the control of the fuel/air ratio and the boost. We improved in that respect with the help of Gil. His voice was directly reflected in the development of our engines."
It's interesting to note that while Vasser and later Alex Zanardi were the first drivers who delivered Honda sustained success in Champ Cars, Honda continued to rely chiefly on de Ferran for the development of its engine. Roger Penske observed the close bond between de Ferran and Honda during the two highly successful years that his team ran the Honda powerplant.
"Honda had come to us because of their relationship with Gil, which was a tough thing for me because of my relationship with Ilmor," Penske said. "Gil was very tough on the Honda engineers from the standpoint of how the engine was running. In fact, sometimes I thought he spent too much time worrying about how the engine was running instead of getting out on the racetrack and getting the set-up better.
"But he's the ultimate professional. He spent more time than probably any other driver we've had actually talking with the engineers and understanding the setups. He's the ultimate professional from that standpoint. Gil certainly communicated well with the engineers. He appreciated them and showed it by the way he drove."
"It was good because de Ferran had been the Honda factory driver," added Penske Racing president Tim Cindric. "He was really the only consistent thing that Honda had up to that point in time. The engineers felt all the way through our relationship that they were doing the engines for de Ferran because he had gone through all this with them.
"He was viewed as the loyalist to their program and they were very emphatic to make sure that he succeeded as well as they succeeded. They had had success with Zanardi and other guys but they wanted to have something from the beginning. De Ferran pushed them probably as hard as anybody did because he had their respect. He had their ear and he knew what needed to happen to get the job done."
Honda's experience in working with de Ferran as a driver gave the company confidence that he was their man at a time when the BAR-Honda marriage was going through some growing pains.
After a breakout season for Jenson Button in 2004 that saw the Briton finish third in the F1 championship, the team got off to a slow start in 2005 with a fair amount of finger-pointing between BAR and Honda. A successful test at Barcelona in early April helped the team get a grip on the BAR 007's aerodynamics, resulting in a 3-5 finish for Button and Takuma Sato in Sunday's San Marino Grand Prix. Now it's up to de Ferran to point the team toward its first GP victory.
De Ferran's new job is a 180-degree reversal from the Indy Racing League television commentary work he has been doing since retiring from the cockpit following the 2003 season. But in truth, Gil was always somewhat uncomfortable about his association with the IRL, where he was taken for the final two years of his driving career after CART founder Penske made the controversial switch to Tony George's series.
Now the 37-year-old gets to use his brain instead of his right foot to help a team win. It's a challenge to which de Ferran should be equally adept, given his inquisitive personality and people-management skills.
"Tim Cindric used to call me 'Porque,' which is 'Why?' in Portuguese," de Ferran recalled. "I believe that by asking questions not only am I acquiring knowledge so that I can then ask more intricate questions, but it also makes people think.
"Through my interaction with the engineers, I try to broaden their view. I ask questions and try to push them outside the box. That's just the way I think. I always try to think nonstop, to try to find another way, and I encourage people to do the same. There are different ways of doing the same thing, and I'm a curious person by nature. There is no final answer. I don't care how good work you've done, you've got to be always looking forward."
That's exactly the mindset that BAR-Honda needs.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.