A decade later, De Ferran’s Indy 500 win still ‘brings strong emotions’

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This is the first in a series of posts stemming from a Tuesday interview with Gil de Ferran. Be sure to check back each day for a new installment.

Gil de Ferran can’t help but laugh over the fact that it’s been 10 years since his victory at the Indianapolis 500.

“I will tell you something – it really does not feel like 10 years,” he said with a chuckle on Tuesday afternoon from England. “I guess it’s the harsh reality of life, we’re all getting old. But I don’t feel like it’s been 10 years. It’s kind of weird to speak of an event that seems like only yesterday on very historical terms.”

The two-time CART champion, known as “The Professor” for his studious approach to the sport, accomplished one of his greatest feats in 2003 when he stopped Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves from becoming the first driver to win three consecutive “500s.” De Ferran passed Castroneves for the lead on Lap 169 but still had to withstand multiple restarts within the final 25 laps before holding off Castroneves by two-tenths of a second for the win.

After arriving at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Victory Lane, he got out of his car and let out a yell of joy with his fists outstretched toward the sky – a moment that’s been replayed time and again ever since.

“It’s a memory that’s extremely alive in my head,” said De Ferran of the entire afternoon. “I can almost recall the planning of the whole thing to pass Helio…I can recall getting ready for what seemed to be a thousand restarts at the end of the race. It’s almost like muscle memory – I can remember my feet and the way they moved in the car, which is a weird feeling.

“That’s why I say it doesn’t feel like it was 10 years, and obviously, feeling-wise, it’s just something I’m extremely proud of. Every time I remember what happened that day, it brings strong emotions to me and it remains probably, if not the greatest achievement of my career, then certainly one that’s truly at the very top. It’s a day I’ll always remember with great fondness.”

And it’s a day that almost didn’t happen.

In the second round of the 2003 season at Phoenix International Raceway, De Ferran and Michael Andretti were fighting late for fifth place when the two made contact going into Turn 1. Both cars slammed into the wall, and De Ferran sustained a concussion as well as cracks to two vertebrae.

He was forced to miss the next race in Japan, and when he returned to prepare for that year’s “500,” things initially didn’t go well.

“The opening day [of practice], I’ll never forget it — I mean, it was a disaster,” De Ferran recalled. “My timing was wrong, I was aching, the car was surprising me all the time and I’m like, ‘What the hell’s going on? I can’t drive anymore!'”

De Ferran momentarily wondered if the end of his career had finally arrived, but then decided to, in his words, “calm down a little bit” and see what the next day would bring him. Sure enough, it all started to slowly return to him and he began to find comfort in the cockpit once again.

“Wind the clock forward to Race Day, and it was such a shift from ‘That’s it, my career is over’ to the greatest achievement in my racing life – from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high,” he said. “It was an amazing feeling.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Australian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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And so, the 2017 Formula 1 season is officially underway with the Australian Grand Prix. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari are on top, having beat Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes both on strategy and on pace to kick off this new era in the sport’s history.

A recap of the day from the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne occurs below in the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass, as F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales go into the paddock to run down the stories of the day.

MORE: Full Australian Grand Prix event replay; Mosaic replay

The podium saw Vettel ahead of Hamilton, with Mercedes’ new driver Valtteri Bottas coming third on debut for the team.

Other interviews that occurred during NBCSN’s post-race coverage on F1 Extra included with Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen, who came fourth and fifth respectively, with Force India’s Esteban Ocon who scored his first career point, and with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who doggedly dragged his McLaren Honda into a potential points-paying finish before a late-race retirement.

Paddock Pass is in three parts and can be viewed below.

Haas’ sophomore F1 season starts badly with double DNF in Australia

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The Haas Formula 1 team’s sophomore campaign got off to a bad start on Sunday as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were both forced to retire from the Australian Grand Prix.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, making its debut in Australia 12 months ago.

Grosjean scored a memorable sixth-place finish on that day in Melbourne, and looked poised to repeat the result in 2017 after qualifying sixth on Saturday.

A poor start was Grosjean drop to seventh, but he managed to hold position through the opening stint of the race ahead of the pit stop cycle.

However, Grosjean had no chance to wield some strategic genius as Haas did last year, with a water leak forcing him to retire while inside the top 10.

“I suddenly lost a lot of power. I told the guys, then the next thing I knew I had to slow down the car,” Grosjean explained.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result, but again, right now I’m hot and we’re all disappointed to lose a seventh-place position, but the car was there in qualifying in P6. The start wasn’t ideal, so we need to improve that. I felt I was faster than the Williams, so there’s huge potential in the car.

“I guess the key for us is to keep the momentum and get the consistency we didn’t have last year, where I’d be fifth in Bahrain then 19th in China. I really want to improve on that and get more consistency in terms of results. If we do that, then I’m sure there are going to be plenty of races where we can score good points.”

Grosjean’s new teammate for 2017, Kevin Magnussen, suffered an early setback when he clashed with Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson on the first lap, and ultimately retired due to a suspension issue stemming from the incident.

“I had Ericsson on the outside and I understeered into the side of him, which was unfortunate. I lost my front wing and damaged the car a little bit,” Magnussen said.

“We changed the front wing and then I went for a long test session to feel the car and learn a bit more about it, which was good. It feels good and the car is fast.

“That’s the really positive thing from this weekend. The car is there. We just have to make it finish and score points.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “Not the race we wished for, or we expected. With Romain it looks like we had a water leak. We don’t know yet where that came from.

“Obviously, Kevin’s race was destroyed in the third corner after the contact with Ericsson. He then ended up later with a suspension failure, which we still have to investigate why.

“The good thing we take out of here is that the car seems to be fast. We need to work on a few parts and, hopefully, we can get back strong again in China in two weeks.”

Sam Posey previews 2017 with ‘The Winds of Change’ (VIDEO)

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As the 2017 kicks off from Australia, our resident poet laureate Sam Posey has penned his latest essay on what’s to come ahead of the new year.

Here’s a look ahead to the new season, with Posey’s “The Winds of Change” looking at the vast transformation in the sport that occurred over the winter, from the change in ownership, to the change in cars, to the change in the lineups… and to the change in the pecking order.

An archive of Posey’s 2016 essays are linked here.

Sprint car veteran Dave Steele killed in accident at Desoto Speedway

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Open-wheel veteran and occasional NASCAR racer Dave Steele was killed Saturday night in an accident at Desoto Speedway in Bradenton, Florida during a sprint car race. The veteran driver out of Tampa was 42 years old.

According to SPEED SPORT, Steele reportedly crashed while driving for position in his winged sprint car, in the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series event.

The track confirmed Steele’s passing in a Facebook post, writing: “Desoto Speedway owners and staff are saddened by tonights passing of David Steele in the Sprint car feature. Thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends who were all in attendance, to see him try to win his 100th florida race.”

Steele made three starts in the Indy Racing League in 1998 and had been brought on by Panther Racing as a development driver for the team’s first crack at a two-car effort, then teammate to Scott Goodyear, the last two races of that season. He was entered as a second car for the 1999 Indianapolis 500 but did not qualify. He also drove in the Indy Lights series a few years later in a handful of races.

In USAC though, Steele was regarded as one of the top drivers on the circuit, with a sterling record. As of the end of 2016, he had 26 USAC National Sprint Car wins, 16 Silver Crown wins (third all-time) and 18 National Midget wins, for a total of 60 wins that proved his versatility in USAC’s three primary types of cars, both on pavement and on dirt.

A number of tributes and condolences have already come in on social media. Note the one from Michael Lewis, an up-and-coming sports car driver out of California who’s won races in Pirelli World Challenge, and whose father Steve Lewis was the architect of the old Beast/Pink entries, which Steele used to drive for.