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.”

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal
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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fourth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a career year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2014: 19th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 4 Top-10s, 28 Laps Led, 14.4 Avg. Start, 15.0 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish

Formula 1 fans will remember the miraculous, shock rise of Brawn GP, which didn’t even exist as a team until mere weeks before the 2009 Australian Grand Prix having risen from the demise of the former Honda factory team, and then promptly proceeded to stomp the field en route to winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that season.

It’s the best racing comparison in recent years – or perhaps any year – for what was done at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2015, courtesy of a career year from Graham Rahal, an instant chemistry renewal with the people father Bobby put in place, and the fact Bobby himself stepped back this year to allow his team’s key players to shine through.

Because quite simply, after finishes of 18th and 19th the last two seasons, no one in their right mind had Rahal winning races and contending for a championship this season.

It’s hard to say specifically which point was most important, because all played dividends. Bobby Rahal moved off the pit box, and actually missed a fair number of races this year, which allowed Graham and team manager Ricardo Nault to gel with Nault on the radio and pretty much running the team on the whole. Then there were the three key crewmember additions: Eddie Jones moving over to be lead engineer on the No. 15 car was clutch, as was Rahal getting the opportunity to reunite with Martin Pare and work for the first time with Mike Talbott. The addition of damper ace Stuart Kenworthy was not covered much this year, but undoubtedly a big help. Sponsor Steak ‘n Shake’s arrival also brought a wealth of attention.

And then there were the drives in the races themselves. Perhaps strangely, Rahal had a tough qualifying average – only 11th – but it was the best for a Honda driver this year. The strategy calls from RLL were damn near perfect all year and Rahal seized every opportunity at his disposal, be it his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, his recovery at Iowa, and his numerous other podiums throughout the year. His charge to second at Barber stands out as one of the drives of the year.

Call Fontana lucky if you will, and he was fortunate to avoid a penalty for leaving with the fuel buckeye, but even so he still could have come back given where the race was at that point. And being on the receiving end of two ill-advised taps from Tristan Vautier and Sebastien Bourdais at Pocono and Sonoma, respectively, cost him huge results and huge points – the net effect of three races.

The single-car title charge was one of the stories of the year, even beyond Scott Dixon’s championship comeback and Juan Pablo Montoya’s consistent-until-Sonoma season. Rahal re-established his credentials on track if people had forgotten what he was capable of; additionally, he reaffirmed his status as one of racing’s best people with his work in the Justin Wilson memorial auction after that tragedy. It was truly a ’15 to remember for the driver of the No. 15 car.