De Ferran and Castroneves - The Brothers They Never Had

June 22, 2020

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Between the two racing legends they have accumulated 42 victories, 71 pole positions, two championships and four Indianapolis 500 wins – just in INDYCAR competition alone. But the connection between former Team Penske teammates Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves goes way beyond the numbers.

Theirs is a friendship. A bond. Actually more like a brotherhood. What began as a casual conversation more than 25 years ago grew into a partnership that led Team Penske back to INDYCAR prominence and extends through today as neighbors and best buddies in South Florida.

Castroneves first met de Ferran in England back in 1995. Both men were at very different stages of their careers. de Ferran had just completed two very successful Formula 3000 seasons competing for Paul Stewart Racing and he was about to leave Europe and embark on a new challenge of driving CART Indy cars in the United States. Castroneves, a promising talent from Brazil, was about to join the Paul Stewart Racing team to compete in the British F3 Championship. A mutual friend set up the meeting between the two drivers and while the encounter was pleasant, there was no hint that this would turn into the start of a lifelong friendship. “Gil was very nice and very receptive to talk to a young driver like me,” said Castroneves. Recalls de Ferran: “I think I gave (Helio) a few pointers but that was about it. I did keep track of him after that though.”

The next time the two would see each other was in 1996 when de Ferran was competing on the CART circuit and Castroneves made his way to the U.S. to race in the Indy Lights Series. Castroneves remembered that the friendship began to develop…slowly. Though both drivers were from Brazil – de Ferran was born in France but moved to Sao Paul with his parents as an infant, while Castroneves was born and raised just outside of Sao Paulo – their personalities were very different. de Ferran was reserved and measured while Castroneves, eight years younger than his future teammate, was outgoing and a little more on the wild side. But neither driver had a big entourage traveling with them on the racing circuit so they gradually became closer.

“I had moved countries twice and Helio, at that point, had also moved countries twice,” said de Ferran. “When you do that you really don’t have a lot of support systems so you end up cementing the relationships that you do have and those become stronger.”

As Castroneves graduated to the CART Series he began to race against de Ferran. And he learned to respect his driving style on the track.

“Gil was always very sneaky, but smart,” said the three-time Indy 500 champ. “He was a very technical and methodical driver. He knew when was the right time to push.”

With de Ferran set to join Team Penske for the 2000 CART Series season, Castroneves was also hoping for an opportunity to race with one of top teams in the sport. The younger driver met with Roger Penske to talk about driving the team’s other Indy car for the upcoming season and de Ferran was there for the conversation.

“I remember Gil being there and he stood up to leave the meeting and he came up to me and spoke to me in Portuguese to give me some of the best advice I’ve ever had,” said Castroneves. “He said ‘come along, come along’ – basically, just stick with Roger and you’ll be OK. Like I said, Gil was pretty smart!”

With the new driver tandem of de Ferran and Castroneves, along with Tim Cindric also joining the team as President in 2000, the path was set for Team Penske to return to its winning ways. The team did not produce a win or a pole in either the 1998 and 1999 CART seasons and both de Ferran and Castroneves knew they needed to help right the ship for the most successful team in INDYCAR racing history.

“Both Helio and I recognized it was important for us all to work well together,” said de Ferran. “The team had just been through a difficult phase with a few lean years and this was going be a key time. We needed to help turn it around.”

And turn it around they did. It wasn’t long before the iconic red and white Team Penske machines were back in Victory Lane. From 2000-2003, Team Penske produced 20 race wins and 25 pole positions while de Ferran won back-to-back CART Championships in 2000 and 2001. Castroneves became the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in his first two starts in the iconic race (2001-2002) while de Ferran won in 2003 to make it three victories in a row at Indy for Team Penske.

During those four seasons racing together, de Ferran and Castroneves created some special memories for fans, partners and everyone at Team Penske. “Wow, those years were incredible,” said Castroneves. “I’ve had a lot of fun in my career and those were some of the best moments, for sure.”

Thinking back on his time racing alongside his friend, de Ferran recalls more than a few key moments. He remembers how fast Castroneves was but also how tough he was on equipment early on in his career at Team Penske. “Helio used to have a nickname. We’d call him ‘termite.’ During testing before the start of that first season he would just destroy the gearboxes on the cars so we called him ‘termite.’”

But de Ferran also remembers being in awe of some of the things that he saw his teammate do in the car – especially on the biggest stage at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. During pole qualifying for the 2003 Indianapolis 500 de Ferran recalls how difficult it was to drive the powerful but sensitive open-wheel cars in the cold and extremely windy conditions at the track that day. “I probably had about a million near misses that day and both Helio and I had so many stressful moments as we tried to get the same speeds out of the cars that we had the day before. The amount of tension and anxiety that causes is just incredible,” said de Ferran. “Finally, I threw in the towel and just put downforce in the car to qualify and I wound up 10th. But Helio kept trying and trying and trying. At the end he wound up putting it on the pole with like the fastest lap of the month in some of the worst conditions ever. To this day, that is one of the most impressive things I have ever seen someone do in a race car.”

Even after de Ferran retired from racing Indy cars to pursue other opportunities in motorsports – racing sports cars, becoming a team owner to overseeing the BAR-Honda Formula One team and eventually serving as sporting director for McLaren Racing – he and Castroneves have remained close. Literally.

A few years ago, Castroneves moved to a new neighborhood in Miami, near the de Ferran household. Then both men transitioned to Ft. Lauderdale and most recently, Castroneves has built a house just a few doors down from de Ferran’s home.

“He keeps moving closer and closer,” quipped de Ferran.

“At first we were looking at a property that was right beside Gil’s house and I thought, well, maybe that’s a little too close,” said Castroneves, who points out that both driver’s families have also become good friends over the years. “So now we’re just a couple of houses away on the same street.”

While Castroneves says he learned a lot from his friend on the track, some of the most valuable lessons he has taken away from his friendship with de Ferran are about life.

“Gil really knows how to create balance – to separate racing and the rest of your life – and I think that has helped me too,” said Castroneves, who will return to the track for Team Penske in July, racing the Acura ARX-05 DPi in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship before joining the NTT IndyCar Series team in August as he attempts to win his fourth Indianapolis 500. “To me Gil has become like the older brother that I never had.”

And de Ferran said the wisdom and life lessons flow both ways with his “little brother.”

“He’s probably learned a few things from me but I have also learned a few things from him,” said de Ferran. “Helio has always had such a great positive attitude. He has the ability to reinvent and reengage himself, even after a bad day, and that hasn’t always been easy for me.

“I think in friendship you either want to be around people who are similar to you or you are drawn to people that are different because they compliment you. With Helio having a different personality than me, I think we have complimented each other and it’s been good.”

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