This wasn't supposed to have been another story about crashes or fire or burns. Nor was it supposed to have been a story about concussions. Or fear, for that matter. No, this was supposed to have been a story about a young racer destined for success, perfecting skills, gaining assurance and speed and advancing ever closer to victory. It was, by all accounts, supposed to have been a positive story about the power of potential and the anticipation of the future.
But one can't tell the story of Simona de Silvestro without all of the above. That's because her story is now in recovery mode, as is her career and her confidence. Crashes and fire and burns and concussions have that effect; thus, we find ourselves, just as she is, questioning whether the confidence will return quickly. We watch and wait. We wonder with her if this will ever be the story it was supposed to have been.
It started splendidly enough, this 2011 sophomore season, with her taking HVM Racing's brand-new chassis to a rousing fourth-place finish in the IZOD IndyCar Series opener in March at St. Petersburg. This was mere days after losing her former race engineer Michael Cannon to KV Racing and adapting to his replacement Brent Harvey. It continued with a ninth place at Barber Motorsports Park. The murmur heading into the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500, then, was Simona. Was she capable of winning? Was she the best female driver in IndyCar racing? Could she one day be a championship contender? How far would she go? Penske? Ganassi? Formula 1, even?
Then came the crash and burn, her second escape from flames in less than a year, that turned her story from one of potential to one of courage and recovering confidence. During practice at Indy, her car flipped, skidded on its roll hoop, slammed into the Turn 4 wall and – worst of all – caught fire. She unbuckled and pulled herself out, but in doing so placed her hands on fuel-soaked, burning asphalt and sustained second-degree burns on both hands.
The story didn't end there. She returned, hands wrapped in gauze and gloves, and qualified her (to put it politely) well-seasoned back-up car 23rd, but was classified 31st in the race after yet another brush with the wall. Still just being in the event was a triumphant recovery, or so we thought. Three weeks later, after staring down Texas, where she'd crashed and caught fire the previous year, she crashed while qualifying at Milwaukee. She raced, but brought the car back to the pits after just 11 laps with a handling problem. Her nerves were shot, but there was more to the story. She had a concussion. She had a cut on a knee. Her hands were still tender. She had a persistent cough. She was not well. Worst of all, her confidence was bruised. She sat out the following race at Iowa, and the team, along with Simona, wondered if she would recover her mojo.
“I definitely think right now I'm in a crossroads,” she says with typical candor. “I've never been in a situation like this. It's the toughest thing I've ever been through. It's a lot to deal with. I'm just trying to work on everything I can and learn from this. I'm stronger than I was before, and that has a lot to do with the people around me. It's been a tough situation for everybody. The way we started the season, we never thought we'd be in this situation. The biggest thing is to process it and come out of it was quickly as we can.”
The processing began in Toronto as de Silvestro returned to her comfort zone of street/road course racing with a 10th that could have been fourth if not for two extra pit stops due to a fuel-feed problem. The ovals that shook her remain a challenge (she finished 16th at New Hampshire in August, after qualifying 26th and last), but she's on the mend and getting better each day. Her recovery has surprised those who work closest with her at HVM Racing.