Minutes after a fire that could have turned from dangerous to dreadful, Simona de Silvestro beams, shrugs and jokes in front of cameras. Her smile, an easy, carefree manifestation of good-natured confidence, belies what most certainly had been panic just moments earlier. Sure, she says, there's a bit of a burn on her right hand, but it's no big deal. She defends fire and safety workers after an embarrassing double-fail execution. Nope, no worries. She's fine, just a minor setback. More beams, shrugs and jokes. The body language and smile say all that's needed to know about a 21-year-old Swiss driver who's the latest Next Big Thing: Nothing is going to rattle her, and nothing is going to stop her.
In the days that follow, the images of de Silvestro's blazing Team Stargates World/HVM Racing car are everywhere. CNN, Fox News, ESPN and several non-sports talk shows feature the video. She gets more publicity for an accident than she does for being the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year the week before. The kid could turn a thunderstorm into sunshine, a scandal into positive PR.
Ironic, though, that it took a negative to put de Silvestro in front of the mainstream. Certainly the people deeply involved in open-wheel racing in America have been well aware of her for years, but her look-at-me moment in front of a larger audience isn't a big win or a big pass or a big finish. Instead, it's a big fire.The twist of publicity fate makes her smile and shrug again weeks after the blaze and subsequent media response. Press is press, after all. If they didn't know her name after Indy, they certainly know her name now. “It brought a lot of attention,” de Silvestro says. “It wasn't the way we wanted to get attention, but it happened. A lot of people saw it. Maybe I didn't want to get known that way, but attention is always a positive thing.”
Most everything is positive these days around HVM Racing, and a quick pass through the team's transporter offers a hint of who's setting the tone. “I hope you're saying nice things about me,” de Silvestro teases HVM principal Keith Wiggins as he talks to a reporter. Later, she bounces from room to room in the cramped transporter, singing pop songs and chattering with crew members. The playful mood is infectious, so Wiggins follows his driver's orders and recites a litany of nice things about Simona de Silvestro.
“We saw something special the first time we tested her,” Wiggins says. “We went into it thinking, ‘She's a girl. Let's see how good she is.' We very quickly realized that it had nothing to do with gender. She was just fast in a car. That's when everybody got really interested. She's been a breath of fresh air. Over my years, I've worked with some really good drivers and some not so good drivers. You can definitely see how good she is. You can see how relaxed and instinctual she is. There's still a lot to learn, but we all can see she has great potential.”
Truth is, his impressive rookie used the cry-until-I-get-my-way technique to convince her father to buy a go-kart so she could begin her journey into racing. “My dad did a go-kart demonstration at his car dealership when I was 4 years old,” she explains. “When I saw the go-karts, I was like, ‘Hmmm, that's pretty cool.' But I couldn't reach the pedals, so I cried all day and then he finally gave in and said he'd get me a go-kart when I was able to reach the pedals.
So, every other week or so, I'd go to the kart shop and check to see if I could reach the pedals. Finally, when I was about five and a half, I got my first go-kart.”
From there, it took off. After 10 years of karting, she landed in Formula Renault 2.0 Italy in 2005. From there, she went to Formula BMW USA, where she finished fourth in the championship. After that were three deliberately planned seasons in Atlantics – first with Walker Racing, then with Newman Wachs Racing and finally with Team Stargate Worlds, with whom she finished third in the championship.
In her first eight races in the IZOD IndyCar Series, de Silvestro (PICTURED, center with Danica Patrick and Ana Beatriz) has received constructive and encouraging reviews from what could be her harshest critics – the veteran drivers who study the competition closely. While the No. 78 car doesn't have the speed to hang with the top teams, its driver certainly isn't a burden to others. Good backmarkers, the theory goes, become great racers.
“She's with a small team, which makes it tough, but it's great for learning,” Scott Dixon says. “She's always asking questions of the veteran drivers, which is something a lot of the other drivers don't do. She's definitely open and interested. She has very good car control and a very good racing style. She's definitely doing very, very well for a rookie. She's sensible. She might not be the quickest but, then again, it's hard to tell with the team she's with. All around, she's done a hell of a job.”
Like Dixon and others currently racing for IndyCar championships, de Silvestro has adapted quickly to the series' oval tracks. Often it's the most difficult segue for European road racers to master, but the series' best drivers all had one thing in common: They adapted quickly to different forms of racing in general and to ovals in particular. That seems to be de Silvestro's modus operandi
“It has been shown that people who pick it up quickly get to be great at it, but I've always been fortunate to be able to pick things up quickly,” she says. “I'm just learning and absorbing. When each race is complete, you know you've learned a lot. That's the important part. I've really started to enjoy the ovals a lot. I didn't have a fixed mindset about them. I allowed myself to be open about oval racing, and I've actually started to enjoy them. I thought maybe it would be easy before I did it, but it's not.”
The only thing bothering de Silvestro now is the plain fact that her results – especially the ones outside the top 20 – often aren't reflective of where she raced. Best example? A little crash and fire that nearly every talk and news program in the U.S. found newsworthy. In a weird way, though, that poor finish served a positive purpose.
“It's natural, right?” says Wiggins. “Controversy sells. A lot of people don't know about the IndyCar Series, so any media is good media. Things happen in mysterious ways. It's certainly not the way we wanted to get publicity – certainly from a financial point of view – but you take what you get and make the best out of it. She won Rookie of the Year at Indy and had a significant fiery crash at Texas. That's two extremes in six days. It's all part of the mix. If she gets attention and proves that she's handled both situations fairly well, then more power to her.”
With fame comes power, it seems. And even more fans.THE ALLURE OF F1
Is the IZOD IndyCar Series a steppingstone for SdS?
As family legend has it, Simona de Silvestro's only silent moments in her infancy occurred when Formula 1 races were on television. As she takes her baby steps into Indy car racing, then, the question arises: Could de Silvestro be the one to break the gender barrier in F1?
The answer is vague at this point, but as impossible as it might seem, there's some validity to the query.
“Formula 1 is a far more brutal environment than the IndyCar Series,” says de Silvestro's team owner, Keith Wiggins, a veteran of F1 battles. “Then again, there is a marketing benefit to being a female driver. Maybe F1 will be ready for that and it might open up more of an opportunity than there would be otherwise, but a lot of things can happen between now and then.”
For de Silvestro, a native of Switzerland who came up through the ranks in Europe before moving to the U.S. in 2006, the F1 dream is in the background but still prominent.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I've always dreamed of Formula 1,” she says. “It still is my goal, but right now I've made this great achievement to be here in the IZOD IndyCar Series, and I'm really enjoying it. It's great to be here. Right now I'm focused on Indy cars.”
While it's been known to chew up even the most distinguished careers, F1 has yet to encounter what is now common in the States: competent, competitive female drivers. Whether de Silvestro will get the opportunity – or be willing to take the career risk – remains to be seen.
“F1 is a tough environment,” Wiggins continues. “You have to prove yourself. You don't want to go there and get slaughtered for a year and then come back here with your tail between your legs. Let's face it, we've seen that happen to some very talented drivers.”