The IndyCars has enjoyed a considerable representation of women drivers in recent years, and much to its benefit and the championship’s many fans.
And Switzerland’s Simona de Silvestro is out to prove that she can – despite preconceptions of her ancestry (her homeland has banned all forms of motorsport since 1955) and gender – compete with the best at the sport’s top-flight, and it was our great pleasure to have the opportunity to sit down and chat with this very interesting, driven 23-year-old.
Being largely unable to hone her skills in her country of birth, motorsport-loving de Silvestro – whose childhood hero was Michael Schumacher – spent much of her teenage years travelling to neighbouring Italy and France to develop her racing talent in the field of karting.
After seven years, she moved to single-seaters, competing in the Italian Formula Renault 2000 championship in 2005 until a lack of an available budget saw her crossing the Atlantic to keep her dreams alive.
She found Formula BMW and finished fourth in the standings with a victory at Lime Rock and six podium finishes – two of which came during the support races for the United States Formula 1 Grand Prix, where she became the first-ever female podium finisher at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
She joined the Atlantic Championship in 2007 with Walker Racing before switching over to Paul Newman’s Newman-Wachs Racing, where she earned her first series win at Long Beach.
Staying on for a third season – this time with Team Stargate Worlds – she won four races and was right in the hunt for the championship title until she retired at the season finale. It was a record-breaking season, and she became the first woman in Atlantic history to win the most races, claim the most pole positions and lead the most laps in a single season.
Her star rising, she was invited to an IndyCar test with Keith Wiggins’ HVM Racing outfit at Sebring during the off-season, and immediately impressed.
A contract was signed, and she took everyone by storm on her IndyCar debut by leading her first ever race, sadly retiring with mechanical failure. Having had barely any oval racing experience, she qualified for the Indy 500 at her first attempt and finished 14th, earning her the ‘Rookie of the Year’ honours. Top-10 finishes later followed at Toronto and Mid-Ohio, but she suffered a scary crash at the Texas oval circuit, burning her right hand when her car caught fire.
Staying with HVM for the following year, she drove a dogged race to claim a career-best fourth at St Petersburg, finishing just inches off the podium after a brilliant race.
But then came a terrifying crash during practice for the centenary Indianpolis 500. A component failure sent her car hurtling to the fence at over 230mph, and she incredibly emerged with little more than badly burned hands after an enormous accident. Bravely, she was back in the car and managed to qualify comfortably for the race.
But its effects weren’t completely over, and in subsequent oval races – at Milwaukee and Iowa – she suffered more mishaps, and her confidence was badly shaken. Officials refused to let her start from the latter.
Now fully recovered, we caught up with Simona in the days leading up to her return to IndyCar racing at the Honda Indy Toronto round, and an ever-smiling driver was raring to go, as you will read below…
We offer our sincerest thanks to Simona and the press team at HVM Racing for making this interview possible.
SIMONA’S BIO & CAREER SUMMARY
|Born:||1 September 1988, Thun (SUI)|
|2005||Formula Renault 2.0 Italy, Cram Competition, 20th overall|
|2006||Formula BMW USA, EuroInternational
14 races, 1 win, 2 fastest laps, 113 points, 4th overall
|2007||Champ Car Atlantic Series, Walker Racing
12 races, 69 points, 19th overall
|2008||Atlantic Championship Series, Newman Wachs Racing
11 races, 1 win, 167 points, 8th overall
|2009||Atlantic Championship Series, Team Stargate Worlds
12 races, 4 wins, 4 pole positions, 1 fastest lap, 176 points, 3rd overall
|2010||IZOD IndyCar Series, HVM Racing
17 races, 2 top-10 finishes, 242 points, 19th overall
|2011||IZOD IndyCar Series, HVM Racing
8 races, 2 top-10 finishes, 1 fastest lap, 137 points, 19th overall* (season in progress)
The last couple of months have been incredibly unlucky for you in terms of oval circuit crashes. After your very painful crash at Indy, you had another crash and a concussion at Milwaukee. How have you handled the stress and trauma of these accidents, on top of the accident had last year at Texas [Simona’s car caught fire], and what have you learned from these experiences so early in your IndyCar career?
That’s the biggest thing. Everybody crashes on the ovals, and for me it’s been a steep learning curve. For me, perhaps, it was a little bit tougher because they happened in such succession. It’s tough on your confidence, but I also need to remember that it was a component failure that caused my IndyCar crash which sent me into the wall. I had badly burned hands out of it, but it still took a lot of my confidence.
And then to get into the car and qualify it for the 500 was a huge step for me, and it went really well.
At Milwaukee, I think I overstepped it a little bit. We were trying too hard, and these are things you just have to learn. It’s tough when you hurt yourself because you realize a lot of things in the process.
Even at Texas, I don’t think the result really showed it, but it was an important step for me and the team because I started to enjoy it again and push the car once more. Perhaps having these crashes early on could be a good thing; hopefully I’m getting all of the nasty ones out of the way pretty early in my career!
Right now, I’m feeling pretty good. I’ve had two really tough months, and it’s been the hardest thing that I’ve had to go through in my life. I’m excited to go to Toronto this weekend; it’ll be fun for me to get back on the road courses and get my confidence back. I hope to have a really strong second half of the season.
The last period was a big crossroad in my life, and it made me realise a couple of good things, and a couple of bad things as well.
|Simona’s Indy smash was even more violent than her first burn-inducing smash at Texas in 2010. But just weeks after admirably qualifying for the Indy 500, she crashed again in qualifying for the Milwaukee race. Her confidence shaken and suffering what turned out to be the effects of concussion, she withdrew from the race after a few laps.|
Growing up in a country that has officially banned motorsport, how was your decision to pursue such a career initially perceived by those outside your support base, especially those familiar with the 1955 Le Mans tragedy which resulted in the nationwide ban?
Everybody would naturally think that’s it’s been a little more difficult, but I was really lucky. Swiss people really like racing, and I’ve had a lot of help in my career – sponsors and family – to get me where I am today. So it was easy to travel to France and Italy – which are just over the border and real Meccas of karting – to compete. Of course it would be really nice to have race tracks in my homeland where people could compete, but I really don’t think it made it any more difficult for me. I had a lot of people behind me who support me in my decision. I had my goal and that’s what I wanted to do, so I made sure it could happen.
Who were your racing idols growing up?
My idol was always Michael Schumacher. When I really started watching Formula 1, he was winning all of the races, so maybe that was an easy pick. What he has done and what he has accomplished is really unbelievable. To build up an entire team behind him is really something special, and I really admire that.
When you were starting out, what sort of, if any, negative feeling or pre-judgment did you encounter among the non-believers who didn’t feel you were capable of becoming a racing driver?
I’ve never really felt that because I’ve always had really good results in every category that I’ve competed in. I was winning races and showing that I could belong there. I think that was the biggest thing for me. I never really had a tough time because of the results that I achieved.
While you obviously had to learn and hone the majority of your race-craft outside of Switzerland, what sort of aspirations did you have for your career remaining in Europe?
It was my goal to remain in Europe as long as I could. But I’d done nine years of karting before moving into the Italian Formula Renault 2000. It was a big period of learning for me, and unfortunately we just didn’t have the budget to stay in Europe. There was an opportunity for me to come to the US to compete in Formula BMW, and that’s why I came over.
From time to time, I used to think about returning to Europe and perhaps a category like GP2, but I was lucky to pick up an American sponsor who supported me through the next chapter of the Atlantics Series, and here I am in the IndyCar Series. I think it’s really special, not many drivers get to achieve a level like this and I’m lucky to be here right now. I just have to show what I can do in this series and then see what happens.
What sort of exposure to American motorsport did you have which garnered your interest in heading Stateside?
I had a little bit of knowledge before coming over – I’d known of the Indy 500 of course – but when I came over here, champ Car was the big thing and that was the goal I was aiming for. There were a lot of European drivers who were racing here, and the Atlantics Series was the feeder category for me.
I don’t think oval racing was necessarily the objective, but when the series merged with IndyCars, that’s what happened.
Beginning your road to IndyCars in 2007 with Walker Racing, how did you find your first season, and what differences did you notice about how American racing operates compared to junior formulae in Europe?
It’s a lot more open and accessible here. The drivers talk to each other and the racing is a lot more open to the fans. That’s why these series are so popular over here, because the fans can come and see us. We race at lots of street circuits, and even at the ovals they’re really close to the action.
I’d never contested an oval race until last year, and when I came to the Indy 500 it just blew me away that there were so many people and that it was such a big spectacle. It was really special.
The 2007 season was pretty tough. I had a new car to learn, and new tracks to learn, and the Atlantics Championship itself was very tough. It was a big learning experience, and looking back, I think it was a very good one. It wasn’t the best season results-wise, but I learned a lot and was better placed to come back the following year in that series.
|“Pretty tough” was how Simona described her first season of Atlantics in 2007. Racing for Walker Racing, Simona has a minor lock-up at Road America (left). In later years, she would become a championship challenger, winning her maiden race with Paul Newman’s team at Long Beach (right) for the first race of the 2008 campaign.|
Success in any sort of car owned by Paul Newman always seems to occur at Long Beach. Many wins by Mario and Michael Andretti can attest to this. Scoring your first win at the same circuit in 2008, driving a car owned by the legendary actor must have been a special moment for you. Can you describe this particular weekend for us?
It was very special. It was our first race together in 2008. The team had never won a race in the Atlantics Series, and for me to win a race at Long beach was something really special. We came into the season with a new sponsor: Entergy Nuclear Clean Air Energy, who still support me to this day. They chose me as their spokesperson, and it was all very new. To have a title sponsor for the first time and to be driving for Paul Newman was certainly very special to give him his first ever Atlantics win.
2009 was your year in terms of success in the Atlantic Series, although a championship still eluded you thanks to a first-lap retirement in the season finale at Laguna Seca. Was it a surprise to you to be skipping the next step of the ladder in Indy Lights and jumping straight into an IndyCar for 2010?
Doing three years in Atlantics was not the usual path for IndyCar drivers; usually they do two years in Atlantics and then a year in Indy Lights. For us, it was really important to do another year where I could prove to everyone that I could win races and be a force. I won four races that year, and it showed that I could do it. I had the confidence in myself and it led to a test in the IndyCars. I felt ready at that point to make the jump because I’d had such a strong season in Atlantics.
Keith Wiggins has a very successful record in almost every motorsport category that he has entered as a team owner. Can you tell us a little bit about the atmosphere in HVM and what your relationship is like with Keith?
It’s a great team. We’re definitely one of the smaller teams in the field, but it really feels like a big family. I think that’s important for young drivers to really feel like you have the team behind you. You can really push them, and they can push you, and in turn you believe in each other. That’s the formula for success.
Keith is really unbelievable. He has led so many teams to victory in so many series, and I’m really happy to be driving for him to try and achieve the same level of success for him in the IndyCar Series.
Although it was early in the race, what thoughts were going through your head when you found yourself legitimately in the lead of the race in Sao Paulo in your IndyCar debut? Was it an extra thrill to have series veteran and champion Dario Franchitti immediately behind you at the time?
It was really crazy! In your first IndyCar race – to be truthful – you don’t really know what you’re doing! You’re just hoping to get through it all and finish. There are so many new things to deal with – especially pit stops – and it’s a lot to take in. And then to be leading my first race was an extra challenge to contend with, it was unbelievable. I must confess to being a little bit nervous having someone like Dario behind me in the midst of doing a race restart, but I think I handled it quite well.
Unfortunately the rest of the race didn’t pan out how I hoped because I had a mechanical problem, but I was pretty pleased with my performance that weekend. It was a great first experience, and I hope we can repeat it as often as we can.
|A “really crazy” IndyCar debut at Sao Paulo saw Simona leading the race on her first-ever in the top flight!|
This year’s season-opener at St Petersburg was a great race for you, particularly with your being able to gain many places with the new double-file restarts as well. You seemed better able to take advantage (relative to other drivers) of the opportunity that it gave you to make up places at race restarts. What are your thoughts on this rule?
I’ve always liked this rule. For us drivers, it gives us an extra opportunity to actually make up positions at the restart, and for spectators, it’s great to watch because there’s always something happening. Of course we had to adapt to the new rule, and accept the knowledge that some weekends it’ll go your way, and on others it won’t. You just have to try and take the best out of it, but I think it’s a great change to the rules because it improves the racing.
You were really hounding Tony Kanaan towards the end of the St Petersburg race for third place, eventually taking a career-best fourth-placed finish. How satisfying was this performance for you as a launching pad for your 2011 season?
It was great considering some of the challenges we had leading up to that race weekend. I’d had a change of engineer just days before the event – that has a really destabilising effect on a team – and to have such a good result in the first race was just unbelievable. To race with the frontrunners like Will Power and Tony Kanaan – these guys are racewinners and championship contenders – in just my second year was really special.
What’s your favourite circuit on the calendar?
I really like all the road and street courses on the calendar, they’re pretty cool. I’m really looking forward to going to Edmonton [the round following Toronto]: last year we had a really fast car there and I think I can do very well there again. We just need to take each race at a time and try to do our best out there and getting some really great results.
|Undoubtedly, Simona’s strengths lie in street and road courses. At last year’s race at Edmonton (above left), she qualified an impressive seventh for the race, and she’s netted strong results at many other tracks. Just days after our interview, she claimed another top-ten finish on the streets of Toronto.|
Would you welcome a return – as is rumoured – to classic circuits like Fontana, Road America and Laguna Seca?
I think it would be really great to go back to those places. Those are really the race tracks in North America that everybody looks to; even European fans have heard of Laguna Seca and they well know how fabulous a track that is. I would be thrilled to go back there; it would be something really cool to go back to those tracks that the drivers and spectators love.
As an established racer in the IndyCar series now, what are your immediate career goals within the series?
Our goal going into this season was to finish inside the top ten of the championship, and I realistically believe that’s still achievable. We’re going to have a couple of road and street courses where I know I’ll be strong, and I know I’ll need to improve on the ovals in order to have a chance of making this possible. But I definitely think it’s an achievable goal. I see no reason why, on a race weekend where everything goes well, we can’t be on the podium. And if everything goes really well, maybe we can win a race? I still think I have a lot to learn, but I showed I can legitimately run up at the front (such as at St Petersburg). The goal is to be competitive, weekend in, weekend out, and to target the top-ten. On the road courses, we can realistically target the top-five, and I think these are goals we can make happen.
|After a bumpy first-half of the 2011 championship, Simona is targeting the top-ten by the end of the year. We certainly hope and believe she can make this happen.|