Why she’s set for a 2015 race seat


A few years ago, Mario An­dretti was watch­ing a pre-sea­son IndyCar test from the side of the track. As the cars braked, ac­cel­er­ated and pow­ered their way around the cir­cuit for lap af­ter lap, one driver in par­tic­u­lar caught his eye. Turn­ing to a col­league stand­ing next to him, he pointed to the high-speed ma­chine dart­ing around the track and said: “He’s quick.”

It was only later, when the car re­turned to the pits and its oc­cu­pant stepped out of the cock­pit and re­moved their hel­met, that he re­alised. She had been quick. She is Simona De Sil­ve­stro.

It’s a lit­tle be­fore 9am and al­ready the sun is high in the sky, soak­ing the as­phalt with its heat. Driv­ing into the pad­dock of the Cir­cuit de la Co­mu­ni­tat Va­len­ciana Ri­cardo Tormo on this week­day morn­ing is like ar­riv­ing at any or­di­nary For­mula 1 test. But to­day there is a dif­fer­ence. There is only one team. One set of ar­tic­u­lated trucks. One mo­torhome. This three-day test is for one driver only: Simona De Sil­ve­stro.

You’d bet­ter get used to her name, since through­out 2014 the 25-year-old is con­duct­ing a dozen test days at the wheel of a two-year old Sauber, thereby cir­cum­vent­ing the strict rules on For­mula 1 test­ing.

To­day, there’s no one else on track. No dis­trac­tions and no me­dia – ex­cept F1 Rac­ing, of course. Just a team of me­chan­ics, an en­gi­neer, a car, 35 sets of con­trol tyres, a cir­cuit and a rac­ing driver. This is a test in the real sense of the word. An eval­u­a­tion; prepa­ra­tion for the real thing. The road to a full-time F1 drive starts here and every­one is wait­ing to see if De Sil­ve­stro is ready.

Stand­ing on the pit­wall are two happy par­ents beam­ing with pride. Her fa­ther, Pier­luigi, claims that as a baby, Simona stopped cry­ing only when For­mula 1 was be­ing broad­cast on the tele­vi­sion in their Swiss home. This test, he says, is the re­al­i­sa­tion of a very long-held dream. He adds that her rst words were, in or­der, ‘Mama’, ‘Papa’ and ‘Fer­rari’… fol­lowed by ‘Alain Prost’.

Simona picked up the rac­ing bug from Pier­luigi, who used to run car deal­er­ships for Alfa and was a driv­ing in­struc­tor for bur­geon­ing sportscar rac­ers in his spare time. He was also keen to give his daugh­ter tips as she started to ply her trade in karts.

“I re­mem­ber he would stand at the side of the track in the brak­ing zone with a lit­tle ag, telling me where to brake,” Simona re­calls with a smile. “And, yes, ev­ery lap he would move closer to the apex. I used to have night­mares about that ag… Even now, he can’t help him­self. Af­ter test­ing the Sauber yes­ter­day he was telling me to try cer­tain things and I was like, ‘Okaaay dad…!’”

Fund­ing for kart­ing was sus­tain­able, but when the time came to switch to cars, spon­sor­ship and out­side help was needed. Like so many rac­ers be­fore her, Simona’s story isn’t un­der­writ­ten by a lim­it­less bank bal­ance; rather she has had to prove her tal­ent to en­sure spon­sors would con­tinue to in­vest in her.

Af­ter a year rac­ing For­mula Re­nault in Italy for Cram, there was no more fund­ing to race in Europe so in 2006, at the age of 17, Simona de­cided to up sticks and leave Switzer­land to en­ter the For­mula BMW se­ries in the USA. It was an in­spired choice, since by the end of the year she had taken ve podi­ums and two fastest laps and had quickly im­pressed sea­soned rac­ers with her speed and at­ti­tude.

It also helped that the United States, cul­tur­ally, has been more open to fe­male rac­ers than its Euro­pean coun­ter­parts. Fe­male driv­ers such as Janet Guthrie and Lynn St James were en­ter­ing the In­di­anapo­lis 500 in the 1970s and 1990s, and De Sil­ve­stro was fol­low­ing in the wheel­tracks of Sarah Fisher and Dan­ica Pa­trick. So pro­gres­sion through the US mo­tor rac­ing cat­e­gories didn’t mean en­coun­ter­ing the same level of gen­der stereo­typ­ing that still ex­isted in Euro­pean rac­ing cir­cles.

What re­ally stood out was her visit to the top of the Long Beach podium with vic­tory in Toy­ota

Simona’s fa­ther, Pier­luigi, says her first words were, in or­der ‘ Mama’, ‘ Papa’ and ‘ F er­rari’… fol­lowed by ‘ Alain Prost’


“On the first t est we gav e her she w as as hard with her brake pres­sure as an y driver we’d seen. And she w as quick” IndyCar t eam boss K eith Wig­gins

At­lantics in 2008. With three fur­ther wins that sea­son, it meant grad­u­a­tion to IndyCars was the next nat­u­ral step up as spon­sors be­gan to re­alise the po­ten­tial in their in­vest­ment.

“I re­mem­ber well the rst test we gave her,” re­calls team boss Keith Wig­gins, who ran the Pacic GP team in F1 in the mid-1990s and es­tab­lished his own IndyCar team, now HVM Rac­ing, in the States in 2000.

“I went into the back of the truck to make an es­presso and as I heard her go out on her rst lap I was think­ing, ‘Oh shit, here we go’. I know Se­bring quite well and as I lis­tened it was quite clear that she was on it right from the be­gin­ning. I was in­ter­ested enough to go back out­side and check how things were go­ing. Straight away the engi­neers were say­ing, ‘Bloody hell, look at her brake traces,’ as she was as hard with her brake pres­sure as any driver we’d seen. That was a pleas­ant sur­prise. And she was quick.”

At the 2010 In­di­anapo­lis 500 she joined an il­lus­tri­ous list of names, in­clud­ing Nigel Mansell, Juan Pablo Mon­toya and Jac­ques Vil­leneuve when she was named ‘Rookie of the Year’. Still run­ning on the lead lap, just out­side the top ten, Simona’s rac­ing tra­jec­tory was pro­gress­ing, de­spite the lack of bud­get. So far, so good. She had just av­er­aged a lap­time of 221mph in qual­i­fy­ing for the In­di­anapo­lis 500 the fol­low­ing year when she en­tered Turn 3 at full speed. Some­thing broke in the rear of her car and she be­gan to spin at over 190mph. Her car lifted off the ground and the left rear crashed heav­ily into the bar­ri­ers, rip­ping off the wheel and scat­ter­ing sus­pen­sion com­po­nents across the cir­cuit. The car con­tin­ued to y through the air at sick­en­ing speed then spun again. As it faced away from the ineld, the roll hoop was ripped off in the catch fenc­ing, which also broke a fuel line. Fi­nally the car came to a halt in the mid­dle of Turn 4, hav­ing skated along the ground up­side down for a few hun­dred me­tres. And then it caught re.

As De Sil­ve­stro strug­gled des­per­ately to es­cape her wrecked ma­chine, still up­side down, fuel ran into her gloves and they set alight. To the im­mense re­lief of every­one watch­ing, she broke free with the help of the on-site safety crew, but she was clearly in a lot of pain. She was rushed to hos­pi­tal with sec­ond-de­gree burns on her hands.

To­day, in the quiet sanc­tu­ary of Sauber’s mo­torhome in the Va­len­cia pad­dock, her hands still scarred by the ter­ri­ble in­jury, she re­mem­bers that day vividly.

“I think it was the worst thing that ever hap­pened to me – ever. I re­mem­ber get­ting out of the car and say­ing I never wanted to go near a rac­ing car again. That was a big re­al­ity check. When some­thing like that hap­pens, when some­thing fails, it’s re­ally hard to nd trust in the car again, es­pe­cially on an oval. And that evening, I was done. I’d burnt my hands re­ally badly and for me, that was it.”

Yet two days later she was back in the car, set­ting a four-lap av­er­age speed of 224mph to qual­ify for that year’s In­di­anapo­lis 500. And to en­sure she didn’t fail a drugs test, she had re­fused med­i­ca­tion to re­lieve the pain as her blis­ters were re­moved to al­low her to get her gloves back on. Af­ter a trauma that would put most peo­ple off for life, she was de­ter­mined not to give up.

“I re­mem­ber the crash that she had and the fact she was driv­ing again al­most in­stantly,” says Josef Le­berer, Sauber’s physio, who has worked with the likes of Ayr­ton Senna, Se­bas­tian Vet­tel and Kimi Räikkö­nen in the past. “And then I saw a pic­ture of her burnt hands and I thought, ‘Who is this?’ I was re­ally sur­prised be­cause this is

quite un­usual. I’ve had some driv­ers in the past, like Robert Ku­bica, who have had big ac­ci­dents and they are quite shaken af­ter­wards, so it’s not easy. But her strength is her de­ter­mi­na­tion and her willpower is very, very strong.”

De Sil­ve­stro knew that the longer she left it to climb back into the cock­pit, the harder it would be: “It was very tough, but I knew that I had to drive again right away. It was painful to hold the wheel and it was re­ally hor­ri­ble, but I knew that if I came out of this with a smile then I could work through it.

“The hap­pi­est place for me is out on a race­track. When you get the chance to do that it’s a lit­tle bit like be­ing a kid in a candy store. It’s just great be­ing in a race car.”

With that de­ter­mi­na­tion and pas­sion for rac­ing, Simona wasn’t go­ing to let her ex­pe­ri­ence scar her men­tally, de­spite the phys­i­cal re­minder. And it won’t sur­prise you to learn that the Amer­i­can me­dia quickly dropped her ‘Swiss Miss’ tag in favour of ‘The Iron Maiden.’

Un­for­tu­nately, her di­min­ished condence in oval-rac­ing led to an­other ac­ci­dent at Mil­wau­kee. Con­cus­sion meant she had to pull out of the next race be­cause of dizzi­ness. She is not the rst driver to lose their oval mojo and she won’t be the last.

“She had a dif­fi­cult time af­ter that and she was us­tered,” re­calls Keith Wig­gins. “She’d had this se­ries of bad ac­ci­dents, but if any­thing they were a reec­tion of her brav­ery on the ovals. The say­ing goes ‘you don’t know it un­til you’ve hit it’ and that changes a lot of driv­ers’ per­spec­tives about the ovals. It took her a while to nd a way through it, but I think to this day she’d be hap­pier if she didn’t have to race on an oval again.”

Hav­ing used Amer­ica as her train­ing ground to es­tab­lish her rep­u­ta­tion, her fo­cus is now on her Euro­pean home­land for the next stage of her ca­reer. And have no il­lu­sions: she’s not a gim­mick. She’s deadly se­ri­ous about rac­ing. Back in April, on the drive back from Maranello to her home in Zurich, Simona punched the air with de­light. She’d just achieved her life am­bi­tion of driv­ing an F1 car for the very rst time. Her rst test in the Sauber C31 took place at Fio­rano in the heart of Fer­rari’s home town. For some­one with dual Swiss/ Ital­ian na­tion­al­ity (her pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther was Ital­ian), driv­ing in the wheel­tracks of so many le­gends had great resonance.

“Fio­rano was re­ally ex­cit­ing be­cause ever since I was about six years old I’ve dreamt about driv­ing a For­mula 1 car, and to do it there was amaz­ing. It was kinda funny be­cause usu­ally I’m ner­vous when I get into new cars, but I felt at home pretty much right away, so that was re­ally cool. Af­ter I did my rst lap, I was like, wow, I can’t be­lieve it – I’ve just driven an F1 car!”

Fast for­ward to the pre­sent and the en­vi­ron­ment is far less glam­orous and more clin­i­cal. The Ri­cardo Tormo cir­cuit sits within an in­dus­trial es­tate on the out­skirts of Va­len­cia and here ev­ery as­pect of her driv­ing is be­ing mon­i­tored for eval­u­a­tion.

The test ses­sion is be­ing ramped up to al­low her to fur­ther un­der­stand the nu­ances of F1. Prior to to­day she’s spent 70 laps learn­ing the cir­cuit on the Red Bull sim­u­la­tor in Mil­ton Keynes and now, as she blasts past the pits in the Span­ish sun­shine – the glo­ri­ous wail of that 2.4-litre V8 at full pelt head­ing to­wards Turn 1 – she’s be­gin­ning to dial into the setup of the car. “We want her to un­der­stand the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the car and how it feels on high and low fuel loads,” says Sauber’s race en­gi­neer Paul Rus­sell. “How the car bal­ance changes and how the tyres feel dif­fer­ent. These are all as­pects that she’ll be­gin to un­der­stand when she’s com­pet­ing on a race week­end.

“From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think there’s much she can’t do with the car. Ob­vi­ously there is a lot to un­der­stand in terms of the steer­ing wheel and all its func­tions, but she’s per­form­ing quite well.”

The ob­vi­ous ob­sta­cle to over­come is the dif­fer­ence in char­ac­ter­is­tics from a heavy, bulky IndyCar that is of­ten driven along bumpy street tracks that are a world away from the su­per­smooth as­phalt cir­cuits used in F1.

“Phys­i­cally it is dif­fer­ent, too,” says Simona. “The IndyCar is re­ally tough on your shoul­ders and arms be­cause there is no power steer­ing, but here in the Sauber, to be hon­est the G-forces are so mas­sive that I re­ally feel it in my core mus­cles and I’ve never felt that be­fore. I never felt that at Indy; that’s be­cause they are long-ra­dius cor­ners, whereas a For­mula 1 car just turns ex­tremely well and very quickly. Plus I have never had to train my neck be­fore, so these are things that I’m adapt­ing to.

“An F1 car is so much more ex­treme. It brakes much bet­ter, it ac­cel­er­ates much bet­ter, and the cor­ner­ing is re­ally im­pres­sive. You have to hus­tle an IndyCar by throw­ing it into a cor­ner and catch­ing it, whereas here you must let the car do the work and that’s a lit­tle hard. Ini­tially I found it very easy to over­drive, but then I re­alised that I just need to calm ev­ery­thing down and be re­ally pre­cise.

“The big­gest dif­fer­ence I think, though, is the brak­ing – it’s so im­pres­sive. At Fio­rano I went out on cold brakes to Turn 1, hit the pedal and the car just stopped. I couldn’t be­lieve that on cold brakes it would brake so much, even though every­one tells you it’s im­pres­sive.”

Watch­ing track­side, she is er­ror-free. Noth­ing too wild. Yes, there’s the odd lock-up to­wards the end of a tyre run. Or you see her mov­ing fur­ther away from the apex as the tyres give up their life on a longer stint as the un­der­steer builds. But it’s not out of con­trol: she knows what she’s do­ing.

“It’s a very am­bi­tious chal­lenge she’s given her­self that she wants to mas­ter, so she needs to get a feel for For­mula 1, and it’s good she can do this with a two-year old car,” says Sauber’s team prin­ci­pal Mon­isha Kal­tenborn.

“She has sup­port­ers in the back­ground and they were willing to help her do this. Where it takes her from here, we will see. It de­pends on what lies in the fu­ture – rst we will look at what the over­all progress is.”

Her next stop will be an­other test in Austin to­wards the end of the year. For all the sim­u­la­tor tech­nol­ogy avail­able, there is no sub­sti­tute for driv­ing the real thing, even if it is a two-year-old car. It begs the ques­tion whether more young driv­ers will look into gain­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in old cars – as­sum­ing, of course, they can af­ford to pay for it.

The big ques­tion now is whether De Sil­ve­stro is ready to com­pete at the top level. F1 Rac­ing asked Sauber’s en­gi­neer what feed­back he would give Kal­tenborn if she asked whether Simona was ready to make her F1 de­but next year…

“I’d like to see her make the step up,” says Rus­sell. “The point of this is to try to make sure that when the chance comes for her to make the step up, she is as well pre­pared as pos­si­ble.”

And what does her former boss think? “I still think the best com­pe­ti­tion is in Europe,” says Keith Wig­gins. “But the qual­ity of the IndyCar grid is pretty damn strong. There are so many el­e­ments to F1 that you have to be so strong men­tally; it isn’t the friendly at­mos­phere it is over here. From what she’s done in all the cat­e­gories, and see­ing her tal­ents, she cer­tainly has a place there.”

And how does De Sil­ve­stro her­self rate her chances of mak­ing it onto the grid at the 2015 Aus­tralian Grand Prix?

“I don’t know – it’s al­ways dif­fi­cult to say. But what I can say is that we are work­ing re­ally hard to achieve that. To me, if I do ev­ery­thing right, yes, there is a very good chance.

“I feel now is the time, and that’s why it felt nor­mal to go to Fio­rano. I wasn’t su­per crazy ner­vous. I wouldn’t have made this jump if it didn’t feel right or it wasn’t a good op­por­tu­nity. And now I’ve got to re­ally push to make it

“Now is the time. I wouldn’t hav e made this jump if it didn’t feel right . Now I ’ ve got to push to make i t hap­pen”

hap­pen. You know, for me it’s been re­ally im­por­tant to fo­cus on the rac­ing part, be­cause at the end of the day that’s what peo­ple are go­ing to judge you on, whether you’re a boy or a girl. You have to be fast and be com­pet­i­tive.

“The most im­por­tant thing is that when we put on our hel­mets, we are all the same. We are rac­ing driv­ers and we try to do the best job that we can in a race car. That’s al­ways been my aim.”

At 5pm the C31 en­ters the pits for the nal time af­ter an­other day’s run­ning. The en­gine is switched off and the me­chan­ics crowd around each cor­ner of the car, us­ing hand-held fans to cool the brakes. As the blue and green Sauber is wheeled back into the garage, you won­der if the next time you’ll see this liv­ery will be in the Mel­bourne pit­lane next March. If so, the at­ten­tion will be enor­mous. The last fe­male driver to start an F1 race was Ital­ian Lella Lom­bardi 40 years ago. That’s quite a length of time, but the most likely chance of end­ing that drought is Simona De Sil­ve­stro. She cer­tainly has the de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed.

Re­mem­ber that im­pres­sive IndyCar test, all those years ago? “I’ve been fol­low­ing her closely since then,” says Mario An­dretti. “And once you have that hel­met on, the gen­der makes no dif­fer­ence. Pas­sion and de­sire drive you and, with that, no ob­sta­cle is in­sur­mount­able. If you want to ac­com­plish some­thing, you’re go­ing to nd a way and si­lence the crit­ics with your per­for­mance. I wish her well be­cause she’s denitely a tal­ent to be reck­oned with…”

De Sil­ve­stro takes to the track in Va­len­cia at the wheel of the Sauber C31. It’s a test for one, with a team of 30 to sup­port her

Simona is al­most er­ror-free in Va­len­cia. Yes, there’s the odd lock-up, but she knows what she’s do­ing

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