F1’s FIRST LADY
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 Pacic 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 ineld, 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 condence 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 reection 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 denitely 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