NISSAN’ S SIMON A DE SILVESTRO ISN’ T JUST ANOTHER DRIVER. FOR SUPER CARS AS A WHOLE, THE 28- YEAR-OLD FROM SWITZERLAND PRESENT SA CHALLENGE TO SOME OF THE MOST FIRMLY ESTABLISHED PRE CONCEIVED NOTION SIN THE CLASS. OH, YEAH: SHE’ S FAST, TOO.
Simona de Silvestro challenges a lot of notions about your typical Supercars driver. Bathurst isn’t the only tough climb she’s scaled.
For the first time since 1975 – when Christine Gibson ran fifth outright – the Australian touring car championship (now Supercars) has a full-time female driver on the grid. Whether this long-awaited sequel is a means of filling a moral void or whether it’s powered solely by commercial urgency doesn’t matter nearly as much as the practical outcome. The recruitment of 28-year-old Simona de Silvestro means that a wickedly long period of female absence from a major Australian sport is at an end. And it’s ended with a pretty hefty full stop. De Silvestro, a Swiss-born former IndyCar pilot, is widely regarded as the best female driver in the world. So for that reason alone, her signature on a long-term Australian contract must be regarded as a coup – even in the gun-forhire world of motorsport. At the end of 2016, after two calling card drives at Bathurst, de Silvestro signed for three years with the Nissan factory team of veteran Supercar identities Rick and Todd Kelly.
Apart from the obvious, this was not a conventional signing. Supercars chased de Silvestro very hard and made all kinds of providential things happen to get her behind the wheel of an Australian tin top. In addition, her personal sponsor is retail giant Harvey Norman, a superpower addition to the category’s manifest of non-auto- industry backers. Even the South Australian government did some underwriting. For them, de Silvestro added unorthodox tourist allure to the season-opening Adelaide 500.
So what’s at work here? Well, on one level, a prototypical marriage of convenience between social activism and the bottom line. De Silvestro’s arrival in the series was largely engineered by Supercars CEO James Warburton, who since 2013 has wanted to put at least three women on the grid. The idea will see the sport track somewhere near soccer’s W League, the AFLW and cricket’s WBBL on the question of female inclusiveness. This, it’s hoped, will induce a major infusion of female interest in Supercars, especially from a new generation. Drafting singer Delta Goodrem as official ambassador is another dimension of that diversity-conscious strategy.
Also at stake for Supercars are higher levels of publicity, in particular greater credibility with news outlets notoriously in love with aberrations. This motive was evident in 2015 when de Silvestro drove at Mount Panorama with young Brisbane racer Renee Gracie, in the first of their two “Supergirls” Bathurst auditions. There’s no doubt Warburton likes the link between Supercars and social justice. It’s a means to an end. But his focus in 2015 was squarely on the cash and kudos. After the race he
zeroed in on the pair’s trackside merchandise sellout and their generation of $25 million worth of media exposure – one-third of the event’s entire media coverage, we’re told.
The coupling of affirmative action and corporate emolument intensified with the enlistment of Harvey Norman boss Katie Page, the first person Warburton contacted when he needed sponsorship for the Supergirls project. For Page, promoting women in sport has been a long-term moral “duty”. As a result she’s backed female rugby league, AFL, sailing, horse racing and show jumping. Now she’s backing de Silvestro in Supercars. And yet the bottom line is only ever a fiscal tic away: “Eighty per cent of [Harvey Norman’s] customers are female,” she told The Australian newspaper. “Why wouldn’t I do that for those customers? In fact, those customers want us to do that. When you’re selling to women, you have to be respectful to women.”
What’s liable to get lost in the headlong roll-out of programs loaded with other people’s agendas is de Silvestro herself. Which would be criminally shortsighted. She is, after all, more than just an instrument of policy. She is also more than simply a cybernetic extension of a racing car. With her five languages: French, German, SwissGerman, English and Italian, together with her 68 IndyCar starts and Formula One test, she – here in Australia – is a reminder to us that it’s possible to shrink the motor racing globe and challenge the monoculture of Supercars.
Yes, the category has welcomed British team owners like Roland Dane and the American colossus, Roger Penske. But these men are enablers only. Even with their vast financial resources and Byzantine political sense, they’ve merely transfused new life into an ageing formula and confirmed us in our AngloCeltic chauvinism. Failed attempts to get Supercars permanently into Asia and the United States have put the championship squarely in its localised place. So too has Chinese-owned Volvo’s short-lived flirtation with the series.
De Silvestro won’t change all of that. She should, however, give us pause to reflect on our parochialism. And if we eventually treat her as just another driver – as she wants us to – and not as a female driver, we might be able to pat ourselves on the back for being a bit evolved. But can Supercars really handle the exotic? Can it embrace the other in the driver’s seat? Will the experiment work?
De Silvestro is hard to catalogue. She comes to Australia a very complete, very composed – and very young – public figure. And one with a reputation for affable frankness, genuine on-track speed and ferocious persistence. But she’s also a non-dogmatic, practical feminist celebrated for crazy brave physical courage and a tough moral core. All of that amounted to near-rock star status in the US. “We love you Simonaaa,” became a raucous anthem in the paddocks of IndyCar circuits right across North America.
Shortening long odds seems to be de Silvestro’s metier. In 1955, the Swiss government banned all high-powered motorsport within its borders following a crash that killed more than 80 spectators at Le Mans that year. The sanction still
stands. But like other Swiss before her – the raffish Jo Siffert comes to mind – she subverted the embargo. Mentored by her father, Pierluigi, a car dealer and F1 devotee from Thun, south of Bern, she began go-karting at six-years old. Pursuit of a motor racing career began in earnest, though, when she was 12 and secured funding from drummer Phil Collins’ Little Dreams foundation. For five years, Little Dreams underwrote a life in European karting and Italian Formula Renault that she says simply would not have happened otherwise.
Chasing money and dreams and seats in teams continued not in Europe but in America. There, motor racing, with its good ol’ boy roots, is far more democratic than its continental counterpart. Pit lane people actually talk to one another. It’s also more female-friendly and more accessible to fans and the media. More importantly, perhaps, America is the spiritual home of the main chance. De Silvestro’s goal had always been Formula One. That meant making it in Britain – the blast furnace of world motorsport – and one or more of the feeder series there. But she couldn’t afford the piratical pay-to-play fees: several hundred thousand pounds per annum for Formula Three and nearly double that for GP2. And so in 2006 – at 17 years old and following millions of European precedents – she packed her hopes and headed to the New World.
There she underwent a full immersion: in FormulaBMWUSA, a junior category, where she collected fourth place in the 2006 championship; in Formula Atlantic where she took third spot in 2009; and, by 2010, the highest openwheel category in the Americas, IndyCar. There she accrued major raves for wrestling ornery vehicles into respectable positions. At her first Indianapolis 500, she won rookie of the year. At Houston in 2013, she became the first woman to score an IndyCar road course podium. In America, she also teamed up with Indian-born businessman Imran Safiulla. Backed by elements of the US nuclear energy industry searching for novel ways to reinvent themselves, he funded and managed her career for almost eight years. Fission business money, though, was never enough for a seat with a top team.
But de Silvestro raced hard and was unofficially awarded the accolade “little badass” – the decoration of an assimilated warrior.
It was in the ethical field, though, that she really laid waste to stereotypes. For US fans and media alike she became a favourite – a gutsy foreign female battling distended odds with a perpetual smile and a sense of humour. The Yanks loved that. Resourceful migrant backbone anchors their ethos. And Unlike IndyCar driver Danica Patrick – now with
Nascar – she refused to get her clothes off for the sake of professional advantage, or money. Instead, she showed by example that a woman could crack the glass ceiling without auctioning off her principles – or, by extension, anybody else’s. At a presser in Baltimore before the IndyCar street race there in 2011, she told the media she’d never heard so many people screaming her name. Many were “moms”: “I think the moms are pretty happy that a girl is in racing and that she’s doing what she wants to do and achieving that. It doesn’t have to be in racing but if you’re passionate about something just go for it. And I think, for them, maybe they have a daughter and she likes motocross and it just shows, ‘Why not?’”
Trial by fire inadvertently helped de Silvestro establish a whole new index of virtue. A flaming crash in Texas in 2010 – with no major injury – was followed by a far more serious one during practice for the 2011 Indy 500. Suspension failure at 345km/h flung her car into the concrete wall at turn three of the famous Brickyard oval circuit. From there, a writhing pile of junk, it skated down the back straight to turn four where it flipped, landed and caught fire. De Silvestro was briefly trapped in the overturned tub. Somehow her flame-resistant gloves didn’t function properly and she suffered third-degree burns to her hands. Two days later, though, she was back in a spare car – bandaged and smarting – but determined to qualify. Which she did in 24th position out of thirty-three. Watch the footage of her car ripping across the finish line that day and dare yourself not to tear up.
For that feat of sheer pluck, US fans dubbed de Silvestro “The Iron Maiden”. But her courage was as much in the mind as it was in the soma. Imprisoned in the burning wreck, she thought she was going to die and momentarily shut down. Fire retardant revived her, though, and she escaped – but didn’t want to race anymore: “I was pretty freaked out. I was in a lot of pain as well. Burns are the worst pain you can have.”
Her mother, Emanuela, as well as her own combative drive got her back on the horse – one she didn’t fully trust for at least a year. As she says: “It was really something that screws a bit with your mind because you’re actually convincing yourself that it’s going to be fine even though deep down inside you’re pretty scared and freaked out about it.”
Sublime acts of valour are often the most potent form of shock therapy. What man now would dare channel his fear of females through that hoary old dog whistle “women drivers”?
On that question – of gender – de Silvestro almost always goes the soft pedal. Not that she’s afraid to assert herself. In April 2016, in L’illustre, a Swiss online magazine, she went loud: “There’s no reason why a woman should not drive as well as a man. I proved in IndyCar that a girl can be just as quick as a guy. It’s only prejudice that gives men a better chance than a woman of getting a place [in a team]. ”
Maybe in that outburst we glimpsed her inner engine at work – for once – but that’s unlikely: her consistent position on gender is the embodiment of cool diplomacy. Maybe it’s a Swiss thing. Acceptance of women in motorsport on the same terms as men, she says, will only happen once a woman starts winning races every weekend. Somewhere. But that will be difficult because there are so few females in the game. It’s a numbers thing; it’s not the first sport a girl chooses. “Maybe I can do it or somebody can do it, then I think that will change quite a lot because we can show that it is possible. But in racing you need so many components to make that happen.”
And by that she means money: “It’s a weird sport where sponsorship matters more than anything else. The only way you can create your chance is if you have backing. But the more backing you have, the better the team and your chance of being successful is going to be bigger. So it’s just kind of catch-22. Eighty percent of it is trying to find sponsors to support you.” These are the verbal fruits of savage experience.
De Silvestro currently resides in Australia because a lot of powerful people want her here. And she is as advertised: unrehearsed, sociable and articulate. But she’s also focused and implicitly steely rather than ferrous – a real asset. She’s also present in this country because she needs steady employment – and, one suspects, a place to knead a few bruises. In 2014, her seemingly tenured
life in IndyCar came to an end when she left America for coquettish Europe to have a crack at Formula One – her life-long dream. But her perennial backers in the US nuclear industry failed to stump up enough cash to preserve the bid and it collapsed. Driver and backers parted company.
At the time, nothing could mitigate her despair over the shattered dream, least of all the purity of the F1 experience. That only made it worse. For four days in 2014 – at Fiorano in Italy and Valenica, Spain – she tested a two-year-old Ferrari-powered Sauber. It was an affair with the immaculate: “If you can get to drive the car, nothing else compares to it. It’s so advanced, it’s just incredible. It was kind of like a dream come true because since I was maybe seven or eight years old, that was always the end goal, and then you’re kind of there, kind of that close then it’s not going to happen because you don’t have the backing. It was pretty depressing, I would say, to find your way after that. It was just weird because you’re working for that goal and then all of a sudden you’re not going to make it. Then you ask: ‘What next?’”
What followed was a chastening vagabond existence trying to find a path back to somewhere near the summit in America. Supported by minimal money, she secured three IndyCar drives with Andretti Autopsort. She also had two seasons with Andretti in Formula E – an all-electric, open-wheel category that silently bawls its eco wares on the streets of the world’s great cities. That too came to an end for want of cash.
Then, in 2015, Supercars, aware she was available, made irresistible overtures anchored in a cast-iron, three-year contract. Twelve months later, after the Bathurst assays, she signed full-time. Gratefully. It wasn’t F1 but it was a drive.
“At the end of the day you’re driving a race car and that’s what matters,” she says. “That kind of changes your perspective a lot because there are so many drivers who are not driving. The important thing is to be competitive; that’s what you realise when you get a bit older. It really doesn’t matter what you’re driving as long as you are competitive. It can be in anything”
But Supercars is not some bitter consolation prize or bucket list item. Overseas, the category is a beacon. De Silvestro knew about Australia, its otherworldly remoteness and shy marsupials, but also Supercars: “As a racer you know about Supercars, how competitive it is. Even though it’s far away you know what the series is about. Especially in the US, I think a lot of people love Supercars. Everybody knows about Bathurst. It’s funny, when I signed, I was surprised how many engineers called me and said, ‘It’s the coolest series there is.’”
But there were other surprises. By her own admission, the scale of re-education required for foreign drivers here is surreal. Plenty have failed. But that’s not an excuse. She doesn’t do excuses. Remember those scorched hands at Indianapolis? They and their owner don’t resile from anything. And in Australia, for them, it’s been one epiphany after another.
First, it was the cars: “For a closed car, the V8 is really quick down the straight. That was quite surprising because I thought the first time I stepped in there I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m not sure that thing is really going,’ but, yeah, I was really surprised at how quick they are. You can feel the horsepower for sure.”
Then it was Bathurst, her second outing in a Supercar after a two-day, flat track initiation: “It looks impressive on TV
but when you get there it’s even more so because the elevation is so huge. I don’t think anything compares to it, anything that I’ve driven.”
Then came the transfer of professional skills: “I have a certain type of feel for a race car and it’s always been an open wheeler with a lot of down force and a lot of grip. Then all of a sudden you’re in a car going really quick and, compared to an IndyCar, having no grip. So it just doesn’t feel natural at the moment.”
But a three-year contract – tantamount to cozy domesticity with a lotto prize inside – is powerful incentive to renounce the familiar: “I’d lost my seat in Formula E and it was kind of like, ‘What do we do now?’ So getting this opportunity to have a three-year deal was massive. It’s huge. Having stability makes you work really hard because I can really build something for myself and that’s something that never usually happens. Before that, every winter you were chasing sponsorship to find out what you were doing next and I think that’s hard because as a driver you just want to drive. Now here I have this chance and can focus on what I really love doing.”
Former Supercar driver and current media commentator Cameron McConville said in 2016 that de Silvestro would face a tough induction as a full-time driver. He also said that if she could finish most of her races, hook a few top-20 finishes and “keep her nose clean” she would score “a massive pass mark”. At the time of writing, she had driven 20 races – less than half the 2017 season – for two top-20 finishes, two 15th places and two 13ths. The rest were 21st or lower but she had exceeded pundit expectations to the point where she is already Supercars’ best international driver – ever – and its fifth best rookie.
But what good, really, is a set of interim figures or provisory honours in the face of one’s ambitions? Just before the Darwin round of this year’s championship – the season median – de Silvestro told Speedcafe.com: “The season so far has been pretty average I would say. We showed some pretty good speed at times but I feel like I haven’t quite got the weekend together. Sometimes we’re really quick in qualifying but usually the opposite where we’re good in the race but not so good in qualifying. I hope from now on that we’re really going to start putting those things together and start being a little bit more up front. But the series is so tough that you have to nail everything. So quite a lot of work but I think we’re going to get there.”
Most people here want Simona de Silvestro to succeed – not because of what she represents to the bean counters or ideologues or even to the series but because of who she is. And there’s a lot to like. But we shouldn’t pretend that there’s not a great deal at stake here for everyone.
For de Silvestro, there’s an extended career in the offing, a respite from professional inertia. And for Supercars there’s enhanced commercial health via parity with the ball sports and their progressive glow.
In addition to all its other implications De Silvestro’s arrival in Supercars carries the prospect of a more liberal social constitution, especially if Aussies embrace her as fervently as the Americans did – and for the same reasons. Let’s hope, then, that in 40 years’ time, her spell here is more than just a trace memory.
De Silvestro [right], currently studying at the Supercars school of hard knocks. opposite page from left Prior education: in Formula-E; the damage of an Indy 500 close call; testing with Sauber.
De Silvestro (78), Danica Patrick (7) and Helio Castroneves (red) crash in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2011. right On the IndyCar podium in Houston in 2013.
de Silvestro's first impressions of Bathurst last year: “It looks impressive on TV but when you get there it’s even more so because the elevation is so huge."
Teamingup with Renee Gracie for Bathurst in 2015.