Swiss Mis­sile



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 Speed­ “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.

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