Simona de Silvestro ready for F1
Simona de Silvestro is single-handedly ruining the image of the cosmopolitan Formula One driver. About to commence her first season of tutelage as an "affiliated" driver with Sauber F1 Team, the 25-year-old former IndyCar Series driver should, for appearances, at least, be whirring through the streets of Monte Carlo, roof down on the red Ferrari she borrowed from her new team bosses.
But, as with most things de Silvestro, the prelude to the next, most critical opportunity of her racing career is understated. Understated like the family celebration -- a "nice dinner," she said -- when the Zurich-based team signed her with the stated intent to "support her on her way to the pinnacle of motorsport," according to team co-owner Monisha Kaltenborn, the first female team principal in F1. Understated like her last few days of leisure before relocating back to her native Switzerland to be near the team. She packed up her Indianapolis apartment and gave a speech in Washington, D.C.
New opportunity, same Simona.
"I still have my [Chevrolet] Volt," she laughed. "I do need to get a car for Europe. But I'm pretty sure it won't be a Ferrari."
The Ferraris on the racetrack will do nicely, and de Silvestro is scheduled to begin testing them -- more accurately, the 2013 model -- beginning at the end of April to augment her simulator training and physical and mental conditioning to prepare for arguably the most demanding form of racing in the world.
Relocating near the Sauber base for total immersion with the on- and off-track experience, de Silvestro also will attend multiple races. If she is able to obtain her FIA Super License in open tests, she could be granted the opportunity, she said, to shake down Sauber cars on selected race weekends by the end of the season. And that would be a very big deal, as a woman has not driven a car as part of an F1 Grand Prix weekend in 22 years. It could happen multiple times this season, as Williams announced earlier this year that Susie Wolff will drive at practice sessions at Silverstone and Hockenheim before the British and German grands prix.
"It would be big. It would be huge," de Silvestro confessed of her opportunity. "Maybe, maybe, maybe. It depends on how we get set."
De Silvestro and manager Imran Safiulla set about pursuing a Formula One career last season, deeming the timing right. They met with Sauber officials -- who had monitored her career from the periphery for years -- in Barcelona, Spain, last year, and subsequently were invited to attend the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, in October. She later visited their headquarters in November.
"That's when it kind of became a little more serious," she said of the Austin junket. "And then when I went back in November, I spent a lot of time at the factory and trying to figure out how we could approach that at this point."
With Sauber having already signed Esteban Gutierrez and Adrian Sutil to race this season, and de Silvestro neither ready nor certified for the leap to the F1 grid, much of the final detail work involved constructing a plan to immerse her in the series and prepare her for 2015.
Last fall was an opportune time for de Silvestro to make overtures toward F1 because she was capping her most successful of four seasons in the IndyCar Series, finishing 13th in points with KV Racing Technology and finishing a career-best second in the third-to-last race of the season at Houston. The sparse IndyCar schedule also afforded her copious opportunity to schedule job interviews halfway across the planet.
"I think the biggest thing, I felt like last year I really grew a lot and really started to understand what I needed in a car and how I had to work with a team," she said. "I had a big learning curve, and I think I grew up quite a bit. Toward the end of the season, the F1 opportunity was coming. I was ready for it. That wasn't the case one year ago or two years ago. When this opportunity came up, it was kind of a gift and it all panned out. Now I am really happy, because not many people get a chance like that."
De Silvestro said the few IndyCar offers she fielded last season "were ones where everybody wanted lots of money."
"I don't think it's insulting," she said. "For sure, I think it was a bit disappointing."
If forced to choose between a prime IndyCar job and her chance at her childhood dream, she said, F1 still would have been the choice.
Despite Kaltenborn's presence as a co-owner at Sauber, de Silvestro thinks her nationality had more to do with the team's interest in her than her gender. She says she is prepared for the global onslaught of publicity and scrutiny that will accompany her as an affiliated driver, escalate as a possible practice driver and then proliferate if she makes the major leap to full-time contestant at the end of her one-year trial period.
It's gonna be crazy. I'm prepared for it. I am doing what I have always wanted.Simona de Silvestro
Having followed Danica Patrick into the IndyCar series, de Silvestro is well-versed in gender politics and lines of questioning therein. But this would be bigger, broader -- a world story in the planet's most popular form of racing.
"It's gonna be crazy," she said. "I'm prepared for it. I am doing what I have always wanted, and this just comes with it."
Skepticism breeds quickly in a series that hasn't developed a viable full-time female racer in four decades, a series with a principal, Bernie Ecclestone, who said in 2005 that "women should be all dressed in white like all other domestic appliances" when asked about Patrick becoming the first female to lead the Indianapolis 500. Sexist generalizations abound. Wolff, 31, has been a developmental driver at Williams since 2012, but her marriage to shareholder Toto Wolff has elicited cynicism about whether she is simply a marketing device.
Writing of Wolff's endeavors in the Feb. 25 editions of The Telegraph, British radio and television presenter and F1 author Beverley Turner described "a world at the cutting edge of technology that still used women in bras to hold parasols over perspiring male drivers on the grid."
Cutthroat opportunism is one of the few genderless truths of F1. And de Silvestro must not tarry.
"I think if Simona can break into F1, it will be big news for her and the sport," said Zak Brown, co-founder and CEO of Just Marketing, which has clients in multiple forms of motorsports, including Formula One. "What's important if she finds a seat is that she quickly proves she can do it. Otherwise she'll be yesterday's news fairly quickly."
Undoubtedly, the pressure and the demands of F1 will test de Silvestro more than at any previous point in her career. Her buoyant nature -- underpinned by a tenacity that earned her widespread praise in the IndyCar paddock -- could either be a firewall against the pressure or be warped by the experience. For now, she's convincing that she is up for the rigors yet unseen.
"I feel like a little kid again, and it's going to be a blast," she said. "I cannot wait to be there."
And maybe, eventually, the Ferrari, just to enjoy the ride?
"Maybe. Maybe, if I get my F1 seat in 2015," she said, then reconsidered. " I don't know."