Simona de Silvestro makes her mark
The yellow bow tie had traveled with Simona de Silvestro for eight months, to three countries and over thousands upon thousands of air miles, stashed faithfully in a bag waiting for its moment.
Presented to her by a sponsor at dinner before the season-opening IndyCar race in St. Petersburg, Fla., the neckwear symbolized her obvious excitement that her KV Racing Technology team had aligned itself with the ascendant Chevrolet engine program after a season struggling with the overwhelmed Lotus.
Her instructions were clear: wear the bow tie when she reached the podium in the first top-3 finish of her career.
The bow tie's moment came Saturday. The reaction? Ah, well, at least de Silvestro's career-best second-place finish in Race 1 of the Grand Prix of Houston was well received.
"So I finally got to wear it, and nobody got it, really," she said, confounded. "But I was like, 'Come on! It's a yellow bow tie.'"
Maybe next time. At 25 and in her fourth IndyCar season, it seems increasingly likely there will be a next time as she finishes off what will be considered the most successful season in her tenure in North America.
De Silvestro's finish is the second highest for a female in an IndyCar race, tying Sarah Fisher's runner-up effort at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2001. Danica Patrick won in Motegi, Japan, in 2008.
Fischer had a best points finish of 17th in 2007. Patrick finished in the top 10 in driver points in six of her seven seasons, with a peak of fifth in 2009.
"For the year, I am pretty happy, but it's not like everything went exactly like I wanted it to," said de Silvestro, who is 14th in driver points with one race remaining. "So there are a lot of things to improve to be where I want to be. Finishing these races where I have finished, I think things are looking pretty good. We'll see what is going to happen. Right now my focus is on Fontana, and then we'll see for next year."
Her destination remains uncertain, as she is a free agent at the end of the season. Her recent run of strong results -- including finishing fifth at Baltimore -- and an ability to bring sponsorship with the Nuclear Clean Air Energy campaign would figure to give her options.
The Houston finish, she said, was particularly gratifying in that it was born not of attrition but of a fast car and a well-plotted -- and well-executed -- plan. In many ways, it was the culmination of a rebooted approach made midseason.
"I think the plan we had, when to [pit] stop, everything really came together," she said. "That's what the whole year kind of has been missing. I think we were fast in some places, and then something would happen and then we wouldn't get the result.
"I really feel like this race, I think we were the caliber of the big teams. Things were really planned out and really came together. It was a really great feeling for us, for sure."
The finale at the 1.5-mile Fontana oval Oct. 19 will test de Silvestro's continued progress away from street and course circuits. She asserts she has made "huge improvements" after racing well before incurring a penalty at Texas, and she finished 11th at Pocono.
"No pressure, but I really want to prove I can drive on an oval," she said. "That is going to be a big thing for me."
I really feel like this race, I think we were the caliber of the big teams. Things were really planned out and really came together. It was a really great feeling for us, for sure.Simona de Silvestro
De Silvestro began the season by qualifying third and finishing sixth at St. Petersburg -- site of her previous best finish, fourth, in 2011 -- and she finished in the top 10 at Long Beach, Calif., and Sao Paulo. She fell into a morass of subpar performances after the Indianapolis 500 by finishing 15th or worse in five consecutive races. The team refocused, she said, in August at Mid-Ohio, deciding to put aside what it couldn't control, such as the quality of pit stops, and move on.
"As a driver, you always try to be better, but I was ending up worrying about other things within the team that I shouldn't have, and so did the engineer," de Silvestro said. "When we finally put that aside … we started to control the things we could and moved forward."
The team was ninth at Sonoma, fifth in a wreck-filled race at Baltimore, second in the first of two races at Houston on Saturday and 10th on Sunday in the second bill of the doubleheader. In reaching the podium, she finished behind points leader Scott Dixon and held off Justin Wilson, a street/road course ace who is fourth in points, for the final 17 of 90 laps.
"I was hoping I could get Simona at the end there, but she did a great job on those restarts and pulled away," Wilson said.
De Silvestro finished 24th in driver points last season and has never been better than 19th. She knows this will be characterized as a breakout season and create pressure for next year. She welcomes it.
"That's very encouraging because sometimes you make a big decision [at Mid-Ohio] and things can get more difficult," de Silvestro said. "But we just stayed focused on the things we had in hand and what we could control and made the best out of it. We had a few top-10s and a top-5 in Baltimore and now the podium. It was a great feeling for the hard work we put in."
Maybe next time, everyone will be ready for the bow tie.