Simona in retrospect

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IndyCar is losing one of its unique characters with Simona de Silvestro moving on to Formula 1 with Sauber. Simona brought a different light to the IndyCar Series and was one to cheer for on race day.

She was the first IndyCar driver I interviewed in September of 2012, so naturally I have always taken a liking to her, but there are several character traits that stood out to me than and now that also make her likeable. Her down to earth personality, plucky attitude and positive outlook on life are all things in her character that make her likeable.

It was her resilience and her ability to punch above her own weight against better teams and drivers that made her stand out. During her rookie season, she drove for Keith Wiggins’ HVM Racing which operated on a miniscule budget compared to other teams. In her first race of the year at Sao Paulo, she took the lead with an off sequence pit stop. As the green flew back out, she held her own against the likes of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dario Franchitti until a tire deflation took her out of contention.

She won rookie of the year at the Indianapolis 500 and at Edmonton she qualified in the top 10 and had a great run until she was spun out and at Mid Ohio she turned a few heads with an 8th place finish. All the while in 2010 her team was using the oldest 2003 model Dallara still in play.

Come 2011, with a new sponsorship package and a new car for the team, a breakout year was sure to come. At St. Pete, she flexed her muscle pulling a few Paul Tracy-esque moves on the first few restarts to charge from 17th to 2nd come lap 14. She hung in the top 5 the remainder of the race and fought with future KV Racing teammate Tony Kanaan for 3rd place. She finished 9th at Barber and at Sao Paulo she was involved in an early accident in the rain that put her several laps down. Once the race resumed a day later and her car repaired, she was the fastest car on the track and set her first fastest race lap despite finishing 20th.

At Indianapolis, a defining moment of her career was set to unfold. She was involved in a practice crash, flipping over and catching on fire. She suffered burns to both hands and contemplated her future. When it was her turn in line to qualify, she courageously jumped in her 8 year old backup car (now known as Pork Chop thanks to HVM PR Manager Monica Hilton) with her hands bandaged to solidly qualify for the 500. Pure resilience.

Simona describes the process of getting back in the car after her crash:

At the end of the day you think about it. I just thought about everything I’ve done ever since I was little that is always what I’ve wanted to do. So it would have been pretty stupid to say I don’t want to do this without trying it and I knew if I got back in the car and I was scared and didn’t enjoy it, that was it. I got back in the car and I had fun and that is all that counted.

The reaction from the fans and the paddock was well received by her and HVM Racing <!–more
and in driver intros she received the loudest cheers.

The remainder of 2011 was hampered by a concussion suffered at Milwaukee and mid pack results and come 2012 the IndyCar Series received a makeover by ways of a new car and new engine package. HVM Racing chose the Lotus engine package which immediately was uncompetitive and never got better throughout the season. By the 500, 4 out of the 5 Lotus teams were able to migrate over to Honda and Chevrolet, but HVM Racing was forced to play the role of the anchor team because if IndyCar would have kicked Lotus out, Lotus could have sued IndyCar for breach of contract.

Despite the frustrating situation, de Silvestro never threw Lotus under the bus, handled it like a pro and tried to take the positives out of the situation. True case of looking at it as what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

In 2013, she joined Tony Kanaan at KV Racing and like 2011 the season started strong with a 3rd place qualifying effort and had a potential podium snatched as her Firestone Reds wore out and she faded to 6th. She followed that up with a back to the front drive at Long Beach to finish 9th and an 8th at Sao Paulo. The middle of the season was a slump, but in the final 6 races she bounced back and drove thru the field at Sonoma and Baltimore finishing 9th and 5th.

At Houston Race 1, She qualified in 6th and remained in the top 5 all day and come the final restart she found herself in 2nd place and held the position to the checkered flag to score her long awaited first podium.

She had finally reached that point where she could legitimately win on a road/street course race.

She also earned the respect of her peers, with several drivers congratulating her on her first podium on twitter and the media center applauded her when she walked in for the post race interview.

Scott Dixon spoke highly of her while I spoke with him in October.

Shes a good little driver, we’ve seen strengths before at Sao Paulo she raced up front and was very, very good. We saw this year with TK as a teammate she out qualified him on occasion on a street and road course and he is an accomplished driver and a very good one.”

Despite being in a male dominated sport, she has never played the gender card. Danica Patrick played the sex appeal card early in her racing career and whether she likes it or not built her brand based on that. De Silvestro on the other hand, has not followed that path and has let her results build her brand and public image. As she has said, “When he wear the helmet we all look the same and I want people to root for me because I can win races and be competitive.”

What matters most is her talent behind the wheel and embracing challenges with open arms As she moves on to F1, there are further challenges ahead, and  knowing Simona she will continue to do that.

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