Today’s news that Simona de Silvestro has become an affiliated driver with the Sauber F1 team is fabulous news for the Sauber, for Simona and for the Sport. Anyone who sees this as a gimmick needs to look again. It is so much more than that. I have long been a champion of Simona’s merits as a racer. Regardless of gender. Last year, before its untimely demise, I wrote an article for GPInternational Magazine on why Simona was exactly what Formula 1 needed.
I hope it gives some insight into the excellent driver Sauber intends to give an F1 debut in 2015.
Women in Formula 1. It’s the topic that has created as many column inches in the paddock this season as Pirelli’s tyres and Lewis Hamilton’s dog. A few choice words from Sir Stirling Moss lit the blue touch paper of controversy, but the simple fact remains that a woman has not taken to an F1 grid in two decades. The well trodden response in the argument as to why that statistic holds true is that, in all that time, there simply hasn’t been anyone good enough.
Rubbish. There has. And at 24 years of age, she’s at the perfect stage of her career to step up to the top table. The problem? Simona de Silvestro is doing rather well in Indycar thank you very much.
The Swiss racer began her racing career in European karts, just as her F1 counterparts, but after her first season of single seaters in Italian Formula Renault in 2005 she shifted her focus Stateside.
“I didn’t have the budget to stay in Europe,” she confides during practice for the Indy 500. “But I found an American sponsor who wanted me to come over here and do Formula BMW. There were opportunities to go back but we never had the funding to do it. We found a sponsor over here who embraced who I was and wanted to help me in my career and so we stayed over here.”
One of those opportunities to step back to Europe came when she tested GP2 at the tail end of 2007 for the mid grid Campos team. With only half a day in the car and against drivers who had been competing in the GP2/05 all season, she ran impressively well. She was just over a second off the pace of eventual champion Davide Valsecchi and current F1 racer Giedo van der Garde.
I watched her working in the garage and stood trackside that day. She was desperately impressive. I spoke to the Campos team and her afternoon team-mate Vitaly Petrov. All were in no doubt; she was the real deal. She could have made the move back across the pond. And she would have been fast.
“The biggest thing was not to over step things,” she reflects today. “I think I did that mistake in go karts when I went from juniors to Formula A without doing ICA and I thought about that. I could have had so much success doing ICA and winning races, but I didn’t and so Formula A was much tougher. When I tested GP2 I’d only done one season of Atlantics over here and it wasn’t a great season. I think going into GP2 would have been a little bit too early, and really taking our time to do Atlantics for three years allowed me to grow so much, and having that final year in 2009 where I was running up front, leading the championship until the last race, it gave me so much confidence that yes I really am able to do this, to win races and run with the best guys out there. That was the key. Going through those steps and not going too fast.
“Racing can be over so quickly. When you have something going for you, you have to realise it. Of course you want to go to F1 or Indycar as quickly as you can, but there is so much learning that happens in the smaller categories that personally gives you the confidence. You can look back and say ‘I beat these guys there so I can beat them here too.’ It gives you that confidence.”
It is confidence which is well established. As de Silvestro herself admits, moving to Formula Atlantic (the equivalent today of Indy Lights) gave her the foundation she required. She was winning races from her second season, and fought for the title in her third. It was only a matter of time before Indycar came calling, and so it was that, at just 20 years of age, she made the step into the biggest single seater championship in the world outside F1.
As she says herself, “It was pretty remarkable,” but there was never a hint that Simona de Silvestro had made it to Indycar because of her gender.
“I think the biggest thing is that in Europe you have so many categories that whether you are female or male it is hard to find a path. Here it makes so much more sense. You have Star Mazda, Indy Lights and then Indycar. You know that if you are in that you work though. In Europe, there are so many series that you don’t know where people are racing, the budgets are crazy and that’s what is so hard when you go from karts to cars.
“So many awesome drivers can’t find the budget and I think that’s a shame. It is how it is. You have to have the whole package coming together. Two million Euros for GP2 when you have no practice, run around and then maybe you have a chance… it’s crazy. Over here the two guys who have won the Indy Lights in the past two years made it to Indycar. Over here I think there is more hope. It’s not just because you have money that you get somewhere. People look around, they embrace what you have done in the past and the budget is way less. The amount of money in Europe is crazy.”
That said, racing remains a heavily male dominated world. But, perhaps because of the way Americans view their racers, perhaps because the focus was already on Danica Patrick, or perhaps because of the way in which de Silvestro’s team have intentionally protected her from the gimmicks of being simply seen as a “female racer,” she never felt the burden of her gender.
“It’s hard to say if it was harder for me or anyone else. I think everybody who gets to Indycar it’s a really tough path with a lot of years of commitment to get here and for me I never felt that it was more difficult. I’m a girl and I’ve always been racing against guys so it’s just normal. I’ve never been racing against other girls. This is what I do. I have respect from the other drivers because I have had the results in the past and I’ve earned my stripes. I came into Indycar not with the best team and I’ve had to work. It is hard anyway, but you just have to work through it.”
It hasn’t always been easy for de Silvestro however. She suffered burns after a frightening crash at the Texas Motorspeedway in 2010, and fell victim to an enormous accident in practice for the 2011 Indy 500 which saw her confidence tremendously shaken.
“I got out of the car and was like, ‘OK I’m done. I don’t want to do this any more.’ But by the evening I was thinking that this is what I’ve lived for and it would be a shame not to get back in the car. The first thing was to get back in as quick as I could because if I didn’t it would become harder to get back into it. And then I told myself that if I get back in and I’m scared and not having fun then I shouldn’t do this. But I got in, I had fun… sure I was a bit sketchy, but I had a big smile when I got out and I proved to myself that this is what I was supposed to be doing. It was something that builds your character a little bit and builds your respect for your sport. As a racer you go for it, you don’t care, but after something like that you look at it all a bit differently. It’s a dangerous sport and something like that matures you.”
She’s not called “The Iron Lady” for nothing.
Of course, having the right team around you is key to the development of any driver, and for Simona de Silvestro that has been critical to her success. Pivotal to her career has been Imran Safiulla, who speaks passionately about the manner in which Brand Simona has been built Stateside.
“Racing is one of only two multi gender sports where girls and boys compete at the same level. It’s not like anything else. Tennis, football, volleyball, even darts, the boys play with the boys and the girls play with the girls. Most products, most ad campaigns are targeted towards the male demographic which is why you see tennis players’ skirts getting smaller and volleyball players in their knickers, and this situation was ripe for exploring. But if you were able to create an ambassador on the back of performance, integrity and a genuine image and leave her gender out of it in the short term, have it merit based so almost a gender neutrality, then when you bring the gender back into it once you have established the merit parameters, you have a huge value proposition. I think that is what Simona represents: a change in paradigm.
“Through Simona’s evolution we have focused on that and I feel that we have achieved that and now the companies that are around her are those who want to exploit the strength of her gender, not the sensuality or the sexuality of her gender. That’s where I truly believe the future lies from a marketing perspective. It is all result based. It has to come from performance. From an advertising standpoint you are not going to resonate if the ambassador cannot live up to that basic parameter in their own discipline. It isn’t genuine or wholesome and so it is fake and will fall short. It doesn’t work. It definitely doesn’t work to the female populous. It might work through exploiting sensuality and sexuality and creating a wow factor towards a male populous but that’s not what we are trying to do. If we do what we are doing we will get resonance from both sides of the gender divide, because the male populous will be forced to give credit where it is due and that is what we have focused on.”
And this is where Formula 1 has got things wrong. In searching for a female racer for the sake of it, that most important parameter, ability, can all too easily be lost amongst the gimmick of that racer’s gender. Today, Simona is backed by one of the world’s largest automakers in GM, and has, for a long time now, been backed by the energy sector, an as yet untapped revenue stream in F1.
It’s why Simona de Silvestro is such an attractive prospect for the sport. She’s marketable. Not because she’s a woman, but because she’s fast. But does F1 even interest her?
“Yeah,” she beams. “For sure. It is a dream. I think if you ask any driver they would love to drive in F1. Is it going to happen? I don’t know. But it is a dream.
“I think it has to be the right circumstance. I don’t want to go to F1 and drive a year and that’s it. I want to be given the right chances to be competitive. It’s hard nowadays, but if the right opportunity comes then maybe, yeah. Why not?”
To leave behind the foundations she has established in Indycar would be a huge leap of faith. To sacrifice what could be a hugely successful career for the F1 dream is a gamble which might not be worth taking.
“I think I can win races over here. I think I can fight for the championship. So F1 has to be right. You have to be in control on a lot of things to be successful in F1. I think it is hard to say right now if I would make the switch. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It has to be the right opportunity.”
But it is an opportunity which may yet fall in her lap. Formula 1 teams are, covertly, courting her for a trial run in the rookie tests. Her management team have been at recent F1 races, Bernie is aware of her results and her potential, and she herself still dreams of that F1 shot.
Simona de Silvestro could be just what Formula 1 is looking for. A fast, committed and successful racer, the fact she’s a woman is simply a pleasant coincidence.
And, refreshingly, the least important aspect of all.