The Sauber F1 team’s announcement that they had signed a contract with 25-year-old Simona de Silvestro for her to be an affiliated driver with the team shocked a few people in the F1 world. The Swiss Miss has always said her ambition was to race in Formula 1, and now her dream has come a little closer to being realised.
De Silvestro becomes the fifth driver to be signed to some kind of contract with Sauber this year, joining race drivers Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez, reserve driver Giedo van der Garde, and test driver Sergey Sirotkin.
But who is Simona de Silvestro, and why have the Sauber team signed her up?
De Silvestro began her open wheel career in 2005, aged 17, in the Formula Renault 2.0 Italy series. The following year she moved to the United States to compete in races there, first of all in the Formula BMW USA series, where she won her first race in 2006. She then progressed into the support series for the Champ Car series, the Atlantic Championship. She made steady progress in her three years there, and in her final year in 2009, she won four times and finished third in the championship.
She moved into the IndyCar Series in 2010, debuting with the HVM Racing team. She had a best finish of eighth in her rookie season at Mid-Ohio, but impressed the paddock with her skills. She even lead laps in Brazil! She remained in the team for 2011, and finished fourth around the streets of St. Petersburg.
A third year with HVM came in 2012, but with Lotus engines – the only team to run them all season long – she was not a serious contender for big results. She was very lucky to even qualify for the Indianapolis 500 due to the severity of the underpowered Lotus engine.
She spent a fourth year in the IndyCar series, this time with the KV Racing Technology team as team-mate to Tony Kanaan – the first time in four years she had a team-mate. She had a much more impressive year, culminating in a maiden podium finish around the streets of Houston.
“In my mind, she’s the best female racer on the planet,” Jimmy Vasser, the team boss of KV Racing Technology. “I haven’t seen anybody else with her abilities across the board. She’s the best, hands down.
“Danica [Patrick] did a great job to open doors and break down barriers. But she’s so petite, and that made it harder for her to compete on road and street races. But Simona can hang in there all day long with the big boys. She’s the world’s best female racer, in my opinion.”
Her first year with a team-mate enabled her to learn from Tony Kanaan, who won the 2013 Indianapolis 500. Kanaan made a bold statement of his own regarding de Silvestro.
“She’s better at this point in her career than anyone else I’ve taught,” admits Kanaan, who made his own debut in Indycar back in 2002.
“She got her confidence back this year. She’s never had a teammate to tell her that what she’s doing is OK. She knows what she wants.
“She knows exactly what she needs. I try to help her as much as I can, but it’s not like she needs that much help.”
De Silvestro admits that she learns every time she goes out in a racecar. She has the strength, the stamina to compete with the best of what IndyCar have to offer, and she is very precise and accurate with a steering wheel in hand.
“I’ve always been the type of driver who learns something every time out,” said de Silvestro.
“It’s still going on for me. There are a lot of things I need to improve, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’ve always been the type of person who doubts themselves when there’s nothing on paper that proves you’re getting faster. I have to know I’m constantly improving.
“The thing I hear in that regard that is flattering is when people say I’m a good driver on road and street courses. You always hear that a woman can’t drive on a road course because it’s more physical than an oval. It’s cool to hear people say I can race on road courses.”
With the news of her Sauber contract being announced, de Silvestro admitted that Formula 1 has always been her lifelong ambition.
“This is a major step towards me achieving a life-long dream and I’m so happy to have the opportunity to take this step with such a great team. The Sauber F1 Team is a team with a legacy and the only Swiss team in Formula One, which I think makes this even more exciting. I can’t thank Monisha Kaltenborn and Peter Sauber enough for their support and belief in my abilities and for giving me this chance. I’m thrilled to have this extremely unique platform on which to prepare myself to take on the challenge.”
Monisha Kaltenborn, one of only two female team principals in Formula 1 alongside Williams’ Claire Williams, said de Silvestro was a very gifted driver, and the team were happy to be assisting her attempt to get a race seat in F1.
“After four years in IndyCar, Simona’s ambition is to enter Formula one in 2015,” said Kaltenborn.
“We regard her as a very talented race driver, and we, therefore, decided to take her on board as an “affiliated driver” and support her on her way to the pinnacle of motorsport.”
Her contract with Sauber enables her to join a preparation programme, which will enable de Silvestro to obtain a super licence and prepare her for Formula 1 in 2015. Sauber will give her time on track and in a simulator, plus help her with physical and mental preparations.
The road to Formula 1 is a long one for many drivers, and Simona de Silvestro is no exception. There has not been a female racing driver in the sport since 1992, when Giovanna Amati attempted to qualify a Brabham unsuccessfully. In between then and now, Katherine Legge, Susie Wolff and the late Maria de Villota have all tested F1 cars, but none have made the jump up to race driver.
Just because she has a contract with Sauber does not guarantee her a race seat. Sauber already have Sergey Sirotkin under a similar contract, and his Russian backers are expecting him to race in F1 in 2015. Giedo van der Garde, Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez will also hope to be racing for the team next year.
But her gender should not be the defining entity that decides who gets the drive. If she proves to the team that she is quick, perhaps quicker than some or all of the other drivers in contention, then she should get the drive. To me, I am in agreement with Jimmy Vasser that she is the best female driver in the world right now, and on her day, she can beat the best drivers IndyCar has to offer, including champions past and present.
Is she good enough for F1? In my opinion, she is, and had I been a team boss, I would have taken a look at her much sooner than now. Its good news that Sauber have taken her on board, I feel she will prove herself sufficiently in the next twelve months that she will be in Formula 1 as a race driver in 2015.
Watch this space, the Swiss Miss is coming, you’d better be ready!