Simona de Silvestro stuns field in IndyCar opener

Tony Kanaan checked his mirrors repeatedly, trying to figure out

who was all over his rear wing.

Kanaan didn’t recognize the paint scheme or the car number.

Finally, he asked his crew. Simona de Silvestro, someone told

him. Kanaan didn’t respond. All he wanted to know was who was

pressing him at every turn over the final few laps of IndyCar’s

season opener.

His response came after the race, when he playfully bowed to de

Silvestro during an interview session.

De Silvestro, a 22-year-old Swiss in her second IndyCar season,

was the biggest surprise in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

She finished a career-best fourth Sunday – eight spots higher than

Danica Patrick – and showed she has the skills to run with

open-wheel’s best.

”I used every single strength and experience I had to hold her

off,” said Kanaan, the 2004 series champion.

He did, but just barely.

De Silvestro provided more of a challenge than anyone

expected.

She did it without the benefit of teammates. She did it without

the kind of funding that IndyCar juggernauts Penske and Ganassi

have. She did it without her regular engineer.

”I think it was one of my best races I’ve done,” de Silvestro

said. ”I didn’t really do many mistakes and I really liked

that.”

So did everyone else.

After the race, de Silvestro climbed out of her car, got on her

scooter and zipped through cheering fans toward her paddock stall.

She had sponsors, family members and another big crowd waiting for

her.

”She’ll enjoy it and be happy and smiling,” team engineer

Brent Harvey said. ”She’s real kind and has a big heart for

everybody and everything. It won’t change her one bit. It’ll

probably make her even stronger and she probably wants it about 100

times worse more now than when she started.”

And Harvey has only known her a week.

Her former engineer, Michael Cannon, left to join Kanaan’s new

team at KV Racing. So de Silvestro quickly found Harvey, who had

been working at Panther Racing.

”It was a tough moment for the team last weekend,” de

Silvestro said. ”We were putting much scrambling together to try

to find a new engineer and I think we made the right choice.”

There were some hurdles, though, mostly because of the way de

Silvestro explains problems with her race car.

”Lot of sound effects,” she said.

Huh?

”She talks about stuff being mushy or gushy,” Harvey said. ”I

don’t know how to fix mushy.”

De Silvestro and Harvey had few communication issues in St.

Pete. Although the car wasn’t perfect in practice and qualifying,

they got it dialed in during a warmup session Sunday morning. She

started 17th and started picking off competitors lap after lap.

It helped that she managed to avoid the first-lap chaos, which

took out five cars, and several other problems on dicey double-file

restarts.

Once she got near the front, though, she stayed with the leaders

and really started pressuring Kanaan over the final few laps. Sure,

she was driving with newer tires and using her push-to-pass button,

plus Kanaan had been with his thrown-together team just a few

days.

But none of that mattered in the grand scheme of things.

”She learned more getting a fourth and not being able to get by

Tony,” Harvey said. ”I’m sure she will (get by him) next

time.”

De Silvestro has steadily improved since racing go-carts in

France and Italy. She couldn’t race in Switzerland, where auto

racing has been prohibited since a deadly accident at the 24 Hours

of Le Mans in 1955. Eighty spectators were killed, prompting

several European countries to ban the sport.

Most relented after safety improvements were made, but

”Switzerland is still sleeping,” de Silvestro said.

After spending time in the Formula Renault series in Italy, de

Silvestro made her way to America and got her first taste of

ovals.

Nonetheless, she finished 14th at last year’s Indy 500 and was

named the event’s rookie of the year. Her best results came on road

courses, though, with top-10 finishes at Toronto and Mid-Ohio. She

was even better on the streets of St. Petersburg, with most

everyone making note that she crossed the finish line about 50

seconds sooner than Patrick, one of the sport’s biggest stars.

Harvey sidestepped questions about whether de Silvestro can be

better than Patrick, who has one victory in 99 career IndyCar

starts, but made it clear that expectations are high for his

driver.

”She’s a champion,” Harvey said. ”She could be a champion for

sure. She has that heart, that desire. You can see it in her eyes

and hear it in her voice. That’s how good she can be. … I think

her driving will show what she has.”

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