De Silvestro shows resiliency after crash
Simona De Silvestro raises her bandage-wrapped hands mocking a photographer’s suggestion that she pose like a boxer.
The fighting analogy is perfect considering that just two days prior to qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, De Silvestro, 22, experienced the most horrific wreck of her career.
A lower left wishbone failed in the rear suspension on De Silvestro’s No. 78 Nuclear Clean Energy/HVM Racing car while entering the chute in Turn 3. De Silvestro rocketed into the wall, then the car flipped and burst into flames.
“After the crash, I was like, 'I don't need this. This is too crazy. It's way too dangerous,'” De Silvestro said. “You know, after a while you're back to being a race car driver and thinking, 'Nah, I can do this.' And you suck it up. . . . Then I went to qualify and thought, 'Ah, I'm not too sure about that.' And especially when you're sitting (before qualifying) and they're showing your crash on the screen. It's like, 'Really? Thanks.'
“But it's great; the crowd, too. They've really lifted me up. . . . Because of them, I really want to do something well here.”
And De Silvestro wasted no time on her comeback. She knew “it was important to get back in the car.” Despite second and third degree burns on her hands -- she joked that bandages made her look like Mickey Mouse -- De Silvestro qualified 24th and locked herself into the field for the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500.
De Silvestro has exceeded challenges throughout her professional racing career, which started at age 16 in Formula Renaults 2.0 Italia. The Switzerland native progressed through Formula BMW USA, then came to the states in 2007 to run what is now the Atlantic Championship.
In her second season in Atlantic cars, she won four races, four poles and scored nine podium finishes. Last year, De Silvestro joined Keith Wiggins’ HVM team in the Izod IndyCar Series and finished 19th in the points standings. Her career-high finish came in the 2011 series opener in St. Petersburg where De Silvestro finished fourth. She backed that up with a ninth-place run at Barber Motorsports Park and is currently 11th in the standings.
Although De Silvestro is affectionately known as “the Swiss Miss,” last Thursday some renamed her “the Swiss Missile.” While she laughs at the moniker, there is no hiding the sheer discomfort the driver is currently feeling.
“It’s pretty painful this week because they pulled the skin off on Sunday,” De Silvestro said. “Since then it has been hard ... I think we’re on a good way, but it’s pretty painful. When I get in the car, you can feel it but then the adrenaline takes over. But holding on to the wheel is uncomfortable. You kind of forget about it and focus on racing.
“I‘m really nervous outside of the race car but when I‘m in it, it feels right. It feels like I‘m at home, That‘s the biggest thing. For the race, the biggest thing is feeling comfortable and getting my confidence back.”
Bob Perona has been De Silvestro’s driving coach for the last four years. Initially, he noticed De Silvestro’s “natural ability” although it was “very raw” and needed to be “harnessed.” Although he’s watched his driver evolve into a contender, there have been growing pains along the way. But one of his proudest moments came when De Silvestro climbed back into the car last Saturday even though “it took some convincing” to make it happen.
Perona, a former driver, said that’s just natural, though, after a racer experiences a crash of that magnitude.
“She wasn’t just apprehensive about getting in her car, she was scared,” Perona said. “And certainly, I can understand that. Especially when you think about (what) she felt in that crash, she thought she was (in) mortal peril. It takes a lot -- a lot -- just to get back into a race car. A crash like that has ruined drivers. Those are the kind of hits where you always kind of wonder how a driver is going to come back from them because they can take your edge off.
“Drivers, especially when they’re young, they’re seven feet tall and bulletproof. When they have (a crash) that shakes that mortality, it can be hard for them to do what they’ve done before. I was really concerned for her about that. I know it was really tough to qualify that car, but she did everything she needed to do.”
Perona says there’s still work to do to get De Silvestro back in her comfort zone. She’ll have to get the back-up car up to speed and navigate traffic. But if last Saturday’s qualifying effort was any indication of her potential, Perona believes “Sim” will be “just fine.”
“The thing that she does well -- as (well as) anybody that I’ve ever seen and better than most -- is she assimilates information on the fly really, really well,” Perona said. “So I can talk to her around the whole lap on the radio and some drivers are using so much of their brain to survive and they’re not able to think. She’s able to think and process the information. That is a big part of why she’s very fast.
“I’ve worked with a lot of female drivers and they all seem to have this chip on their shoulder, but she doesn’t fall into that. She’s not ‘I have to prove this and that.’ I think that allows her to be pretty mentally tough. She doesn’t act like the expectation is different for her. She acts like the expectations are the same. If she was a male driver and had a big crash like that there would be sympathy -- but certainly not as much as there has been for her. It was massive. She got hurt, she got burned. It was mentally difficult. But if it was a guy you would expect him to get in the car.
“It kind of works different that way. The good part about that is she can do anything a guy can do in a race car. I think what surprises everybody is that she can do that and the same thing is she can get in the car after she has a big tumble and gotten burned up a bit, mentally shaken up a bit and she goes back to work. She drives better than most of the guys, too. She’s confident. She’s mentally tough for someone in her position, but she’s just mentally tough for anybody.”
De Silvestro, who was named top Indy 500 rookie last year with her 14th-place finish, has earned tremendous respect from her peers for her resiliency. Helio Castroneves, who is looking for his fourth Borg-Warner trophy this weekend, is a fan. He’s impressed with her and the team’s ability to bounce back so quickly from the accident. As a racer, Castroneves feels it’s better for De Silvestro to know the wreck was due to mechanical failure and not driver error.
“At least in your mind as a driver, you know it was something with the set up in the car -- it wasn’t her,” Castroneves said. “The worst time is when you do not know what happened when an accident happens because then you start doubting yourself. ‘Was it because I turned in too early. Was I taking the corner too wide?’ At least now she can forget, she can block out the accident and do what she did before.
“If she was doing that before and nothing happened, there is a high (percentage) that nothing will happen again. She was able to do that -- that’s why she was kind (of) like on the bubble out there but as she kept going she was building confidence so she can set up the car and go faster.
“As a driver, you have to block those areas -- the risk of the business, accidents. You have to go back to your job and go forward. I guarantee, if it was hurting, the adrenaline in the car, you don’t feel a thing.”
De Silvestro says the turning point was just getting back in the car. She acknowledges that racing on ovals has been “her biggest challenge" - and she’s still learning. The speeds at the Brickyard can be daunting, but she believes in herself, she believes in the team and in just her second year on the tour De Silvestro has proven she can be competitive.
“It’s going to be the hardest thing I ever have to go through because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be back in the car on Friday, but I got in and it was alright,” De Silvestro said. “It’s the toughest decision I’ve ever made in my career.
“The race is going to be tough, I have to do as many laps as I can to get comfortable. If I do that and if the team does their job, too, I think a good result can come out of it.”