MONTREAL — The first time I saw Simona de Silvestro was from the grandstands on the weekend of the 2006 Canadian Grand Prix. She was 17 years old, driving in Formula BMW, and in two races at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve she finished fourth (setting the fastest lap) and then third.
The next time I saw the Swiss driver was earlier this month, again in Montreal. This time, we met in the paddock to discuss her new role as an affiliated driver for the Sauber Formula One team, as she inches closer to her goal of being the first woman since Lella Lombardi in 1976 to start an F1 race.*
In between, De Silvestro raced in the Atlantic Championship and spent four seasons in IndyCar. Last year, she finished 13th in the overall standings, including a brilliant second place on the street circuit in Houston.
Her teammate, 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan, said, "I like to see this young girl that wants to do well, because that's her opportunity. That obviously pushes me to my limit. I'm going to admit that she's extremely fast," per Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press.
This season, De Silvestro is testing with the Sauber team, hoping to show the speed to earn a race seat for 2015. Her first test, at Fiorano in April, was a success. "Simona drove very well, had a good pace and was consistent," said Sauber engineer Paul Russell in a team press release. "Overall these were two very positive days."
De Silvestro is back behind the wheel of a Sauber C31—which recorded four podium finishes in 2012—this week in Valencia and her testing program will continue throughout the season.
But not everyone has been so complimentary of the Swiss driver. Sauber test driver Sergey Sirotkin recently told the Russian website F1news.ru (via motorsport.com) that, "In my opinion, this is more of a marketing ploy, so I don't think I need to be afraid of it."
That statement is a bit odd, coming from Sirotkin, considering the only reason he is anywhere near an F1 car is because of a deal signed between Sauber and a group of Russian investors when the team looked to be in dire financial straits last season.
For De Silvestro, this will just be more fuel for her fire. When I met her, she was calm and focused, but spoke passionately about her lifelong desire to race in F1. Marketing ploy or not, she is getting very close to her goal.
Here is our conversation from the Montreal paddock, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Bleacher Report: Can you talk about the differences between your IndyCar and F1 training programs?
Simona de Silvestro: It changed quite a bit, actually. In IndyCar, we were doing a lot of weights and a lot of upper-body strength. And now, for F1, this is gone a little bit. Definitely more cardio and a lot of neck training.
I wouldn't say one is easier than the other. It's just really different. The amount of time you spend in the gym is about the same, but it's definitely a different training routine.
B/R: And what about the differences between Indy cars and F1 cars?
SdS: I thought IndyCar was a big car and that F1 would be a step higher, but it's, like, 10 steps higher. Everything in an F1 car is better: It brakes better, accelerates better, turns better. It's the coolest thing I've ever driven and it was a lot of fun.
For me as a kid, every year I thought, "How cool would it be to drive a Formula One car?" And then, all of a sudden, it was here and it was a really special moment.
B/R: Did the deal with Sauber come together quickly, or was it something in the works for a while?
SdS: I've been working on this all my life, because F1 was always the goal. After four years in IndyCar, last year we were thinking, "OK, what do we do? Do we try to do Formula One or do we stay in IndyCar?" And it was a pretty easy choice, because that was what I always wanted to do.
So we got a great opportunity with the Sauber team to get a good, structured test plan, which is pretty special because, in F1, it's really difficult to do that kind of thing. They gave us the right opportunity and it was kind of a no-brainer to do that with them.
B/R: Do you miss not racing this year?
SdS: It's hard. For sure you miss the competition because, as a race-car driver, that's what you live for. But, on the other hand, I think, "Oh, I get to drive a Formula One car." So the trade-off is kind of OK. If I had to do that for two years, yeah, maybe it would be a little more difficult, but I think one year is OK.
B/R: Do you see yourself in a race seat next year? The Sauber garage is pretty crowded with Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez (the current race drivers), as well as Giedo van der Garde (the reserve driver) and Sirotkin.
SdS: At the end of the day, it is difficult anyway because F1 is only 22 people and everybody wants to get there, but for me, if I do the job right, I don't see why not. There are a lot of circumstances that have to come together, but everybody's working hard to make that happen.
B/R: How close are you to qualifying for your Super Licence?
SdS: There's different circumstances to get it. I don't have it yet, but I think it will come through the testing.
B/R: Will you be able to drive in a free practice session at one of the grands prix this season?
SdS: It's a goal. I don't know if it's going to happen, but it's definitely a goal that we have.
B/R: I saw you were recently at a conference for women's leadership. Can you talk a bit about how you see yourself as a role model for young girls?
SdS: Being in racing, it is a male-dominated sport, but to me, it's always been really important—that's what I love to do. I love to drive cars and I love to race, and to me it was always important to have the results, to be competitive. And I think that's a really good role model for young girls.
For example, if a young kid is interested in math, but they don't really know what they can do with it, it is important to show them the opportunities and really support them to become what they want and to do what they love to do. And if they're good at it, why not? I think that's the key to it, and that's what I've tried to do all my life.
B/R: And what about the sacrifices you have had to make in terms of your personal life and moving from Switzerland to the United States at a young age?
SdS: I think as an athlete in general nowadays, it's all or nothing. Especially when you're racing, I think it's even more crucial because you only get one shot at it. For me it's always been, "OK, you really have to focus on that to make it happen."
For sure, growing up, as a teenager, I wasn't with all my friends just hanging out, but at the end of the day, I'm doing what I love to do, so the sacrifice isn't really that hurtful. I'd rather be traveling and be in a race car than just hanging out somewhere. It is a trade-off, but that's part of any life—if you want something, if you want to do something, you have to make trade-offs to try to make it happen.
B/R: It must be nice to be back in Switzerland now, though?
SdS: It is! You know, it's funny: When I was in the U.S., I always missed Switzerland, and now that I'm in Switzerland, I kind of miss the U.S. But it's nice to be home a little bit with my parents, and all my family is there. It's actually pretty weird to spend quite a bit of time with them. On the weekends, I can call them and be like, "Hey, I'll show up!" which I was never able to do for the last eight years, so it is pretty nice to be back, for sure.
B/R: Thanks for your time, Simona. It was nice to meet you.
SdS: My pleasure.
* Three other women have entered grands prix in the interim—most recently Giovanna Amati in 1992—but they failed to qualify for any races.
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