Simona de Silvestro is arguably the best female road racer to drive in a top flight open wheel series. She’s approachable and thoughtful in interviews and she always lets her results on track speak for themselves rather than using her gender as a selling point.
Since 2005, De Silvestro has delivered six wins, four poles, 16 podiums, and four fastest laps in 231 starts in nine seasons of open wheel competition beginning in Formula Renault Italy. It’s difficult to find any female racer with better credentials competing in a top open wheel series.
While laudable, her modest success and positive personality traits don’t make the Swiss driver a bona fide Formula One prospect.
Nevertheless, the Sauber F1 team announced last week that the 25-year-old will be an “affiliated driver,” which will see her sit out the 2014 season as she embarks on an F1-focused program that includes on-track testing and simulator training, as well as mental and physical preparation.
Now before everyone shouts sexism, there’s no doubt that De Silvestro has put up respectable numbers in her professional racing career. There have been a couple of impressive performances in her four years in IndyCar, such as her second place on the streets of Houston last season and an inspiring drive to fourth in the 2011 season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. The top-3 result in Texas was her only podium in 50 IndyCar starts.
De Silvestro’s so-so results and a couple of great drives don’t make her a credible F1 prospect, especially when she is already 25 years old: her numbers simply don’t stack up.
While many argue that her equipment has never been the best, top drivers still find a way to get to the podium when their cars aren’t up to the job. In the past two IndyCar seasons racers Takuma Sato (A.J. Foyt Enterprises) and Mike Conway (Dale Coyne Racing) accomplished the feat last year and Justin Wilson (Dale Coyne Racing) did it in 2011.
Interestingly the most telling part of the whole De Silvestro-Sauber story is the fact that her business manager will be spending 2014 trying to raise the budget needed to secure his client a race seat next year. So, essentially her representatives will be using the carrot of F1 to attract enough money to buy her a spot on the grid.
Put bluntly, that makes her no different than the Max Chiltons and Charles Pics of the world who have no business being in an F1 car but get a drive because of their bank accounts. De Silvestro will need to fight for credibility in F1 because of her gender, and that battle won’t be any easier if she needs a big fat cheque to land a ride.
De Silvestro choosing to walk away from a solid career in IndyCar to chase an F1 pipe dream will likely only add fuel to the doubter fire when it comes to female racers and possibly create more roadblocks for young women who want to pursue a career on track.
By the Numbers
Should De Silvestro actually make a start in F1, she will become only the third female driver to sit on a grand prix grid. The trailblazer was Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis, who started three races in 1958 for Maserati with a best finish of 10th in her debut at the famed Spa-Francorchamps Circuit in Belgium. Although she was the last car running and two laps down in the 1958 Belgian Grand Prix, de Filippis still ended her maiden F1 start classified ahead of racing legends Jack Brabham, Graham Hill and Stirling Moss.
Another Italian, Lella Lombardi, remains the only woman to finish an F1 race in a points scoring position after she took sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix driving for the March team. Lombardi only took home half a point after the race was red flagged following a crash that saw a car careen into the crowd and kill five spectators. Lombardi raced in 12 grands prix between 1975 and 1976, the most F1 starts by a female driver.
Three other women entered grands prix but could not qualify for a race: British driver Divina Galica (three times between 1976 and 1978), Desiré Wilson of South Africa (once in 1980), and Italian Giovanna Amati (three tries in 1992).
As a comparison to De Silvestro’s career results, let’s look at the numbers produced by Canadian Robert Wickens, who turns 25 next month and possesses F1-calibre talent. Wickens easily came out on top when he went head-to-head with De Silvestro in 2006, taking the Formula BMW USA Series title that year while she finished fourth overall. It was the same story the next season in Champ Car Atlantic where Wickens was third overall and De Silvestro ended the campaign 19th.
In fact, Wickens equalled or bettered De Silvestro’s career open wheel win and pole totals in his first three years of racing cars. His numbers against some of the toughest young open wheel competition on the planet is 20 wins, 22 poles, 53 podiums and 21 fastest laps in 171 starts.
Easily the most famous woman racer on the planet, Danica Patrick’s popularity continues to outpace her success. Unlike De Silvestro who poses only in her racing gear, Patrick gained notoriety by gracing the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and played sexpot in print advertising for sponsors and in television commercials for her prime backer Go Daddy.
Unfortunately, when she dons her driving overalls, Patrick’s performances have been much less spectacular. Since 1999, Patrick has a total of one win and six poles in 288 starts. Her sole triumph as a professional racer came six years ago in the Indy Japan 300 at the Twin Ring Motegi. She scored one pole last year in her first full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup where she managed just one top-10 finish in 36 starts.
Quote of the Week
There’s no doubt that “The King,” Richard Petty let loose a zinger last weekend when he was asked at Toronto’s Canadian Motorsports Expo if he thought Danica Patrick would ever win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. The man with the most career NASCAR wins at 200 and seven NASCAR titles quipped quickly: “If everyone else stayed home.” He went on to say that nobody would ever know Patrick had shown up at a race track if she were a man. After his remarks attracted accusations of sexism, Petty refused to back down, telling reporters at the Daytona International Speedway on the weekend that label was unfair: “If her name had been Danny, OK, nobody would have said anything about it.”
The Last Word
De Silvestro isn’t the only racer hoping to find success across the Atlantic this year. After taking 2013 off to raise money to compete in Europe, Canadian rally driver Leo Urlichich, known simply as “Crazy Leo,” is the only North American chosen to compete in the World Rally Championship’s “Drive DMACK Fiesta Cup” this year.
For his part, Moscow-born Urlichich looks forward to flying the Maple Leaf on the world rally stage: “I am very honoured to be able to represent Canada,” he said adding with a chuckle that “I just wanted to say thank you and I am hoping I am not going to embarrass the country too much.”
If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow us on Twitter @Globe_Drive.
Add us to your circles.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.