She grips your hand with a man's shake: rock-solid and firmer than any twenty-one-year-old you have ever met before. Simona De Silvestro, HVM Racing. Photo by Andy Sallee. Her face is pleasant but all business, as lean as the rest...
She grips your hand with a man's shake: rock-solid and firmer than any twenty-one-year-old you have ever met before.
Her face is pleasant but all business, as lean as the rest of her and the focal point of your attention. That is until she begins motioning with her two hands, with movements that could be describing an airplane in flight, to tell you what it is like on the big oval at speed.
There is the eager enthusiasm of an Indy rookie in her voice, but there is also the wariness of a veteran who has seen the darker side of this concrete-walled monster.
Simona de Silvestro has cut her teeth on racing in Europe, mimicking the movements of her hero Michael Schumacher, in an arc that has touched championship-level karting, Formula Renault 2000, Toyota Atlantics and now IndyCar. This racing phenom from Thun, Switzerland has parlayed talent and a desire to race with the best drivers out there into a solid first-year run with HVM Racing on America's biggest open-wheel stage.
"It's unbelievable to be here at Indianapolis, practising with the other guys," she says, still a little awe-struck to be on-track at the Motor Racing Capital of the World. "It's crazy, it's fast, and it's big. It means something special to me. I never thought I'd be here."
de Silvestro's on-track performance has been remarkably consistent for a rookie: five starts, five finishes with a best result of 16th on two occasions (Sao Paolo, Brazil and St. Pete). She has even led a lap of a race (Brazil) and is solidly in the middle of the IndyCar Series field in the points chase for the 2010 championship.
Surprisingly this is not the first chance she's had to see Indianapolis Motor Speedway from the cockpit. She raced previously at Indy during the 2006 Formula BMW event held in support of the U.S. Grand Prix. She finished third in both FBMW events run on the road course that year. The dual result gives her an historic place at the track already: first woman to make a podium finish at the Brickyard.
It also provides a natural link to her favorite racer, the aforementioned M. Schumacher, whose five wins at this facility put him in a category of racing accomplishment without parallel.
"My racing hero is Schumacher since I was little," she says. "I admire the way he drove, how he put a team together. I want to copy that."
She also has a studied opinion of Schumacher's technical skill in evaluating a racecar, improving it, and competing with it at the highest level.
"Last year in Atlantics I learned a lot about the car," she continues. "My engineer Mike Cannon helps me learn and feel the car out. I will be there someday."
Still, this is Indianapolis; a place so steeped in tradition that the ghosts haunting Gasoline Alley have occasional sleepless nights. Moreover, it's a unique experience for even the grizzled old-timers that have raced and fought for everything the legendary track has given them.
"It's my second oval," she admits, with a race at Kansas Speedway her only prior experience on a track where the only turn is to the left. "The first time around Indy I was like 'Oh My God!'. It is so fast and the straightaways are so long, going flat all the way around. It's crazy. However, I've picked it up quickly with the help of my teammates and my team. My confidence is growing every day."
No doubt de Silvestro will need all of it on Saturday when she is asked to go flat around the Speedway on a four-lap ride into the history books of arguably the biggest auto race in the world.
"Qualifying is strange to me, too; something new that I've never had to do before," on the eve of her attempt to enter the field for the Indianapolis 500. "If I make it into the race I will be really happy. I don't know yet what we will do to celebrate, but I'm sure we'll think of something."
She tosses her head and the brown locks flow onto her back. There's a smile for the first time, a winning smile. A smile that says of that modest remark about qualifying that it's really not "if" as much as it is "when" for this rising young star of open-wheel racing.