F1/IndyCar: Simona leaps in – and out

Simona de Silvestro before a test in February at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo: S. Bloom)

Simona De Silvestro before a test last February at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo: S. Bloom)

Swiss driver Simona De Silvestro has announced a move from the IndyCar Series to a role as “affilate” driver with the Sauber F1 team.  De Silvestro’s signing makes her one of the few women drivers with a credible opportunity at an F1 drive.  De Silvestro will not act as the team’s test and reserve driver (those seats are filled), but she hopes to move into a race seat in 2015.

The decision wasn’t without controversy.  With memories of Bernie Ecclestone’s put-down of Danica Patrick still fresh (he called her “a domestic appliance”), De Silvestro rekindles the ongoing debate about whether men and women can compete on equal terms in racing.  One longtime F1 journalist, quoting rally driver Michele Mouton, noted the difference in upper body strength and psychological makeup.  Of course, De Silvestro has been driving an IndyCar without power steering on ovals for the last five years, whereas F1 cars have power steering and other aids not found in an IndyCar.  Her toughness is beyond question – she managed to race at Indianapolis with hands that were badly burned in an accident.

Predictably, long-suffering IndyCar fans viewed the move as a further sign of the apocalypse.  Forgetting that the traditional route to success in motor racing goes from IndyCar to F1, not the reverse, De Silvestro’s departure is thought to reflect a scarcity of opportunities for talented young drivers.  Last year, the grid included seven drivers 25 and under. Only two return with full-time rides this year (Josef Newgarden and Sebastian Saavedra).

The tradition of IndyCar drivers moving to F1, and back, is nothing new.  Jim Clark and Graham Hill were F1 champions who each won the Indy 500, and Nigel Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi came from F1 to win titles in America.  Drivers like Michael Andretti, Cristiano da Matta, Alex Zanardi, and Sebastien Bourdais struggled in F1.  Notably, none of those drivers served any form of F1 tutelage before leaping into the car.  They left IndyCar mid-career, at the height of success, and rapidly fell to earth.  Moreover, aside from Andretti’s time at McLaren, neither Bourdais (Torro Rosso), da Matta (Toyota) or Zanardi (Williams) were in the right team at the right time.  De Silvestro’s year on the bench may be the kind of transition required for such a move.

Under any rational analysis, De Silvestro’s move is a coup for her, for F1, and for IndyCar.  As a well-funded but young driver, De Silvestro never had her choice of rides among the top teams in IndyCar.  Her decision to pursue F1 is a savvy career decision, as opposed to a wasted year funding a ride at a smaller IndyCar team.  F1 teams like Sauber devote substantial resources to building, testing and racing their own car, an engineering opportunity De Silvestro will never find in IndyCar, which uses a spec chassis and engine package.  F1 is the height of engineering and technology; the same cannot be said for IndyCar.

And Sauber is no minnow.  Peter Sauber ran his Swiss sports car and F1 team for years before BMW came along with a major investment, eventually selling the team back to Sauber.  As a Swiss national, the media-friendly De Silvestro provides Sauber and F1 with a public relations coup.  Her departure from the IndyCar Series is not a loss for that series, but rather a gain for the sport. To view it any other way is to miss the point.

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