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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Opinion: De Silvestro Ready For Success

As far as diversity in major-league motorsports goes, the IZOD IndyCar Series has most of the racing world beat. For one, there's the biggest female racing star in the world right now, Danica Patrick. There's owner-driver Sarah Fisher, whose program has expanded gradually every year since she started her own team, and will even field two cars in some races this year. There's Ana Beatriz, a Firestone Indy Lights Series graduate who will make her IndyCar debut in her home country of Brazil in a week and a half. And yes, Milka Duno may still be hanging around.

But Simona de Silvestro may have the talent to surpass all of them.

The Swiss driver, 21, will join HVM Racing for the duration of the schedule after three years in the Atlantic Championship. Bringing her Atlantic sponsor, Stargate Worlds, with her, she will be one of up to four drivers competing for Rookie of the Year this season.

De Silvestro's first year in Atlantics, 2007, was a struggle, as is to be expected from a young driver moving up. But in 2008, she won the season-opening race at Long Beach, moving up to eighth in points at the end of the year. Last season, she dominated for much of the year, winning four races and staying in the title hunt until falling out of the final race of the year on the first lap. Eventually she finished third in points.

That's three more wins than Beatriz had over two years in Indy Lights, although each woman has a third and an eighth place finish in the standings of their respective series. As for Patrick, she never won an Atlantic race in two seasons despite running for a top team.

Katherine Legge was the last woman to dominate the Atlantic Championship, having spent much of 2005 on top and finishing third in the standings that year with three wins. Legge won in her first career Atlantic start, the 2005 season opener at Long Beach, and was even given a Formula 1 test at the end of the year for her efforts.

Legge, unfortunately, flamed out in Champ Car, perhaps a result of only spending one year in a major development series. A major crash at Road America in her rookie year, 2006, may also have affected her psyche. She has spent the past two years in the German DTM series, but has not yet scored a point in that series.

What gives de Silvestro an advantage over all of these other women, however, is the fact that she has spent enough time in developmental series to learn what it takes to drive consistently well. All of the other drivers in question had major ups and downs in their development seasons, and none of them really spent enough time in one major series to have a barnstorming championship run. Even Legge's 2005 season was marred by four finishes outside of the top five. Last year, de Silvestro only finished worse than fifth on two occasions. Nine races out of 12 she stood on the podium.

Unlike Beatriz, she doesn't have to focus on finding funding to run the rest of the season. Unlike Fisher, she doesn't have to balance the day-to-day responsibilities of running a race team. She can just focus on driving the race car.

In terms of gender, her only competition is Danica Patrick, who seems to be more and more of a falling star every minute. Three disastrous stock car runs, capped off by running full-throttle into the back of another car in Las Vegas, have shaken her. She has improved on her previous year's championship ranking every year since joining IndyCar, topping off at fifth last year, but with more competitive cars capable of winning on the grid this year, she may take a hit. She hasn't won a race since the split-series weekend in early 2008, and even that was won on fuel mileage.

Danica's celebrity is the biggest thing she has going for her, and it gets in the way of her racing. More and more people simply know her as the "Go Daddy girl," and more and more people are going to know her as a stock car driver as she inevitably expands her schedule in those cars.

De Silvestro will not have to face the pressure of being Danica Patrick, and that may be her biggest advantage of all. The expectations on her are not so great, as she is a rookie with zero oval experience driving for a single-car team that has unfortunately brought up the back of the grid for the past couple of years. Then again, last year's issues were partially due to a string of bad luck, and expanding to two cars mid-season began stretching the team's resources thin.

But because of that lack of pressure, she can work with HVM at her own pace, knowing that she will be somewhat competitive at the very least on road and street courses. For what it's worth, De Silvestro bested Patrick in the final open IndyCar test session last week.

By the time the oval sections of the schedule finally come up, de Silvestro will hopefully have had some competitive runs on the road and street circuits. With the confidence that she can run up front in the right situation, she should be just fine on the ovals once she gets a little experience.

Within a few years, provided the team sticks together and make progress, we may see Simona de Silvestro in the winner's circle with relative frequency. Time may anoint her a more accomplished driver than Patrick, if she can avoid the pitfalls of poor equipment and excessive celebrity.

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