Simona de Silvestro: A new chapter for women in motorsport

Giovanna Amati was the last woman to sit in a Formula 1 car as a race driver with 22 years passing since her short career. Since then women have been confined to development driver roles, Susie Wolff being the only active woman in the paddock.

Needless to say, F1 has had the distinct feel of a boys club since it was founded in the 1950s. Some argue (perhaps in ignorance of Desire Wilson’s several British Formula 1 victories) that women simply aren’t capable of mixing it with men. I respectfully disagree.

Talent is not exclusive to any one gender, nor should be the opportunity to prove talent. Sauber’s recent announcement to sign 25 year old Simona De Silvestro as an “affiliated driver” is a sign that there are people in high places who agree, especially as the signing carries the option to promote her to a race seat in 2015.

De Silvestro has been signed as one of three Sauber test drivers, and may be the one to watch closest.

De Silvestro has been signed as one of three Sauber test drivers (and may be the one to watch closest).


Already the announcement has raised massive interest and opposing views about whether or not the young lady from Switzerland deserves a chance in F1. Some, such as F1 and GP2 Presenter Will Buxton think that it’s a great move and rate her skills highly. Others think that it’s a move motivated by politics and money. (Full disclosure: the author of the linked article is Canadian and touts Canada’s Robert Wickens in her place; it also contains some misinformation that can be cleared up with a quick Google search).

Buxton has a much stronger case for his beliefs, having spent several years with unrivaled exposure to the sport. In his article, he recalls her 2007 GP2 test with the Campos team, where she impressed by posting test times only a second off of the eventual champion after only a few hours of running.

“I watched her working in the garage and stood trackside that day,” wrote Buxton. “She was desperately impressive. I spoke to the Campos team and her afternoon team-mate Vitaly Petrov. All were in no doubt; she was the real deal… She would have been fast.”

Also of note is the fact that De Silvestro wanted to stay in Europe and progress to Formula 1. She made the leap to America in 2005 for financial reasons. Confiding in Buxton, De Silvestro revealed exactly how things played out.

“I didn’t have the budget to stay in Europe,” she revealed. “But I found an American sponsor who wanted me to come over here and do Formula BMW. There were opportunities to go back but we never had the funding to do it.

“Two million Euros for GP2 when you have no practice, run around and then maybe you have a chance… it’s crazy. The amount of money in Europe is crazy.”

As a result, Indy Car is essentially a compromise to her dream. While it wouldn’t be right to accuse her of slacking, it is possible that she has struggled tap into her full potential. Strong races of hers (such as the one below where she is racing former F1 driver Takuma Sato) put that potential on prominent display.

In spite of the heartbreak of missing a chance to drive in GP2, she has performed admirably in Indy Car (especially given her relative inexperience). Staying with back-of-the-midfield teams KV Racing and HVM, she has consistently brought the car home in the points. Last year she drove a flawless race at the Houston Grand Prix to a deserved second place. Maintaining consistent form until the end, she finished the 2013 championship extremely close to her teammate, the former Indy champion Tony Kanaan. Keeping up with a champion is a great testament to her skill.

Refreshingly, her announcement comes at a time when F1’s grid is starting to look a bit bland. There are two universally panned drivers in Max Chilton and Esteban Gutierrez, with many fans agreeing that neither would be on the current grid without the tens of millions of dollars they bring in sponsorship money. Another uninspiring driver is Adrian Sutil, an “average” driver who has only been retained for sponsorship as well. Finally, there is Jean-Eric Vergne; his stock is so low that the Torro Rosso F1 team expects his rookie teammate to be faster than him within the first few races of the year (yeesh).

Obviously, the current grid is partially decided by how many briefcases of money a driver brings with them, but De Silvestro (and other promising young ladies) may change that. Though she does bring the promise of marketability for more feminine companies, it would be a mistake to write her off as yet another pay driver. If signing a woman for the sake of appealing to women was the motive here, then Danica Patrick would have been signed to F1 ages ago. Simona de Silvestro is different.

simona helmetDe Silvestro has never marketed herself as a woman. Her helmet isn’t pink; she doesn’t doll herself up for the cameras; she doesn’t objectify herself; she doesn’t separate herself from the boys. She’s a racer. She wants to race and be good at it, nothing else. Being fast makes her marketable, more so than being a woman.

That said, underestimating the value of having a competitive woman in F1 would be foolish. If De Silvestro gets signed for 2015 and does well, it will open up F1 to women in the future. By effect, motorsport will be highlighted as a realm where gender holds no meaning in the face of skill. It will be a sign to women and little girls that, yes, they can mix it with the big boys and earn global respect as professional athletes, and they don’t need to cavort about in debasing GoDaddy adverts to make it.

For the sake of adding another strong driver to the grid, I hope that Simona displays all of the skill so many know she has and gets signed as a race driver in 2015. For the sake of letting little girls know that they can dream of competing in one of the only sports where having a gracile physique isn’t to their disadvantage, I hope she does well.

As I said before, the chance to prove talent should never belong exclusively to any gender. Neither should the right to pursue your passions.

-Brian

Share your thoughts: do you think Simona has what it takes to give women a positive reputation in F1?

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