Stakes are higher than ever for Simona de Silvestro in Indy 500


Simona de Silvestro has turned the heads of racing fans and won a steady stream of plaudits from fellow drivers and team bosses, and yet her only confirmed IndyCar race for the rest of her life is Sunday’s 99th Indianapolis 500.

The Swiss driver’s fortunes might im dramatically if she can make her street and road course skills work for her on the famous, unforgiving rectangle that’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I think about it more this year because this is the last race I’m having officially,” said de Silvestro, who’ll start 19th in one of five Andretti Autosport cars. “For sure, it puts it a little more in perspective. It’s a long race, and everything has to go perfect to win it. But we’re all working hard to achieve that goal of running up front at the end of the race.”

Everything that happens at Indy is magnified, and a good run in the 500 — like, say, her fourth-place finish in the Grand Prix of Louisiana last month — could help de Silvestro attract corporate sponsors willing to back her fulltime next season. What’s more, it would show everyone what the racing world already knows: The 28-year-old native of the Alpine lake town of Thun, Switzerland, is pretty good.

“I think she’s very underrated,” said Rob Edwards, de Silvestro’s race strategist and Andretti Autosports’ director of racing operations and engineering.

Edwards first worked with de Silvestro in 2007, when she was driving for Walker Racing in the Formula Atlantics training series and he was the team manager. “She was very fast then, but she has matured to no end,” he says. “In terms of working with the engineers, she’s very articulate in describing the car and what’s going on.

“She doesn’t get excited, but she also realizes that the driver is a great asset when it comes to being a cheerleader for the team, if you will, and getting the team to galvanize around the driver.”

De Silvestro’s fifth Indy 500 almost didn’t happen. The back of her No. 29 car burst into flames last Tuesday in practice, the result of a faulty seal in the fueling system. The track safety team got her out uninjured, but the car was badly damaged, and the team didn’t have a backup.

Miracle workers at Andretti’s Indianapolis shop replaced practically everything behind the car’s tub — the engine, gearbox, bellhousing, suspension and bodywork — in about two days.

“The fire was unfortunate because we lost two days of practice,” de Silvestro says. “It was a little annoying, but the guys put the car back together so quickly and we were able to practice on Thursday already.”

The Brickyard has begrudgingly yielded ground to the driver nicknamed the “Iron Maiden” for her resiliency. She was the Rookie of the Year in 2010 with a 14th-place finish and finished 17th two years ago. In between, she was 31st in 2011 after being burned earlier in the month in a crash and 32nd in 2012, when race officials pulled her off the track after 10 laps because her Lotus engine couldn’t generate a safe speed.

“I haven’t had the best experiences around here, but as soon as I got in the car with Andretti, I felt pretty comfortable,” de Silvestro said. “I think it was the first time that I felt so comfortable on an oval, and I think that has a lot to do with the team and also working together with my teammates. I think that makes a big difference.”

Although her team is a part-time effort (the nucleus comes from Marco Andretti’s No. 25 team last year, Edwards says), Andretti Autosport is a step-up team for de Silvestro. Andretti has won the 500 in three of the last 10 years, including last year with Ryan Hunter-Reay, and de Silvestro will have four quality teammates in Sunday’s race.

She points out that her No. 19 starting position is the same from which Hunter-Reay won last year. “So you never know,” she said.

De Silvestro ran most of the IndyCar races from 2010-13, first for upstart HVM Racing and then mid-level KV Racing Technology, and finished the ’13 season with six top-10 finishes in her final eight races.

The attention-grabbers were a fifth and a second on the street courses at Baltimore and Houston — reminiscent of a fourth-place finish she had at St. Petersburg in 2011 that veteran Tony Kanaan, who finished just in front of her, still talks about.

All of that earned de Silvestro a chance to train for a Formula One ride in Europe last year. But when the dream proved too expensive and she sought a return to IndyCar, there were no spots open.

Michael Andretti signed her for the season opener at St. Petersburg, hoping to run her in all the races. He was only able to add the Louisiana race at NOLA Motorsports Park and Indy.

It’s an injustice, says Edwards.

“Simona deserves a full-season sponsor,” he said. “She is a great ambassador for the sport, and the thing I like is she’s not (about) the all-girl teams or the special dispensation. She wants to compete on a level footing and she has demonstrated the ability to do so. She conducts herself with a charm and an enthusiasm that endears her to everyone that works with her.”

A group called Grace Autosport has announced plans to run an all-female team in the 100th Indy 500 next year. Edwards’ point is that de Silvestro shouldn’t need to use her gender to find work.

And de Silvestro agrees. “For me, I’ve never really looked at it that way,” she says. “I am a female, but at the end of the day, I’m a race car driver, and even if it’s a male-dominated place, if I’m talented and do my job, I should get the opportunity.”

Indy is big for everyone. It’s enormous this year for Simona de Silvestro.