Simona de Silvestro carving her own path in IndyCar

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Danica Patrick’s rise to prominence in motorsports has been both a blessing and a curse for fellow female drivers. Those wanting to carve a path as “racers who happen to be female,” rather than simply “female racers” who use their sex appeal to their advantage, have found the road tougher to advance up the ladder.

This is where Simona de Silvestro enters the equation. She’s one of a handful of non-Danica women who’s been in IndyCar since Patrick’s memorable 2005 arrival (others include Ana Beatriz, Pippa Mann, Sarah Fisher, Katherine Legge and Milka Duno). But along with Fisher, who has since retired as a driver and now is a team owner, de Silvestro has been the only other woman driver with staying power. The others have struggled to put full-season budgets together, or been in the wrong environment at the wrong time.

Her resolve has been tested. At any point in the last three years, de Silvestro, who’s still only 24, could have quit. She’s been on fire twice (Texas, 2010 and a practice accident at Indianapolis in 2011) and with woefully down on power Lotus engines a year ago, never stood a chance at being competitive. Her and former Formula One race winner Jean Alesi’s best laps were anywhere from 12-16mph off the leaders, and both were parked less than a dozen laps into the 500-mile race.

Rather than bitch about the situation, de Silvestro said the year out of the spotlight gave her peace and resiliency. She could ease back into racing on ovals and regain confidence.

“Last year helped me a lot on the ovals to be honest,” she said Wednesday. “I was skeptical about oval stuff. I think maybe last year really helped me. I had absolutely no pressure, and I got comfortable. Now I go out and feel confident with what I learned last year. It’s been rewarding to myself. When you have a big hit like that, it takes a while to get it back.”

Her switch to KV Racing Technology afforded her the chance at a Chevrolet engine, the mentoring and pushing from teammate Tony Kanaan – her first in IndyCar (and first since “Malcolm in the Middle” star Frankie Muniz in Formula Atlantic in 2009) – and the renewed confidence that her talent plus her equipment could finally pay dividends. She already has three top-10 finishes in four races, after entering the year with only five in three prior seasons.

On-track, she has these benefits. Off, she’s still got the same, carefully managed persona and image that only sees her align with partners dedicated to growing Simona, the racer. Because that’s what she is.

Her management team includes Imran Safiulla and Shane Senaviratne, who have been at almost every stage of her development since her time in Formula Atlantic. They’ve made a conscientious decision to see her through all the difficult stages and the support of partners such as Nuclear Clean Air and Entergy has made it possible for her to keep racing in IndyCar. An excellent report on how the image has been crafted is here, in this ESPNW article authored by Brant James.

When de Silvestro arrived, by default, she was viewed as the “anti-Danica.” Still, that does both an injustice. If Patrick hadn’t had the success she did in IndyCar – and a race win (Motegi, 2008) and fifth in the points standings (2009) is no small feat – there’s no guarantee de Silvestro would have made the leap to begin with. She was at a crossroads at the end of 2009 anyway, when a competitor took her out in the final Atlantic race of the year and cost her the title.

With the learning and challenging years ideally behind her, and Danica out of the way to steal the spotlight and attention, this month de Silvestro could truly enter the broader landscape beyond the core group of race fans and observers that already know her name and her ability with a good run at Indy.

She’s not obsessing over winning, instead methodically going about the process similar to what she did in 2010, when she won Indianapolis 500 Rookie-of-the-Year honors (finished 14th).

“I think anybody that qualifies has a chance to win it,” she said. “It’s always been hard to put a result as a goal. But if we do all the work we can, we’ll take it. When you’re not expecting too many things, things can go well. They did my rookie year going through the motions. And now with a better team, engine and everything, things can work out. I’m working hard toward that goal.”

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.