Resilience defined Simona de Silvestro’s four years in IndyCar

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Tough as nails. Resilient beyond belief. Personable beyond comprehension. Respected by her peers.

Although Simona de Silvestro didn’t win a race in her four years in IndyCar, she ticked a lot of boxes to make her a fan and paddock favorite.

What sticks out to me most was her resiliency.

De Silvestro entered IndyCar in 2010 with Keith Wiggins’ HVM Racing operation, a team with slightly-more-than shoestring finances. She entered after a crushing blow in the Formula Atlantic season finale a year earlier at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, when she was taken out by another competitor on the first lap to cost her the title.

No matter. Her management team and support, from what was at the time Team Stargate Worlds, helped her take the next step in her open-wheel career. Meanwhile the others from Atlantic, Americans John Edwards and Jonathan Summerton, weren’t able to.

Her new car just looked ragged watching it either on the ground on TV. But de Silvestro hustled it like nobody’s business. She was Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year, and some of her qualifying and race performances (Edmonton and Mid-Ohio in particular) were just sublime to watch.

The breakout should have happened in 2011, still with HVM but with new support from Nuclear Clean Air Energy and Entergy. Fourth place at St. Petersburg behind eventual KV Racing Technology teammate Tony Kanaan – in a race with its own subplot featuring de Silvestro’s old engineer working with Kanaan in his first race with KV – heralded her as a star in the making. Ninth at Barber and fastest lap in Brazil were further proof.

Then Indianapolis 2011 happened, and quite honestly, it was hard to imagine her being able to recover fully from it. Her practice crash was her second fiery one on an oval (Texas 2010) and also cost her the team’s new, improved chassis.

But the resilience emerged once again even in the unloved, heavier, older backup chassis that she qualified for the field before Bump Day. Working together with her PR rep Monica Hilton at HVM, the legend of Simona and “Pork Chop” was born.

Further results the rest of the year went begging… and the less said about 2012 with the Lotus engine the better. Except that when she had every opportunity to throw her engine manufacturer under the bus, she never did. That was the professional in her.

So, the breakout, part 2, was planned for 2013. And sixth place at St. Pete, with KV, battling Kanaan for what had been a podium position, was the first sign ’13 was the finally year we’d all been waiting for.

To follow the narrative though, even though she finished in the top 10 in three of the first four races and battled through a tough midseason, the resilience returned again. She was one of the series’ top-10 drivers on a consistent basis the last five races (finished top-10 in all five), and her first podium with second at Houston was no less than she or her supporters deserved.

In summation, then, 65 starts, three top-fives, and 14 top-10 finishes, a best start of third at St. Pete this year and a couple fastest race laps. Not great numbers on paper, but toss out the 15 starts from 2012 with the hapless Lotus sled in her car and you see she did overachieve at a rather good level given the equipment at her disposal.

Ultimately though, 13th in the final standings – as she was this year – was probably as good as it was going to get given her career struggles on ovals. She made strides, but with the field as deep as it is, it was the final mountain to hurdle. Even her best oval finish, eighth at the IndyCar season finale in Fontana, came after being caught up in an accident and merely surviving the high attrition rate. Her road and street course prowess, however, was very much evident.

For IndyCar, the loss is its second major driver gut-punch of the offseason, following Dario Franchitti’s medically enforced retirement.

De Silvestro was liked by some because she was the “anti-Danica Patrick,” who built her brand purely on her racing ability rather than her sex appeal. In interviews, de Silvestro often said she didn’t want to be the next Danica, but the first Simona.

But she was also liked because of her down-to-earth nature, effervescent smile, and ability to wring as much as possible out of less than the top machinery.

De Silvestro and her management team deserve credit for sticking it out this long, and for her, F1 has always been the goal. At 25, she’s far from “old,” but when you consider she’s older than almost half the field of 22, she’s got another test of resilience to come.

But I’ve had the chance and privilege to cover her consistently since her first Atlantic season in 2007. Knowing her, she’ll tackle it full on.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Formula E team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – McLaren Racing

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”