De Silvestro set for her best chance yet in IndyCar with Andretti in St. Pete


Simona de Silvestro will arrive at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as fourth driver for Andretti Autosport, unsure of her future in the team beyond the first race.

The above sentence was written in a similar way five years ago, with a few different words:

Ryan Hunter-Reay will arrive at the IZOD IndyCar Series’ season-opening Sao Paulo Indy 300 as fourth driver for Andretti Autosport, but unsure of his future in the team beyond the first few races.

Indeed, de Silvestro will try to emulate what Hunter-Reay did when she makes her team debut in a few weeks, because the American was in a similar situation when he got his shot ahead of the 2010 season.

Hunter-Reay was one of America’s top open-wheel prospects in Formula Atlantic and overachieved in a Reynard chassis as a rookie in the 2003 CART season. But two years with midlevel teams – HVM being one of them – followed before he was tossed out just before the end of 2005.

He made it back in with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, won a race and lost a ride when a sponsor departed. An eleventh hour deal with Vision Racing and an injury fill-in role with A.J. Foyt Enterprises kept him afloat in 2009, but those were both temporary.

This leads us nicely to 2010, when Andretti had a fourth car to fill, and the team provided Hunter-Reay the opportunity of a lifetime for an early season deal that was not confirmed for the full season, at least initially.

Hunter-Reay promptly finished runner-up on his team debut in Sao Paulo – a race where de Silvestro made her series debut – won at Long Beach a couple races later and had a full season confirmed by midseason.

De Silvestro enters Andretti’s fourth car having followed a similar career path. The Swiss driver raced in the U.S. for the first time in 2006, notably scoring a podium in Formula BMW on the Formula 1 weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Three seasons in Atlantics followed and like Hunter-Reay, she won races but came up just shy of a title.

Her first three IndyCar seasons were spent with HVM Racing, a team which Hunter-Reay drove for and overachieved with. Several races marked her a potential future standout, notably her qualifying seventh her first year at Edmonton, finishing fourth at St. Petersburg and setting the fastest race lap in Sao Paulo in 2011.

But her year with a Lotus-powered sled in 2012 did her no favors; she won over fans even more with her class and resiliency in the face of driving a car with an inferior powerplant.

A chance with KV Racing Technology in 2013 was a roller coaster campaign. Several highs occurred, including her overdue first career podium in Houston, but a rough middle portion of the season and general inconsistency made it a mixed year in total. By the end of the season, her future in the sport was in doubt, more due to a lack of seat vacancies than a lack of ability level.

Her F1 dream fizzled before it ever truly had a chance to materialize. Sauber’s financial woes meant an early end to her planned testing program. She also announced a split from her longtime manager, and began targeting a return to the U.S.

Wednesday’s announcement for de Silvestro with Andretti was only confirmed for one race, but, it likely will be the start of a relationship for further races provided it goes smoothly.

For years, observers have noted her talent level and said if she had the right opportunity, she could be a race winner in IndyCar. She’s been hailed for her strength level to handle the high downforce (particularly now with the new aero kits) cars that lack power steering.

She’ll have a support group of teammates that is two more than she’s ever had in IndyCar. Tony Kanaan was her only teammate in 2013 at KV; with Andretti, she’ll have Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz and, naturally, Hunter-Reay to compare data and notes with.

She steps into the team that has worked to find additional sponsorship for its drivers. For example, DHL, Hunter-Reay’s primary sponsor, is on board for a three-year extension through 2017.

She has a big volume of fan support, as witnessed by the seemingly endless explosion of congratulatory posts hitting on Facebook and Twitter this morning.

She’ll also have no excuses, and with a lot of eyeballs on her, a fair bit of pressure to perform. This is a seat that has been linked with Justin Wilson all winter, among others, and while de Silvestro is still one of IndyCar’s more capable shoes, she’s not quite at Wilson’s level. Yet, anyway.

But this is a driver who has been defined by resilience, and refused to be defeated. She’s smiled after walking away from two fiery crashes. She’s garnered “Iron Maiden” as one of her nicknames.

She’s been in the U.S. for the better part of 10 years, save for last year, working tirelessly to advance into a seat of this caliber.

And in a one-shot deal, she’s got the best opportunity of her career, by far.