DONINGTON PARK – Slumped up against the metal bars on the pit wall at Donington Park, Simona de Silvestro is doing her best to put on a brave face.
After five failed attempts the previous Tuesday, the Swiss driver has seen her car stop for a sixth time on its out lap. Since taking part in FIA Formula E season finale in June, she has not completed a full lap of testing thanks to a myriad of software issues on the Amlin Andretti car.
“I don’t even know how the car feels right now because we haven’t done any laps at speed,” she admits.
“It’s been difficult. We definitely are not where we want to be, but you know sometimes it goes that way. The team is working hard to solve the issues, and hopefully we’ll get to solve that sooner rather than later.”
These issues with the new car are just the latest chapter in the rollercoaster ride that de Silvestro has embarked upon in the last two years, but one that she has taken in her stride and learned plenty from.
Having made her IndyCar debut back in 2010, de Silvestro broke through with her maiden podium finish in Houston in October 2013 for KV Racing. It acted as the highlight of a five-race streak of top ten finishes that capped off her best campaign to date.
As of February 2014 though, everything changed. De Silvestro moved away from IndyCar to pursue a full-time drive in Formula 1 with Sauber, working with the team as an affiliate driver with the Swiss team for the 2014 season. Despite enjoying some very impressive tests, a lack of sponsorship ultimately saw her part company with the team before she could realize her F1 dream.
A lifeline was thrown her way by Andretti Autosport, though, whom she joined at the beginning of 2015. Three IndyCar races have followed, and now de Silvestro has landed a full-time role with the Formula E team after a solid debut at the London ePrix in June.
“You know I’ve been really lucky that Michael [Andretti] and the whole team at Andretti has given me the trust, especially since I started working with them at the beginning of the season,” she explains.
“It’s great to have a team like this that you know when they put their trust in a driver and work through there. Especially you know in racing I think nowadays it’s really difficult, so to be able to do that is pretty special.”
The Sauber experience could have done much to dent de Silvestro’s hopes and aspirations. Instead, she has taken the best out of a bad situation, rekindled her links to IndyCar, and is now looking ahead to a full season in Formula E as Amlin Andretti’s lead driver.
“I think it’s pretty exciting to be part of Formula E,” she says, smiling. “I thought London was a lot of fun because the cars were pretty close to each other and everybody was battling quite a lot.
“Sure it’s going to be different this season with the different powertrains, but hopefully the competitiveness and things will stay the same.”
Powertrain development is set to be the key battle for teams racing in Formula E this year. After being limited to the model supplied by the championship in season one, more technical freedom has been allowed for the second campaign, allowing teams to put together their own powertrain variations.
It has resulted in a number of different approaches. NEXTEV TCR, team of defending champion Nelson Piquet Jr., has opted for a twin-motor powertrain with just one gear. The rest of the field has one motor, but ranges from two to five gears. One team has even retained the season one powertrain, believing the advantage to be gained from a unique design to be nominal.
And as Simona looks on at her car stood up on jacks with a team of mechanics tending to its issues, you can understand this view.
“You know it’s tricky to say,” she laughs, making light of the situation the Andretti crew is currently dealing with. “But every time you try and develop something, there are going to be some issues. You try and develop it to be better.
“So at the end of the day, I think the new is going to be better when you get to grips with it, for sure.”
De Silvestro is also the only woman currently signed up to Formula E for its second season, but remains a symbol of growing female involvement and success in motorsport. Acting as such a role model is something that she takes in her stride, though.
“I think it’s good to be the only female here, but I think the biggest thing is that I’ve been passionate about racing and about driving,” she explains.
“If you know other girls about maybe being engineers or mechanics or even drivers, I think they should just really follow their dream and try to achieve their goal.”
Arguably, de Silvestro stood a better chance than any of ending the 39-year drought for a woman to start an F1 grand prix, having cut her teeth in IndyCar over the previous four seasons and enjoying greater success than many can attest to.
In a recent interview with motorsport.com, F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone discussed the emergence of female drivers in the sport, and said how he was impressed by Lotus team reserve driver Carmen Jorda’s approach before discussing other women who had been linked with a drive.
“I saw the American girl, Danica [Patrick], and I said we would be able to do something for de Silvestro, but they don’t want to come to Europe,” he said. “They want to stay in America.
“So you have to get the person who has enough talent and wants to do it, and is prepared to give up what it takes.”
On a cold day in the middle of Leicestershire, England, and with the Union Jack flag flapping in the breeze above the pit lane, it is quite clear that de Silvestro is not in America, though.
“Exactly!” she says. “So I’m not quite sure from when that quote dates. But you know, you never know what will happen.”
For as Williams test driver Susie Wolff has spoken about in the past, gender matters little in motorsport. Once the visor is down, it is impossible to tell whether it is a man or a woman driving the car. What really counts is lap time – and, in the modern age, sponsorship.
“At the end of the day we have to perform in the race car, and we’ll see what happens,” de Silvestro says. “That’s the same for every other driver. The performance is going to count, maybe from then on you’re going to find some help somewhere.
“It’s definitely become more and more difficult to get to the top levels because the teams need sponsorship and need money behind it. You have to create your chances that way, and it’s a little bit trickier nowadays.”
Simona continues to make and take her opportunities as they come along. Diving head-first into Formula E would be considered a risk by many, but it appears to be giving her a solid platform upon which to showcase her talents as a racing driver.
The nature of Formula E also means that it does not conflict with many other major championships. It is for this reason that many of the FIA World Endurance Championship drivers are able to race in the series, and could also see Jean-Eric Vergne continue even if he secures an F1 seat for 2016.
So naturally, IndyCar remains a consideration for de Silvestro. Of all series, it is perhaps the most suitable to be matched up with Formula E – a winter series – given the condensed, summer-oriented calendar.
“IndyCar, you know… I think there’s some unfinished business there for me,” she says.
“Right now, this deal is really good for me, and the focus right now. The IndyCar season starts only next March again, so maybe there are some opportunities there.
“But it’s quite difficult because at the end of the day it’s always down to sponsorship. That’s kind of the tricky part about it.
“We’ll see. You never know. I’m open to it, but we’ll see what happens.”
The last line is perhaps the one that is most indicative of where Simona de Silvestro is at the moment. After seeing her career twist and turn in the past two years, she now has a firm footing yet again with Andretti in Formula E. It is a perfect platform upon which she can complete any remaining unfinished business in racing.
And as she turns back to her pit garage, a smile remains on her face. Simona continues to fight hard and looks set to succeed. But most importantly, she remains positive – something that is all too much of a rarity in an elite motorsport paddock nowadays.