Rising star Simona De Silvestro earned her first IndyCar Series podium last year at Houston and is now accepting questions as the newest Online Driving Instructor for the Road Racing Drivers Club’s SAFEisFAST.com initiative. Her answers will be posted beginning Monday, January 20.
Simona De Silvestro
2013 IndyCar Series podium finisher
The native of Mont-sur-Rolle, Switzerland, began her career in karting and made the move into cars in 2005, competing initially in the Italian Formula Renault 2.0 series before setting her sights on North America. After finishing a strong fourth in the 2006 Formula BMW North America Championship, earning one race win and five additional podium finishes – including becoming the first woman ever to stand on the podium at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Simona moved on to the Cooper Tires Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda. Her first win came at Long Beach in 2008, followed by a serious title challenge in 2009 when only an unfortunate incident in the series finale obliged her to settle for third place in the final points table. Despite that, she still ended the year with more pole positions (four) and laps led than any other contender, and the same tally of race wins (four) as her primary rivals.
De Silvestro stepped up into the IndyCar Series for 2010, and has gradually made her way toward the front of the pack. She finished an excellent fourth on the streets of St. Petersburg in 2011 and, after a difficult year with an uncompetitive Lotus engine in 2012, bounced back to qualify third and finish sixth at St. Petersburg in 2013. She added a well-deserved fifth at Baltimore before finally earning her first IndyCar podium at Reliant Park Houston.
Simona De Silvestro answers your questions!
Hi! My question from France is what to do when you can’t find how to be faster? For example, I’m used to being as fast as a group of people, but during practice on a new race track, I am slower than I should be. Do you have any advice or protocol on how to find more speed? Congratulations on being such a fast and rare girl driver 🙂
Merci Julien! There are some tracks where you’ll be fast right away because it suits your driving style, and then there are others that don’t suit your style where you’ll struggle at first. What I like to do is to go watch other guys driving, especially on test days. You know, when there’s a corner that I’m not so sure about, I like to go watch from the outside and see what the other drivers are doing. You can learn a lot like that. Sometimes somebody’s going to take a little bit more curb in a turn and sometimes it’s better not to. So those are things that you want to look at. You want to watch the usual fast guys; look at them from the outside and see what they’re doing.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: The Perfect Lap
I have enjoyed watching you get stronger each year and I look forward to your season ahead! Which track is the most challenging for you?
Thanks for watching, Courtney! For me I still think the ovals are the most challenging. On the road courses I’m pretty strong and I have a lot of confidence on them. Now on the ovals my confidence has grown, especially this last season, but it’s not at the same level as it is on the road courses. I feel like I’m about half-way in my maturity on the ovals whereas I feel like on the road course I’m pretty close to knowing exactly what I want in the race car. There are still things that I’m learning every day, but I’m much more confident on them than I am on the ovals. I think I’ve made some great progress, but I still have some things that I need to do better with on ovals. I still have work to do in that area for sure.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: Oval Racing
How do you go about selecting which brand of safety gear to use? Are there differences between the major brands?
Hi Peter. I think that all of the brands out there right now are really safe. Every year they try to become better. I think anything you find will be good. I work with OMP. I’ve been using them for the last two years and I really like their suits. The suit they made me last year was really nice, really light. I think it was the lightest suit I’ve ever had which was great. I also go a little bit toward the design side. I kind of like to look cool, so design is something I always look at too. Working with OMP I think they’ve achieved what I wanted. They’ve done a really good job with their design. You really just have to find what feels the best for you; what’s the most comfortable and what you like the most.
Did you have any kind of mechanical background when you started racing? How important is it for a driver to have a technical understanding of how the car works? Or is it better just to rely on your engineers?
Good question, Charlie. No, I don’t have any mechanical background but I think it’s really important to understand the technical side of the race car. I didn’t have the training in school, but throughout my career I spent a lot of time with my engineers and even now I still do. Every time I’m with them or the mechanics I try to be around the car and understand more and more how everything works. It’s really going to help you to understand the car, but it’s also going to help you know how to talk to the engineers. Sometimes in order to translate what you’re feeling in the car to the engineer, it’s easier if you understand a little bit more of how the car works. Because the engineer doesn’t feel exactly what you’re feeling, the more you know the easier it’s going to be able to communication with your engineers. I think that’s really important. Yes, you do rely on your engineers, but at the end of the day you need what you need in the car, and the better you’re able to communicate that the better you’re going to be.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: Working with an Engineer
Did you ever have any other career aspirations in addition to racing? Do you think you would choose to have a second career like some of the other drivers?
Well “Teagarden”, it’s hard for me to imagine doing something else. I tried a few different things when I was younger, but it doesn’t seem like I’m as good at them as I am at racing, so I think I should stick to that. But if I had to pick something, I’ve always thought about maybe opening a bakery…. I really like sweets and bread, which of course is not good for a race car driver! Opening a bakery or something like that is what I’ve thought about which I think is really random because it’s totally opposite of racing. Who knows? Someone did just tweet me saying that I could become a tennis analyst, so why not?
What do you do to train physically and mentally for the race season?
Thanks for the question, Jim. I think physically for me the biggest amount of work is done during the off-season, because that’s when I have one or two months when I’m not in the car. I can be in the gym every day and just try to be stronger and to also work on specific things. For example, if last season you were struggling in the car with something, you’re going to work on those things. During the race season it’s pretty important to focus on the mental aspect because the races are really taxing mentally. Like I said before, I work with some visualization and also I do a little bit of analyzing every race weekend and learn from that. Also it’s important to kind of put the last race away. If you’ve had a bad weekend you should kind of see what went wrong, learn from it and then start thinking about the next race. I think mentally it’s hard to say exactly what you have to do, because every person is different. One person is going to like something different than another person might, so you have to find what you like and go with that.
Can you give me your definition of trail-braking and when it is appropriate to use it on a road course turn? Is it a function of the car’s setup or a specific geometry of a curve?
Dean, this is a tough one. I pretty much use it in every corner where I have to brake. What’s the definition of it? I always look at it like this… when I’m braking in a straight line I’m asking a lot from the car and the tires in order to slow down and then you have to start releasing the brake. If you don’t you’re going to start to lock up because you’re going to lose the down-force of the car. So if you have a lot of down-force in the car the first hit (on the pedal) is going to be really important, and then you start releasing a little bit of the pressure because you’re not going to have as much weight on the car from the down-force so you’re going to have to release your brake a bit. Especially in open-wheel cars I think you kind of have to start to release and then turn the car into the corner. It doesn’t really have anything to do with setup. It’s just any corner where you’d use the brakes. How you apply and release the brakes is very important in every car, especially an open-wheel car or a car with down-force.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: Braking
Did you have a “racing hero” or anyone in particular that you looked up to when you started out in the sport? Otherwise, who do you think are the best role models these days?
William, I’ve always been a big Michael Schumacher fan. Everything he’s accomplished in his racing career is pretty remarkable. In racing and in sports in general I think there are a lot of really good role models, but for me it’s always been Michael. Maybe in different sports I would look at somebody else like Roger Federer, but in racing I always looked up to Michael; he’s always been my favorite.
You seem to have a knack for overtaking your competitors, even though in many series these days there isn’t a lot of passing. I know IndyCar is a little different because of the “push-to-pass” feature, but what advice can you give about how to set up an overtaking maneuver?
Mike, my best advice to set up a pass…. You know, when I think back throughout my career, I realize that it takes a bit of time to understand when it’s a good time to overtake. That’s why in junior categories you may have a lot of crashes because you think there’s going to be an opportunity and there isn’t. You learn with the years where a good spot to pass is and when you have a real shot. You have to go through that motion a little bit of learning how that feels and when it feels right. The biggest thing I think is if you’re putting pressure on the guy in front and then get a really good run out of the corner, then you can overtake him. For me it’s always about who’s going to brake the latest into the corner. You kind of work up to it during the whole lap; maybe it takes one lap – or more – or maybe the guy makes a mistake and you can pass him right there and then. Usually I take a few laps to see where he’s weaker so I know that I need to get out of that last corner really well and then I can set up the pass.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: Overtaking
You’ve had some scary moments in your career, especially on the ovals. How do you overcome the emotions that must have crept in?
Yes Keith, I’ve had some scary moments in my career, especially on the ovals, especially the Indy crash. That was the first time that I realized that I could get hurt; before that I never really thought about that. As a driver you always kind of feel a little bit like Superman and nothing can happen to you, so that crash was a big reality check for me. It took me a little bit to overcome it, but I think the best thing for me was to get back in the car as soon as I could, to kind of really feel it out. That was the biggest thing for me. I told myself that if I get in the car, I was a little bit scared and a little bit nervous, but if I had a big smile when I got out of the car then I knew that it was meant to be. I knew I had to still keep racing. It is a weird emotion that you feel especially when something breaks, because it wasn’t something that you did. I think it’s always easier if it was a mistake you made rather than something that you didn’t have any control over. But, you just go at it and work on yourself and after a while the fear goes away and you’re back in the groove.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: Focus and Concentration
I’ve read that many drivers enjoy qualifying just as much as the actual race, because it’s so pure and it’s all about speed. Is that the case with you, and how do you gear yourself up for qualifying?
Brian, yes, actually to be hones,t while the race is always fun, I feel that in qualifying when you’re putting together that perfect lap it’s a huge accomplishment and a great feeling. It rarely happens where every corner you know you’ve maximized everything out of the car. You know, in my career, I think there’s only been like two times where I’ve had the perfect lap. When I was in Atlantics at Trois-Rivieres I knew at the end of that lap that everything felt perfect and I had the speed everywhere I needed it. That was really rewarding and it was a great feeling to get that out of the car. I really enjoy qualifying because it’s all dependent on you. That’s the car you’re going to have, it’s what you’ve worked on the whole weekend to have, and if it’s not perfect you just have to get everything out of it that you can. Qualifying’s a lot of fun.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: The Perfect Lap
Bruno & Anna
Cara Simona. First, greetings from Ascona, Ticino. We are your fans and we voted for you at the Swiss Awards. We would like to ask you what are the major differences between IndyCar and Formula One? In addition, we would like to know if you would like to get to race in Formula 1 (and be the first woman after so many years!)? Thanks and best regards.
Hi Bruno & Anna. Thanks for voting for me at the Swiss Awards! It’s hard for me to say exactly what is different between the IndyCar and a Formula 1 car because I haven’t driven a Formula 1 car yet. It’s a little bit hard to say, but I think the biggest difference is the technology that there is in Formula 1. It’s definitely a bit more advanced and as a driver there are more aids that you can use to be fast. But, it’s hard for me to say for sure, because I haven’t driven an F1 car. That leads to your second question…. Yes, Formula 1 is my dream and of course I would love to drive in F1, and being a women I think it would be pretty huge because I think it hasn’t been done in quite a few years. But first I want to accomplish my dream and drive one of those cars; the rest would come with it.
I am very impressed with your driving. You are a hard charger, you make some great passes, and you are not rattled by someone trying to pass. These IndyCars look very physical to drive, lots of kick-back in the steering, heavy steering, and a bone-jarring ride over bumps. What does your body feel like on the day after a street race, and what sort of physical training regimen do you have?
Hi Eric. Yes, the IndyCar is pretty heavy to drive because it doesn’t have power steering. It’s really physical. I train at St. Vincent’s in Indianapolis. They have a special program; we do a lot of weights and lots of cardio. As a driver I think you have to be pretty fit in both departments. How does my body feel after a race? It depends on which race; when we’re on a street course like Houston or Baltimore with all the bumps and stuff like that you definitely feel it the next day. On Monday you’re really glad to have the day off to recover because you feel beat up pretty badly. But, you train for that too. It’s just a really hard working weekend.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: Fitness Overview
Hi Simona, my name is Hector and I’m from Chile This is about safety. Sometimes I read that some fans don’t like the rear bumper on the DW12 IndyCar. I think that’s better because it is like a kart. I like It. I always read the opinions of fans, however rarely I read what the drivers say. What do you think about rear bumper in a DW12 and how safe do you feel in the car? Thank you.
Thanks for the question, Hector. The DW12 IndyCar is the first open-wheel car to have a bumper in the back and I think it can help. It’s always difficult to say because of the speeds we’re going. I know that IndyCar is trying to make it as efficient as possible and for sure if I look at it right now I think it’s the best way that they’ve found from all the tests they’ve been doing. You can always have weird accident with or without the bumper, but I think it’s been a good way to get a little bit safer. It has changed the racing a little bit because this year there was a lot of bumping that was happening. We all kind of discovered that during the season. I do feel really safe in this car, but you’re still going over 220 mph next to a concrete wall, so there’s always something that can happen. But, I still think the car is pretty safe.
I am getting ready to start a “bumble-bee” racing class (a modified street car) at my local track, Southsound Speedway, in Chehailis, Washington. It will be my first experience on the track, but I love, love, love to drive. Can you please give me advice for this beginner racing class?
Congratulations Cassie! The Bumble Bee racing class sounds kind of cool. I wish I could race there! With it being your first race to me the biggest advice is to relax. You already know how to drive and for sure you’re going to learn a lot during your first race, but I think the best is advice is to have fun and really enjoy the weekend. You’ll feel a little bit of stress because it’s a race, but I think it’s really important to remember that you know what you’re doing behind the wheel, so just enjoy the weekend.
When is the best time to make the step from go-karts to race cars?
Good question, Andrea. I made the step when I was 16, which was the first time I could go into cars here in Europe; that’s the age they let you go into cars. I think it’s important to go into cars pretty quickly because it’s definitely different from go-karting. The only thing is that go-karting really teaches you about the racing: racing really close to other people, overtaking and stuff like that, so you need to spend a few years doing go-karts, being in the competitiveness of go-karting to learn the basics. When you’re ready to step into cars it’s usually going to take one or two seasons to start to understand how the car works, because you have to drive the car differently. You have to learn how the down-force works and stuff like that. I would definitely recommend that you spend at least a few years, two or three years for sure, in karting to learn the racing craft before making the step to cars.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: Making the Transition to Cars
As you moved up the racing ladder, how difficult was it to adapt to each different type of car? What was the most difficult step?
Jimmy, I think the basics kind of stay the same, but when you move up there are differences. For instance, when I moved from Formula BMW to Atlantics the Atlantic car had so much more down-force, so that was something really new that I had to learn. Those are things that take a little bit of time to understand and learning how to drive that specific category of car. I think that while you have your driving style, you have to adapt to what the car wants. I think the biggest step for me was moving from Formula BMW to Atlantics because the down-force level was so different between the two. It took me a little while to really understand how to drive a car with so much more down-force.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: The Ladder System
Hey Simona, it’s great to see you answering all these questions, thank you! My question is, what is your ultimate ambition as a race car driver? And is it important to have an ultimate goal or is it better to “wing it” and see how your career develops?
Roberta, thanks for the question. My dream has always been Formula 1 and being really competitive in Formula 1. I think it’s important to have an ultimate goal because you’re always going to look to that and always work towards it. I don’t think winging it is the right word, but I do think that during the season, you have to also let the things come towards you. I’ve always worked like that. I have my goal that is set, but the things that happen during the year you learn from them; let them come to you and really absorb everything that is happening in your career. Regardless of whether it’s in go-karts, Formula BMW, or Atlantics whatever you’re doing just really absorb it and learn from it. I think that’s how you can reach your ultimate goal.
Hi Simona, congratulations on your IndyCar successes last year. I was curious – are Indy cars more sensitive to slight wing-angle adjustments, or wicker adjustments? And which adjustment would have a greater impact on the top speed achieved by the car? Thanks for your time and contributions.
Thanks for the congratulations, Kevin. In answer to your question, the IndyCar is pretty sensitive to wing changes, especially in the front. On a road course we use that a lot to get a little bit more grip or a little bit less grip. On the wickers, especially on the ovals, there’s always so many degrees where you’re going to feel big gains with the rear wing going down, especially at Indy, but then you’re going to get into that phase where it doesn’t do that much anymore. What I learned last year is that some people could run less wing and have a wicker; we did that a few times and it made the car a little bit more planted in the rear which is a really nice feeling. On the one side you could run a little lower wing, so it’s kind of just a give and take. I think during a race that’s going to be more on us drivers depending on how we want the rear to feel. For top speed you’re going to want to try to run no wicker and as little wing as possible, so long as you can keep it flat around the oval.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: Engineering the Race Car
Do you find that other drivers treat you “just like any other driver” on or off the race track or differently because you’re female?
No, Harriet, I don’t feel like I’m treated any different by the other drivers because I’m a female. I’ve felt that I’ve always had a lot of respect everywhere I’ve raced and even outside of the track. Yes, I’m a woman, but when I’m with the other drivers we’re usually talking about racing stuff, so at the end of the day we’re all just race car drivers.
While I was attending St. Pete 2013, walking in the pits, I was very curious about the race engineers who were carrying their laptops and working to tweak and monitor the car. That’s a career I would be interested in. Where would you get started into that element of being part of a professional racing team?
Dustin, what I know about it is that you would need to go to engineering school and learn the basics of engineering. Then you can do like my junior engineer did and start working for an Indy Lights or Pro Mazda or one of the lower category teams so you can see how it works in a race team. Then you can move up the ladder just like a race car driver does. I think that’s the right path; do engineering school and then go to work with a team to learn how it all works with the smaller cars so that you can become more and more familiar. With the bigger cars it’s going to be more complex, but the basics stay the same.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: Finding a Career in Motorsports
How important is diet for a racing driver and do you work with a nutritionist?
Thanks for your question, Martina. I do think that diet is really important, and yes I do work with a nutritionist especially during the race weekend because it’s important that you eat nutritional foods that will help you during the race. However, while being lean is important, I’ve always needed a lot of strength to be driving an IndyCar, so I don’t think, being a woman, you can be a size two and drive an IndyCar. I think you need to be a little bit bulkier with a lot more muscles in order to drive the IndyCar around.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: Nutrition: Fueling the Driver
You are one of the best drivers in IndyCar but are yet to have a ride for next year. Are you going F1, or just still trying to find a deal in the IndyCar Series? I would sure hate to lose you to F1 but it would be a big improvement in your career. Good luck either way. Big fan.
Thanks for the question, John. I know it’s January already, but we’re still trying to weigh out all our options. We’re talking to different IndyCar teams, but I have to see what’s really going to be the best option for me in 2014.
I’m curious to know why you set your sights on a career in North America so early in your career?
Well, Aaron, we didn’t have the budget to stay in Europe, and an opportunity came up to do Formula BMW in the U.S., so I went to do that. In the beginning maybe I felt that I’d just do that one year and then come back to Europe, but then things evolved pretty well and in the right direction, so I ended up staying in the U.S. and I think it was the right choice for me. It brought me to a really high level, IndyCar, so I think it was the right move for me.
I drive a vintage car in road racing and visit Lime Rock, Watkins Glen, VIR, Summit Point, etc. The car is an Elva MK7S which is a rear engine sports racer from 1964 with four wheel coil-overs and a total weight of 1000 lbs. with 200 hp. Oversteering is the main problem because the weight distribution is 70/30. My question is: when I am in the beginning or middle of a turn and I am carrying too much speed, what is my best fix? When I let off the throttle, the back will come around. When I apply braking the car will understeer and leave the track. Thanks for any help.
Chuck, you shouldn’t be going into the corner on the throttle, so that may be part of the problem. I don’t usually see any corners where you should have throttle on going in — middle yes (middle to the exit). To me the biggest thing is to brake really late and try to get the slowing down part done as much as you can while you’re going straight, before you start turning the wheel. I’ve always been the kind of driver that carries speed through the corners, so I’m more the type of person that’s going to get into the corner with maybe just a little bit of brake, but getting off the brake really early and letting the car roll so that you’re asking a little bit less from the car. If you add brake then the front tires are going to be under even more pressure because you’re asking the front to turn and to brake at the same time and if you’re accelerating you have to wait until the car is pointed in the right direction. To me the biggest thing is to try to slow down as straight as you can and then as you start releasing the brakes turn into the corner. When you feel the car set then you can apply the throttle.
What would you do when you’re coming out of a fast corner and you realize that you are going too fast and need to get two wheels on the grass or gravel?
For me it all depends on what session I’m in. If this happens and I’m in qualifying for sure I won’t let the throttle go because it’s a session that counts. But, I think it all comes down to how much load there is on those two wheels. If you’re in the corner and you still have a lot of load on the car and end up in the grass or gravel then for sure you’re going to lift off because you’re not going to save it and you’ll spin out or something like that. If it’s just a little bit of grass or gravel then I think you keep your foot in it.
What’s your favourite circuit? Why?
I don’t really have one favorite circuit, Aymara, but I have always really enjoyed the permanent circuits. Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is fun to drive with the Corkscrew and the elevation changes. You can carry a lot of speed, and when I drove Atlantics there it was always a fun track to drive.
Thank you for taking the time to answer questions. Before your first professional car race weekend did you ever have any doubt or worry that you might not have what it takes to hang in there in a competitive environment, and how did you handle it? If not, how do you prepare mentally before a race? (This is coming from a concerned club racer who wants to go pro but has never had the budget to really race in large events.) Thank you.
Andrew, I’ve never really had doubts before a race, but sometimes during the winter when I was preparing for the race season, especially when I was jumping categories, sometimes there are little doubts because everything is kind of new; but they go away as soon as I get in a race car. Before my first IndyCar race or my first Atlantic race, I kind of looked at it like I didn’t have any pressure, I didn’t have anything to lose, so I just let the race come to me during the whole weekend and took it all in. I think that’s the best way to do it with any race is to just let it come towards you and that’s usually how you’re going to perform the best. To prepare for a race I usually work a lot with some visualization and stuff like that which puts me in the groove. I have a bit of a routine before each race. I have music I like to listen to and other little things I do to get myself ready. I have a mental coach in Switzerland, but she’s not with me at the races, so I just follow my routine and that’s what works for me.
SAFEisFAST.com Video: Focus and Concentration
When using a production (not F1 type) steering wheel on a road car, what is your opinion of crossing arms around a sharp turn as opposed to “shuffle” steering without crossing arms? Any reasons why one is better than the other?
Good question, Stephen. When I drive I never cross my arms and I don’t really “shuffle” either. Usually when it’s a hairpin or a tight corner I’ll move my hand to a position on the wheel that allows me to bring the car all the way through the corner with that hand. For instance if it’s a right-hand turn, I’ll move my right hand high onto the wheel and kind of really turn it with that one hand so that my arms aren’t crossing. I do the same with the IndyCar actually in the hairpin in Long Beach. I’ll put my hand on top of the steering wheel and use my right hand to put the power through the wheel while the other hand is there following the steering wheel ready to go when I come out of the turn.
Motor racing is widely considered to be a “man’s world.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment? Thank you for proving that women can be competitive, too!
Yes, Theresa, I think that racing is still considered a man’s sport because there really aren’t that many females involved in it. But, I think it’s a sport that if you’re a woman you can be really competitive if you’re all in like I am and that’s what you really want to do. I feel like a race car driver, so I don’t see any negatives in it.