INDIANAPOLIS -- Three years ago, Simona De Silvestro emerged as the heir apparent to Danica Patrick in the IZOD IndyCar Series. De Silvestro's solid performance -- qualifying 22nd and finishing 14th in the 2010 Indianapolis 500 -- earned her Rookie of the Year honors and brought favorable comparisons to Patrick, the 2005 Indy Rookie of the Year.
Patrick's run was far more spectacular, leading the 500 with seven laps to go and finishing fourth, the first time that a woman had ever led a lap in the storied race and she was out front for 19. At the time, she was driving for Rahal Letterman Racing, a multi-car team that had won the 500 with Buddy Rice in 2004. De Silvestro, during her rookie turn, was driving on a shoestring budget with single-car HVM Racing, which has never won an IndyCar race. The comparisons between the two drivers in that department were not favorable. Just imagine, many thought, what the talented De Silvestro might be able to accomplish with a team capable of giving her the same kind of equipment and engineering as Patrick.
De Silvestro backed up her promise shown at Indianapolis with a ninth-place finish on the street course at Toronto and an eighth on the road course at Mid-Ohio that year. It gained her a three-year sponsorship deal with Entergy, a nuclear clean energy company, and she stuck with HVM for the next two seasons. Both were filled with problems, not the least of which occurred at Indianapolis.
In 2011, a mechanical failure sent De Silverstro flying into a fiery practice crash. She suffered second degree burns on both hands, but still qualified for the 500 while wearing bandages on them, earning the nickame "Iron Lady" from admirers. However, she fell out after only 44 laps. The following year, with the woefully underpowered Lotus engine, De Silvestro started 32nd and, not running fast enough to feel safe, parked her car after 10 laps. As for her overall series performance, she had three top-10s and was 20th in points in 2011, but tailed off in 2012 with no top-10s, finishing 24th in points.
This year, though, could be her best yet.
De Silvestro arrived at Indianapolis this month with a new team in KV Racing Technology, a teammate for the first time in 2004 IndyCar champion and 15-time race winner Tony Kanaan, and a new engine from Chevrolet. It is a prime opportunity, but she also faces the challenge of proving that she can be a contender in the 500.
"I definitely feel that I finally have the tools in my hands to be competitive," she said. "The team put a lot of work into the cars over the winter and I feel like we came here pretty prepared. I feel pretty confident. Every day (in practice) we've been running and doing more laps and the car feels pretty good underneath us. I'm taking each day one at a time. I think if we do our job right, the results will be good at the end."
De Silvestro, a 24-year-old from Switzerland who has been racing in the USA since 2006, is off to a strong start this year with three top-10s -- sixth at St. Petersburg, Fla., eighth at Sao Paulo, Brazil, and ninth at Long Beach, Calif. -- and she ranks ninth in the championship standings. But those are all street courses and the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the longest and fastest oval in the series. Kanaan finished third there last year, his fifth top-five in 11 Indy 500s, and he's been imparting his knowledge to his new teammate.
"He is helping me a lot," De Silvestro said. "Our deal (with KV Racing) came together pretty early during the offseason, so we really started working together pretty early and we help each other. He's helping me a lot on the ovals on different things because he has a lot of experience, but I feel like we really push each other. Every session we go out there, we try to elevate the game of the team and I think that's really important."
Kanaan has 261 IndyCar starts to De Silvestro's 51, but says the information flows both ways between them.
"I definitely can learn a lot from her, more on the street courses right now because I think I can contribute a lot more to her oval experience," Kanaan said. "But we're exchanging information every day. Her feedback is remarkable. It's a learning process for both of us to understand the way we like cars and how we can migrate from one car to the other."
De Silvestro admits to having overcome some anxiety at Indianapolis last year that resulted from her 2011 crash.
"It was frustrating for me last year, but maybe it was a good thing for me," she explained. "After I crashed in 2011, it was kind of a weird place to come back. I was pretty skeptical about the oval stuff. You know when you take a big hit like that, it takes a little bit of time to get the confidence back in yourself and the equipment around you. Maybe last year actually really helped me from not having any pressure, just going through what I had to do and get comfortable out there.
"I think that's really helping me this year because when I got this car, I felt confident with what I learned last year and that's been kind of rewarding to myself."
De Silvestro doesn't like setting targets for finishing positions, but she believes a top five is possible.
"Tony has been running really strong here every year and I think our cars are definitely capable of that," she said. "To me, it's always been hard to put a result you're kind of aiming for because I think it puts extra pressure on you. I'm more the type who lets the race come to us and if we do everything right, it's definitely possible."
A top-five by De Silvestro would bring back the Patrick comparisons and lift her profile significantly, the same way it did for Patrick in 2005. There is more to be gained in the Indy 500 than any other race in the world. De Silvestro can get there with KV Racing Technology. She's worth watching.