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just a racing driver

The Cult: Simona de Silvestro

Simona de Silvestro is one of the toughest athletes going. Gender doesn't even come into it.

by Jim Weeks
10 November 2015, 1:45pm

Illustration by Dan Evans

This article is part our Cult series. You can (and should) read the lot here.

Cult Grade: Just a Racing Driver

In some ways, motor racing is a sport where gender equality truly exists. After all, men and women compete against each other in the same series as equals, something that does not happen in football, tennis or rugby.

But despite this, it remains very much a boys' club. For so long as the top three finishers in a Formula One race walk down a corridor of clapping women, and scantily-clad girls are paid to stand next to cars holding umbrellas, it will always be a boys' club.

Of course, there are plenty of women throughout the sport who seek to challenge this perception and achieve success through their abilities alone. I'm thinking of Monisha Kaltenborn, the Sauber F1 team principal, former rallying star Michele Mouton, and 2001 Paris-Dakar winner Jutta Kleinschmidt. They have all succeeded on equal footing with men and on occasion spoken insightfully about the place of women in their sport.

Some female drivers use their appearance and gender as a way to market themselves. It's almost the done thing nowadays. I have seen press packs for 12-year-old girls still racing in karts who've been heavily made up and dressed in provocative clothing because someone thinks this sells. Who? Their parents?

READ MORE: The Cult - Mika Salo

But despite the overwhelming pressure to conform, I don't think I have ever seen Simona de Silvestro wearing a bikini in a photoshoot, or posing in the pit lane wearing high heels and a short skirt. Her contemporaries do that sort of thing: Danica Patrick, Susie Wolff, and Carmen Jorda all have.

And I'm by no means judging them for that. In motorsport, where money is a more important factor than the ability to do the job, drivers must use everything at their disposal to get ahead of the competition. If what is 'at their disposal' happens to be underneath their race suit, then so be it. It's the system that's fucked, not the women who seek to make it work to their advantage.

Image by John Cote / IndyCar Media

So the point about Simona is not that she occupies some higher moral ground. It is that I can't think of a female driver of the past 20-odd years who has gone as far as she has without using her gender as a selling point. Obviously she is a woman, but this is not aggressively used as a marketing tool. She sells herself on her ability as a racing driver and one of the toughest sportspeople you are ever likely to encounter.

While her contemporaries might claim that they are striking a blow for equality, they tend more towards perpetuating a stereotype of women in motor racing as there primarily for their aesthetic qualities. Simona has taken gender out of the equation. To most, she is not seen as a female racing driver, just a racing driver. And in the boys club of motorsport, that is massive achievement.

Point of Entry: Medium

Her career to date peaked with a four-year spell as a full-time IndyCar driver. Her record hardly leaps out at you: a single podium and just a handful of top-10 finishes from 60-odd starts.

But, as ever, staring at the little coloured boxes on a Wikipedia page tells only part of the story. Simona joined as a 21-year-old rookie in 2010 when she drove for a small, underfunded team and had no teammate. A rookie operating alone is rare – with no experience, you need someone to bounce ideas off. Simona didn't have this support, but still she performed well. It would stay this way for three full years.

The worst was 2012 when she was saddled with a monstrous fuck-up of an engine for the season. After a few races the other teams using the engine ditched it; Simona's team did not and instead trudged on at the back of the field all year. Naturally the results were horrible, but she kept fighting.

READ MORE: The Cult - Will Power

It was when she finally got a veteran teammate at a new team in 2013 that her results improved and the first podium (second on the streets of Houston) arrived. Then she made a big call: feeling she'd hit something of a ceiling, Simona became an "affiliated driver" at the Sauber F1 team (headed by the aforementioned Monisha Kaltenborn), hoping to land a full-time F1 seat in 2015. The term "affiliated driver" baffled most – it basically means nothing – and her deal eventually fell apart because of money problems.

She ran three races in IndyCar this year, and one in Formula E. She's now full-time in the latter, looking to make a name for herself in the all-electric single-seater series. She's good enough, and still young at 27. But the Sauber foray cost her a year, and that lost momentum can take some time to recover.

The Moment: Feeling the heat (2010, 2011 and 2015)

Most racing drivers fear fire above all else. In the early years of F1, drivers wore no seatbelts because they believed they were better of being thrown clear of the car in case it caught ablaze. A head injury might be more worrying to a doctor, but in that instance you're out cold; fire is terrifyingly real.

Thankfully, modern safety and technological advances mean it doesn't happen very much any more. But it has happened to Simona – three times. The first came at Texas in 2010, her rookie year, and is still difficult to watch.

The second happened at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2011. This time, she was both on fire and upside down.

Her hands were burnt, but once they were bandaged up Simona was back in the car and managed 44 laps of the race. Imagine trying to drive a racing car with burnt hands; imagine actually doing it. You can't and you couldn't.

And it happened again at Indy last year. By this stage she seems almost dismissive of the flames after hopping from the car.

"It seems like fire follows me," she said afterwards. "Maybe third time's the charm."

These incidents are harrowing enough on a computer screen, knowing that she escaped the fire largely unharmed. So think about what it was like to be there, strapped into a burning tub of carbon fibre as the flames licked at your face and the smell rose into your nostrils. And then, as soon as the medical team allowed it, climbing back into a rebuilt car and getting out there to risk it happening again. Simona de Silvestro is hard as fuck. There are seriously few athletes who have stared down fear the way she has and continues to do.

Final Words on Member 18

"Don't you mean the pussy wagon?"

A rival in the V8 Supercars series, where Simona made a one-off appearance this year, referring to the car she shared with fellow female racer Renee Gracie. But I wouldn't put this one down to the boys' club mentality – some people are just pricks.

Words @Jimmy_Weeks / Illustration @Dan_Draws