Has Simona Gotten Spooked?

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One of those nasty little whispers going around the blogosphere is speculation that Simona de Silvestro has gotten spooked. Many readers here and countless other places have wondered aloud if her frightening crash at Indianapolis has gotten to her. It’s a fair point, given her recent body language and some of her comments.

Last month, for the second time in less than a year, Simona found herself trapped inside of a burning racecar. This time the car was upside down with burning fuel pouring all around her. A month later, her hands are still not healed from the burns they suffered in the incident. It was enough to convince many drivers to never climb into a racecar again – ever.

But as she did after her fiery crash at Texas last year, she somehow managed to put it all behind her. Just a couple of days later, she climbed into her old, heavy backup car that is affectionately known as “Pork Chop” and put it into the Indianapolis 500. Still, she made some comments about wondering if she really wanted to get back into the car. Although they were completely understandable, given the severity of the crash – they still raised a few eyebrows and started people wondering.

Her race at Indianapolis never got going. She brushed the wall in the first few laps and seemed to pit almost every other lap. She and her HVM crew finally called it a day after forty-four laps and settled for a thirty-first place finish. Her interview on ABC showed a rightfully frustrated driver who also looked a little relieved to be off the track.

At Texas, she said all the right things about being glad to be back in the car. But there was something missing in her voice. After being trapped in a burning car at Texas a year ago, she seemed unflappable as she continued to smile throughout her interview and act as if it were no big deal. That night was probably when her popularity soared. She had just been trapped inside a burning car, where the safety crew had difficulty getting her out as the flames grew – yet she treated it like it was nothing more than an annoying hangnail. After watching drivers put themselves on pedestals while blaming their crew for their poor results, Simona de Silvestro was a refreshing change.

Fast-forward to Texas this year, and her demeanor was different. Her spirit seemed dampened and justifiably so. Simona and “Pork Chop” were not a factor at the Texas Twins – finishing twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh respectively. Her crew was overheard telling her to just take care of the car and don’t put it in harms way. Speculation grew that HVM had decided to soldier on through the rest of the season with the 2003 Dallara, rather than buy a newer, lighter version that would be obsolete after October.

From a financial point of view, you can’t blame the struggling team. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to buy a new Dallara for about ten races, and then have to turn around and buy a new chassis for 2012. But try explaining that rationale to a promising racer that had her sights set on a good season.

When the IZOD IndyCar Series arrived in Milwaukee last weekend, Simona de Silvestro and her HVM Racing team were slow. On Friday, she was only twenty-first quickest. On Saturday, things got worse. On her qualifying run, Simona spun in Turn Four, hit the outside wall and then hit the inside retaining wall with no SAFER barrier. To say she was banged up is an understatement. She was removed from the car, placed on a stretcher and was transported to a local hospital where she remained until late Saturday night. Her crew rebuilt the overweight “Pork Chop” without knowing if their driver would even be out of the hospital on Sunday.

Simona did make it to the track on Sunday and did race. But the team made the decision to park the car after only eleven laps. When she climbed out of her car and pulled the sock from her head, her face and body language said it all. This was not the same driver that had shown so much promise a few months ago, when she opened the season with a fourth in St. Petersburg and followed that with a ninth at Barber. Her best finish since then has been two twentieth place finishes at Long Beach and Brazil. This has quickly turned into a nightmarish season for Simona, and it was plainly written all over her face as she sat on the pit wall Sunday.

Her comments afterwards were a little telling, as well. She thought she felt fine on Sunday until it was time to race. Later she explained: "Throughout the day, I thought I was ready to get out there, but it only took a lap or two to realize that I wasn’t.”

So is Simone de Silvestro spooked? Personally, I don’t think so. I think she is physically beaten up. She reportedly broke a rib in Saturday’s crash, required six stitches in her knee and had an extremely sore back. This was on top of the burned hands, which still have not healed. It would be very easy to come out of the hospital and say “We’ll see you in Iowa”, but she gave her best effort, but finally realized the pain was too much to overcome.

My own personal opinion is just that – an opinion. I have nothing to base this on and I could be dead wrong. But I think that Simona has reached a point of frustration with her team. By choosing to stick with the old car, it sends a message that they have already written off the 2011 season, which is not even to the halfway point. She is expected to give her best to drive over the edge and risk even further injury to an already aching body, yet they are not doing all they can do to put her in the best position possible. If I were in her shoes, I would be asking myself why I should be expected to put my life at risk, when the team won’t put their balance sheet at risk?

You can analyze all the bad body language and questionable comments, but what is most telling to me is that the team tells her that her top goal in a race is to take care of the car. That says they are not committed to try and win, they are only committed to showing up at the next race.

There have been some drivers in the past that probably would be OK with that philosophy – but not Simona de Silvestro. She has a proven history of winning. She drove for three years in Atlantics, winning races in her last two seasons and finished third in the overall championship her final season. Before that, she won in Formula BMW and finished fourth in the 2006 championship. She is a gritty driver who has shown talent that outruns her equipment.

So, no – I don’t think Simona has been spooked at all. I think she is growing tired of getting her body banged up in an old, slow car that has no shot at winning. I think she now realizes that her talents are more suited for a team higher up the food chain. I don’t think she is ready for Team Penske, as some fans have suggested – but I think her talents could be a good fit for a team like KV Racing Technology – Lotus or Andretti Autosport, if either team were to have a shakeup in their driver line-up for 2012.

Again, this is just one observer’s opinion. I’m sure someone will correct me in short order if I am way off base. In the meantime, it looks as if we are going to spend the rest of the summer watching an aching Simona continue to struggle in a car that simply can’t get up to speed. I only hope that she’s able to keep it off the walls and can make it through the remainder of the season with her body and mental psyche intact.

George Phillips

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29 Responses to “Has Simona Gotten Spooked?”

  1. Travis R Says:

    I agree, George – I don’t think she’s spooked, but the physical pain and the lack of any hope for the rest of the year are weighing on her. I don’t think it helped that she lost a great crew chief in Michael Cannon just days before the season opener, either – that certainly wasn’t a good way to start the season.

  2. I don’t see how anyone can think she’d be going to Penske, she obviously isn’t ready for the ovals, and she was just as guilty as HCN bouncing off cars during that race at St Pete you all point to as her coming out party.

  3. Simona is my favorite driver. And she’s been thru some bad stuff. How many drivers these days EVER deal with fire in a crash, let alone twice in two seasons? She has shown toughness and talent and aggressiveness and grit–all the while maintaining a good attitude and sense of humor.

    But I am concerned she’s lost her spark–her desire to compete on the ovals. I’m concerned that she’s now intimidated by ovals and because of that–I’m concerned about her future with Indycar. I really hope I’m wrong.

    And if the Nuke people are such good sponsors they should go get her a new tub–there must be plenty of them lying around unused at this pont.

  4. She’s too tough and focused to be permanently spooked. The crash at Indy was clearly not her fault and has left her physically scarred for life (at least her right hand, if what I have heard is correct.) Any driver with a lick of sense would be questioning the value of getting into a less-than-competitive ride on high-speed ovals…especially when one has suffered injuries due to equipment failure. Also keep in mind that she comes from Europe, where even top-notch talent considers oval racing excessively dangerous.

  5. The Lapper Says:

    Well, if she isn’t spooked then I don’t know what you would call it. You can practically feel the thick arua around her.

  6. Simona Fan Says:

    Thank you for writing this, George. To me, this story is the most compelling in Indycar, moreso than the points lead or Danica going to NASCAR. The story of a once promising racer getting beat-up and having to run back-up equipment in the back of the pack, whilst simultaneously facing her growing fears of oval racing and recovering from injuries is where the real drama is. It’s a dark time for Simona.

    Simona said something during Indy that should concern all of her fans. She said something along the lines of “I thought to myself. ‘I don’t need this. I don’t want to race ovals anymore’. But I got back into the car because I saw how hard the crew worked to get the back-up ready.” If racing is about passion, then Simona never stood a chance in Indy. Or Texas. Or Milwaukee.

    I love Simona, but the best thing for her might be to skip Iowa and rest up. The crew can do some better work on her beat up Pork Chop and she can get mentally in the game for the road courses. If the team just wants her to “take care of the equipment” then she doesn’t need to be out there racing.

    The situation with HVM makes me wonder just how many cars really are just laying around. Surely they would have tried to lease one if there was one available. I’m starting to wonder if this surplus is going to turn into a shortage by the time we get to Las Vegas. Will there really be cars available for these five guest racers?

  7. I wouldn’t call her “spooked.” I read her comments after Milwaukee as she didn’t feel physically up to it. Like a basketball player with a blown hammy … you need know when to sit out. I give Simona mad props for her honesty, because she hasn’t said anything that other drivers haven’t thought. When you are upside down and on fire, literally, a “is this really worth it?” or two is bound to go through your mind. Kudos to her for just putting it out there, publicly. Refreshing. As for the pig car situation, I know we all love Simona, myself included, but driving a pig it part of the process for most drivers. Everyone always seems to think that a beloved driver who shows well in a few races totally deserves a seat at Ganassi. I don’t think we should expect Simona to leapfrog a lot of other seriously talented drivers just because we love her personality. Absolutely she has skill, and the hardware to back it up, but getting the most out of bad car is part of her maturation process, IMO. She needs to take care of business with her current employer, do her best, show her skills, etc. Just like any other job. This year is an audition for next year. Patience. Pork Chop won’t be such a pig when we get back to the road courses. Plus we’re all putting HUGE pressure on her with attention and expectations, etc. etc. That has to be an ENORMOUS weight on Simona. She should talk to Sarah Fisher or even Danica about how to handle the gigantic expectations right out of the chute. Mostly we should all chill. She’s doing fine.

    • H.B. Donnelly Says:

      Actually, now that you mention Ganassi, that novo nordisk car seems to be getting a lot of air time as “the car in the way of the leaders” this year. (okay, maybe just lap 200 at Indy and every restart at Milwaukee, but I feel like I’ve been seeing a lot of orange and green lately) I think “The #83 Entergy Chip Ganassi Racing car” has a decent ring to it…

    • Not sure I understand what you mean by “we should all chill.” I didn’t realize I was “not chill.” Do you mean we should not discuss Simona’s situation? Or be concerned about her state of mind or future in Indycar? I agree with what you say P-Dog, other than not getting that part.

      • “Chill” doesn’t mean stop talking or analyzing or whatever. Certainly everyone has their freedom to say whatever. But I do think all the praise and adoration Simona gets creates pressure on her. She doesn’t want to disappoint her fans — part of the reason we love her — so I think fans could help her by chilling a little no “SIMONA IS THE GREATEST EVER!!” talk. That’s kind of been my approach, but I’m only the boss of me.

      • “Chill” doesn’t mean stop talking or analyzing or whatever. Certainly everyone has their freedom to say whatever. But I do think all the praise and adoration Simona gets creates pressure on her. She doesn’t want to disappoint her fans — part of the reason we love her — so I think fans could help her by chilling a little on the “SIMONA IS THE GREATEST EVER!!” talk. That’s kind of been my approach, but I’m only the boss of me.

  8. carburetor Says:

    I would have to agree with Simona Fan–her comments at Indy left my head shaking. I think she was being brutally honest about wondering if she really wanted to continue racing. I was quite surprised given her remarkable courage exhibited at Texas last year in view of the highly questionable rescue service she received at that incident. As these crashes mount up, it could easily drive her out of the sport or series. I would also agree with the comment about her losing her chief engineer before the start of the season–a very demoralizing event for sure. You can already see the difference that sort of change makes in Alex Tagliani’s fade to black the past couple of races…..

    I for one, hope she bounces back–I think she would be great at increasing the sport’s popularity with new fans.

  9. Ron Ford Says:

    Pressdog nailed it.

  10. I think Simona will be fine. As long as she can get back into the top ten on the road courses and street courses everything will go back to normal.

  11. Ron Ford also nailed it.

    Love Simona, hate the situation she’s in, but what doesn’t kill you…

    I have a gut feeling this is the type of season that prepares an athlete for much bigger and better things. I just hope we’re all able to see them in Indycar.

  12. Maybe she just isn’t good at ovals yet and the old car compounds it. Iowa this week, then back to turning right.

  13. Savage Henry Says:

    I hope she is able to get it back together. I think that she just needs to see a little bit of success – a top-10 or two might do it. I agree that going back to the twisties might be just what the doctor ordered.

    She’s got a lot of reasons to lose confidence in her car, her team, and herself. It’s gotta be hard to to be known more for your crashes and injuries than for your on-track performance. She’s also probably getting tired of being in pain. She’s used to running up front and winning. I hope that gutting it out through this year and maybe getting some decent finishes out of Pork Chop will pave the way to a better ride next year.

    On the ovals, she’s probably smart not to try to overdrive an uncompetitive car. Just keep it out of trouble and in one piece for now.

  14. I’m just thinking that if somebody were to take a baseball bat to my ribs and back and send me to the hospital this Friday, then somebody said, “OK, Saturday morning! Time to drive 2 1/2 hours to Newton to watch an IndyCar race!”, I wouldn’t be feeling all that up to it, even at 70 MPH, with zero G-forces and no walls waiting an inch off the side of the road. Now, sub me out of the story for Simona, but add in those G-forces, double the speed, and add in some walls (which were the baseball bat in my version of the story, just the day before), and how would ANYBODY react? Sim’s NOT supposed to be at least a little relieved to get to park the car after 11 laps?

    Things aren’t going great for her anymore, and 2011’s basically a zero sum game for her (best case in any race in that slug of a car is a 9th or 10th place; worst case is her 3rd trip to the hospital), so I wouldn’t be shocked to see her down in the 20s at most of the ovals and in the high teens on the road courses, while she heals and preps for a better 2012. She’ll be back.

  15. Ron Ford Says:

    I think once she has a couple of those pork chops on a stick that she likes she will be just fine

  16. HB Donnelly Says:

    HVM Confirmed she suffered a concussion in the Saturday wreck. Given that introducing high g-loads to your brain probably isn’t the most ideal form of treatment for a concussion (not to mention the rest of the things that are wrong with her physically right now), she gets a free pass on pitting the car. The fact that she got out of bed on Sunday morning makes her tougher than anyone on this forum, I guarantee.

    • Simona Fan Says:

      Well said, HB. Anyone else wonder why she was cleared to drive on Sunday when she had a concussion? We (fans) weren’t even aware she’d bumped her head until her tweet following the race.

      I’m all for letting athletes compete, but if she would have wrecked and gotten concussed again, it could have ended her racing career. Let the woman recover so she has a shot next year with the new car, for goodness sakes.

      • Savage Henry Says:

        I was under the impression that Indycar implemented a rule mandating that drivers had to be out of the cockpit for a minimum of a week after a concussion. I guess not. But who knows with the way that Indycar enforces its rules?

  17. George, I think you are right on with this well-written column. I am already very disappointed at the obvious decision the team has made to finish the season in a car which has the sole usefulness as a moving billboard for the sponsors; and if Simona is feeling the sort of frustrations you’re suggesting, I think she’s completely justified. If I myself were in her shoes, you can believe that I would be feeling a lot more than frustration. I understand the economics of the situation; but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If team owners are not willing or able to go all out with the effort and the resources to do what it takes to be competitive — even if it means losing money, then they shouldn’t be in the game in the first place.

  18. I too thought her Indy comments were alarming, but while she is pretty inexperienced on ovals, she’s equally inexperienced at being a star. I believe the Indy comments were more a result of her personality, honesty, and lack of a “media filter” from not being used to being treated like a star. She didn’t say anything any driver in her shoes wouldn’t think. She has burned hands, a concussion, a broken rib, stitches, sore knees and back, a dog (pig) of a backup car, and has lost her star engineer. Now we are questioning whether she is “spooked”? Take any top driver, put them in her shoes, and as long as the championship wasn’t on the line, they would be lucky to even turn the few laps she did last weekend. At least some of this scrutiny is a result of her being female. She was honest with her “feelings” at Indy and now after a thorough but-kicking, we are questioning her toughness. If this was Viso, Savaadra, or Meira, or Lloyd, the media would have never even been there record their feelings and no one would have questioned their toughness, even if they didn’t even attempt to start at Milwaukee – or Indy! Anyway, go Simona!

  19. oops, meant butt

  20. There is a lot of writing about Simona’s old, heavy, car. Dan Wheldon won the Indy 500 in the seventh of the current Dallaras ever built.

  21. Helo! I´m brazilian girl _o/
    INDY 300 SP in Brazil is the favorite circuit of Simona Silvestro. This year she was the fastest rider of the race, taking a special award for it. If there were no accidents in the first round, caused by Danica Patrick, Simono would have a chance to podium.

    É muita sacanagem a equipe dar um Dallara 2003 pra ela correr. Não valoriza a piloto e todo o potencial comercial que a Simona tem. Espero que ela consiga correr por uma equipe séria e que invista na Indy visando o campeonato.

    (It is very slutty to give the team a Dallara for her 2003 run. Does not value the pilot and all the commercial potential that is Simona. I hope she can run for a serious team and seeking to invest in the Indy league.)

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