Simona de Silvestro gave a strong accounting for herself in today’s IZOD IndyCar 2013 series opener at St. Petersburg, Florida, starting third and finishing sixth in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It was a hard-earned podium position, with her avoiding trouble throughout the race and, until a last lap slight bobble after several laps of being hounded by Marco Andretti plus fighting an ill-handling car from excessive tire pressure, headed toward a podium finish. The race was her first with KV Racing, which she joined this past off-season after three years with HVM Racing.
Based on statistics alone, thus far de Silvestro has not had much of an IndyCar career, with no wins, podium appearances, or poles and one top five finish in 46 races prior to today. Statistics alone, however, do not tell the entire story. HVM Racing was an chronically underfunded team that last year suffered the additional misfortune of selecting Lotus engines for its car. Despite Lotus’ legendary name in auto racing, its brief foray into IndyCar last year was an unmitigated disaster as the company was incapable of producing an engine with sufficient power to so much as make minimum speed at several tracks, let alone compete. KV Racing, a significantly better financed entity boasting former IndyCar champion Tony Kaanan and Chevrolet power, has no such impediments for a driver’s success.
De Silvestro’s public persona stands in sharp contrast to Danica Patrick, who until leaving IndyCar for NASCAR in 2012 was the league’s focal point on and off the track. De Silvestro has never done a cheesecake photo spread, nor is she working with a flashy sponsor such as Patrick with GoDaddy. Instead, de Silvestro comes across as almost reticent albeit polite. Her nonthreatening attractiveness should easily earn her a large contingent of young female fans as well as crush-struck young men, but to date her near invisibility on the track has been a strong impediment. Should she start returning the anticipated on-track results, this will swiftly change.
Certainly everyone involved at any level with IndyCar hopes this is the case. The series is suffering, with sponsors vanishing for even such fan favorites as Kaanan, whose main sponsor GEICO pulled out a few weeks ago with no notice. The television ratings are miserable, race attendance is minimal and aside from the Indianapolis 500 the sport has virtually zero visibility in sports news regardless of the medium. Reasons range from infighting among the league’s leaders to lingering damage from the lengthy IRL/Champ Car split, Patrick’s departure and the death of wildly popular 2011 Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon during that season’s final race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. IndyCar desperately needs a marketable star in addition to the ebullient Helio Castroneves. De Silvestro perfectly fits the bill.
The question is does de Silvestro want to be marketed? She is strongly devoted to racing for racing’s sake, and while she does do the occasional public appearance outside of event-centered ones is clearly far less self-aggrandizing than Patrick. In addition to accomplishing race results that speak for themselves, to take things to the level needed for general public notice de Silvestro will have to speak for herself in a manner that no indication exists for her either having extensively done so before or being overly comfortable doing. However, the return to prominence of the sport to which she is devoted may well depend on her becoming its public face regardless of whether she cares for the role.