After a car crash left her on fire, upside down and soaked in fuel, Simona de Silvestro says she’s ready to race in Sunday’s Indy 500, third-degree burns and all.
The 22-year-old Swiss with HVM Racing spoke to swissinfo.ch from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where she is one of four women to race in the 100th anniversary of the world-class event.
The 500-mile-long contest – where 33 drivers compete at speeds close to 230mph (370 km/h) – is nothing new to de Silvestro, the most decorated female driver in the history of the Atlantic series of open-wheel racing. Last year the Swiss was named Rookie of the Year during her first Indy 500, in which she finished 14th. In 2009 she had no fewer than nine podium finishes.
But things quickly went wrong during this year’s Indy practice rounds. Coming into a corner on May 19, de Silvestro lost control after the rear suspension failed, sending her #78 Nuclear Clean Air Energy car airborne and into a catch fence before grinding to a fiery halt.
“It got pretty hot in there,” said de Silvestro, who was quickly freed from the wreckage, whisked to hospital and considers herself lucky to have walked away.
Despite second- and third-degree burns to her hands, two days later the Thun-born racer grabbed the wheel of “Pork Chop”, an older, heavier backup car, and clocked an average speed of 224.392 mph. It was enough to put her back in the race.
swissinfo.ch: When you see the replay of your crash (see link), it’s hard to believe someone could survive that. When did you realise you were in trouble?
Simona de Silvestro: During the whole thing. You know the cars are pretty safe but I was really lucky to come out with only burned hands. It could have been a lot worse. The car is really torn up and I was really lucky to survive this. It was definitely a horrific crash.
swissinfo.ch: You were lying there upside down on fire in a puddle of fuel.
S.D.S.: Yes, exactly. It was pretty tough, but it happens. Usually fires don’t happen that often and I was unlucky that it happened to me. A part of the rear suspension broke and launched me up into the wall. Everything that followed was pretty unlucky but we can learn from it. It really shows that our racecars are pretty safe.
swissinfo.ch: How are your hands now? How are you even able to grip the wheel?
S.D.S.: They hurt quite a bit. I have second and third-degree burns on the backs of my hands. I can move them. It just hurts quite a bit. We’ll see how it goes.
swissinfo.ch: This is one of the Triple Crown events in motorsport and the pressure must be enormous. And then to have your confidence shattered just days before the green flag. How are you holding it together?
S.D.S.: My confidence is a definitely a little bit lower than when we started the week but I was lucky enough to be able to get back into the car. It was important for me, for my head, to do that and drive. I think that was the most important decision I have taken in my life. I think during the race it is going to be important to get comfortable with the car, make some passes, just to build my confidence back up.
swissinfo.ch: The team had considered replacing you after the crash. How did you convince them not to?
S.D.S.: My team and sponsor were behind me and said they would support whatever decision I took. I am lucky to have people like that surrounding me because they didn’t put any pressure on me. On Friday night after the crash I was thinking I should try to get back into the car to see how it feels. They gave me the opportunity to do that.
swissinfo.ch: How did it feel?
S.D.S.: At first it was a little bit scary standing outside of the racecar but once you get in you know what you are doing and it feels like home. I’m built to be a racecar driver.
swissinfo.ch: Growing up in Switzerland probably wasn’t the best place for an aspiring racecar driver, though, was it?
S.D.S.: It’s pretty tough coming from Switzerland because racing is banned. So I was lucky enough to have my family and people in Switzerland help me throughout my career. I wish we had a racetrack. It would be really cool for a lot of the young guns that are coming up in racing.
swissinfo.ch: What do you think it will take to win on Sunday?
S.D.S.: I think everyone has a shot to win. The biggest thing here is even making the field. The race is so long and so many things can happen. The important thing is to be there in the last 20 laps. If you are there then I think you have a shot at it.
Simona de Silvestro
Simona de Silvestro was born in Thun but raised in Mont-sur-Rolle, a village near Geneva.
She learned to race in Europe, where she won second place in 2002 and 2003 in the Trofeo Industria Parma.
In 2006 after several solid performances in Monaco, France and Italy, de Silvestro moved to the United States to race.
In 2008 she earned eight top-ten finishes. In 2009 she won four races, earned four pole positions and stood on the podium nine times in all, finishing the season in third place.end of infobox
The Indianapolis 500-Mile Race takes place during the last weekend of May in Speedway, Indiana.
It, along with the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, is considered the three biggest contests in long-distance motor sports. The track consists of one 2.5-mile-long (c.4km) oval around which 33 racers do 200 laps.
About 400,000 people can watch the event live. The winner walks away with $3 million (SFr2.6 million).end of infobox
Women of the 500
Women were banned from the Indy 500 during the first years of the race in the early 1900s.
In 1977 American Janet Guthrie became the first to race the Indy 500. Since then, eight women drivers in all have qualified for the race.
This year, the 100th anniversary, four women are competing, including Danica Patrick (USA), Bea Beatriz (Brazil), Simona de Silvestro (Switzerland) and Pippa Mann (Britain).end of infobox