ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The image of Simona de Silvestro smiling a smile as wide as the Alps in her native Switzerland after her fourth place finish in the IZOD IndyCar Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is remarkable in of itself.
That she got to that point in her very young motor racing career is even more remarkable.
To fully understand the 22-year-old de Silvestro’s achievement it must be noted that since 1955 — when a horrendous car crash during the running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans killed 80 spectators and driver Pierre Levegh — motor racing of any kind has been banned in Switzerland.
No Go-kart tracks, no ovals, no road courses, nothing.
Yet somehow, a teenage de Silvestro yearned to go fast, and convinced her family she should go to Italy to try it out.
Well, for the record, the trip was worth it.
“Luckily, Switzerland is pretty small, so you can get to France and Italy pretty quickly, so I think that’s how it started with me,” she said. “Racing is what I always wanted to do.”
Since then de Silvestro has rocketed through the ranks of open wheel racing but has somehow managed to avoid the media glare that another female driver — Danica Patrick — finds herself a part of every single day.
Two seasons ago de Silvestro won an Atlantic series race at the Grand Prix of Trois-Rivières and caused barely a ripple and just last season started almost last (21st) at the Honda Indy of Toronto and fought her way to ninth and in Edmonton she qualified in the Top 10.
So it’s not like she just invented herself at St. Petersburg.
Her performance there, however, under the microscope that a live ABC and TSN television audience produces, will guarantee her all the attention she ever wished for as this IndyCar season moves forward.
De Silvestro almost didn’t make it to the 2011 season after sponsorship dried up following her rookie campaign in the No. 78 Keith Wiggins HVM Racing team Dallara Honda.
“Last year, we struggled toward the end to try to put sponsorship together,” she said.
On Sunday all of that was in her rear view mirror, however, as she brawled her way from her 17th starting spot to as high as second before settling for fourth place after a pitched battle with veteran Tony Kanaan for third.
De Silvestro, in the media interview room after the race, bubbled over trying to explain the events of her best day in big-time open wheel racing.
“I was running fourth and didn’t want to try anything crazy but I tried at the end to try to get third place but I wasn’t quite there,” she said. “Tony was struggling at the end quite a bit and I was really pushing.
“It was a lot of fun because on the street courses as a driver you can really push yourself and find the limit. The double-file restart gives you an opportunity to pass and it made it quite a spectacle.
“I got into Will Power a little bit earlier in the race trying to avoid him but he finished second so it didn’t hurt.
“It’s the first time really competing like that against Tony Kanaan. It’s pretty crazy for me because I’ve been watching him since I was growing up and to be right there racing him now is pretty cool.”
Pretty cool indeed, but de Silvestro showed on Sunday that she will be a force this season in IndyCar and the betting is she can win, even on a tiny one-car outfit like HVM.
Heck, she started the race with a new engineer after her pit boss — Michael Cannon — quit at the start of last week to go work for — irony of ironies — Tony Kanaan.
“But you know the team did an awesome job and my new engineer too,” de Silvestro said. “We’ve been working together only since Friday and to finish fourth — my best result — is something pretty unbelievable.”
What is believable is that de Silvestro will no longer have the luxury of roaming through the IndyCar paddock pretty much anonymously.
On Sunday even Kanaan wasn’t sure who she was.
“I said, ‘Who is this behind me?’ I’m like, ‘Who is the 78 car?’”
Now he knows and so do race fans.