(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)
It’s hard to find an website covering the IZOD IndyCar Series over the past two weeks that hasn’t had at least one story on rookie Simona de Silvestro. Following her fiery crash during the Firestone 550k two weeks ago, Simona has found herself the center of attention for reasons she never desired. During the botched extraction by the usually dependable Holmatro Safety Team, Simona suffered burns to her right hard but has refused to openly criticize the safety team. Her calmness and cool under fire has won her the admiration and respect of legions of race fans.
During the lead-up to the Iowa Corn Indy 250, de Silvestro, driver of the #78 Team Stargate World/HVM Racing Dallara/Honda spoke with Planet-IRL about not only the Texas incident but the first half of her rookie campaign in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
P: You came into your ride fairly late in the off-season. Was it a shock to jump into the top open-wheel series so late?
S: It was always our plan. It was just a matter of finding the sponsorship for it. It came together pretty late, but that was really our goal – to be in the top open-wheel series here in America. It is something pretty special. A lot of drivers dream about it and to be part of it is a good accomplishment, for sure.
P: What was the biggest surprise when you showed up in Sao Paulo after so little time in the car?
S: We had only done four days of tests, so for sure, we were a little nervous. The team was new to me. The cars and all the tracks we’re going to were new as well. Going to Brazil and seeing all the other drivers, you know, I’ve been watching them on TV all the time, and it’s pretty exciting to be part of the same field. It was pretty nerve wracking. I think it’s nice to be in this series, and to have accomplished it is pretty cool.
P: Did you know many of the drivers before you started?
S: Not really. Everybody hangs out together because they’ve been in the Series for a couple of years. Being a rookie, you have to do your thing and start chatting with everybody. Everybody’s pretty open though. If I have questions or anything, they always answer me so that has been really nice.
P: You started out with four road courses in a row to get your feet wet a little bit, and then you get to your first oval at Kansas…
S: We knew that my background was road courses. I’d never done any ovals. Kansas was my first ever oval so it was pretty strange, you know? It was weird to go into that weekend, because on the road courses, I know what I’m supposed to do and on the oval, I had no idea what to expect. I really enjoyed it. My goal on the first one was just to finish it and to learn from it, and we did that. And then came Indianapolis, which is the biggest race. We qualified pretty well, and the race went very well for us. I’m really starting to get comfortable on the ovals, and I’m really enjoying them actually.
P: You said when you were at Kansas that you didn’t believe the team when they said you were still lifting. The first time you finally went flat out, was it one of those times when you just make up your mind to say, “Come out of this corner or not, I’m NOT lifting!”
S: It is. It’s weird. I think it’s just your foot’s nature to actually lift off the pedal because there’s NO way you’re going to go flat out. It’s just weird because you’re used to it on the road courses. There you have fast corners but here you have a wall and the banking. The team is saying, “You need to go flat out,” and you say back, “No, there’s no way!” It takes a couple laps before you do it one time, and then it takes another five laps to do it again. But you get used to the speed, for sure.
P: So the green flag drops, you start the race and all of sudden, you have cars left, right, in front of you, behind you. If you lift, you’ll get reared ended. You’re being sucked towards other cars. What was that first race experience like at Kansas?
S: It was pretty insane. We started in the middle of the field, and I pretty much entered turn 1, opened the parachute, and pretty much everyone passed me. It was funny because all of the rookies were together in the back then. You know, it took a couple of laps to see how the car could run, and then after 40 laps, I started getting the hang of it. We were running pretty quick lap times, but we had lost a bit of momentum. I was just trying to get my first pass down and then suddenly the light bulb goes on in your head. It’s just kind of a learning process. You have to be pretty open on the ovals and let them come to you.
P: Are they more difficult than you thought they would be?
S: Yes. A couple years ago, I was watching IndyCar and I thought, “This is easy. It’s just flat out.” No, it’s not! It is really difficult. In the races, you lose a lot of downforce and all that. They’re pretty difficult, the ovals, but it’s really enjoyable. If you have a good car and you’re really going to the front, it’s really a blast.
P: Kansas was that your first time ever turning laps in an IndyCar on an oval?
S: Yes, it was. It was all kind of thrown at me at the same time. It was pretty special but I think that’s the best way to learn it. Just get your feet wet and jump into it.
P: Then we come to Indianapolis. You’ve probably heard about it for years, and people this year have probably been telling you to just wait until you actually experience it. What were those first few days like when you finally got onto the track?
S: It’s just insane! The track has so much history and to be part of it and to be practicing there with all these drivers was pretty cool. Every morning I woke up and walked out to pit lane and thought, “This is pretty sweet!!”
P: Did it seem like a ghost town with not many people around? Did you think often what it was going to look like on race day with 300,000 people there?
S: No, it was actually ok. There were a couple people there most days, but for sure everybody was telling me about Carb Day and Race Day being insane. It is true. I went out there on race day, and the whole place changed. It was super colorful in the stands and you could actually hear the people screaming. It was really special.
P: Did you follow the Indianapolis 500 much when you were growing up?
S: Growing up in Europe, Formula 1 is always the thing but everybody knows what The 500 is. I’ve watched it, and just to be part of it, only 33 drivers got to qualify, is really a special feeling. I think we did a great job, and I can’t wait to get back there.
P: In the race, did you actually get to enjoy it while you were driving or are you too focused on, “Wow, that wall is really close,” and “Let’s just finish this race?”
S: It’s funny. You have the parade laps when you can soak it in a little bit because you can still look around and see everyone. Then when the green flag drops, you get pretty focused. But, the race is long. So many things happen but you enjoy it because you get to be part of the 500. Mistakes are easy to make, and you’re trying not to make any, but it’s just a blast. When you’re out there, though, you’re pretty focused.
P: For your great race at Indianapolis, you were voted “Rookie of the Year.” What did that mean to you?
S: You can only win Rookie of the Year once, and that I got it is pretty unbelievable. I think we at HVM did a great job during the whole two weeks. There are so many great drivers that won RO,Y and to be part of them, to be on that trophy, is really a special feeling.
P: So that brings us to Texas. I know you don’t want to be known as “The One in the Fiery Crash.” Unfortunately, it has been a big topic, but you’ve been very calm about the whole situation. It had to be a bit scary when you were sitting there and noticed the fire wasn’t going out. What was your reaction as you sat in the cockpit and waited?
S: It was pretty bad. We were having such a good race. We didn’t qualify well at all, but we were really moving up. I think we were running 14th. When I crashed, it happened and I felt really disappointed, because we had been struggling and just waiting to get to the next pit stop. Then I caught fire and the fire kept growing. It was nerve-wracking. It took a long time to get out of the car, but I’m sure we can learn from it. I don’t think it happens too often, that we see fire in IndyCar, which is nice. But, it happened to me and for sure, being on fire is pretty weird. I hope it doesn’t happen to me anymore.
P: Did the Indy Racing League speak with you during the investigation into the incident and discuss what went wrong with the extrication and how to make sure things don’t go wrong next time?
S: I’m sure if you look at the video, you see tons of stuff that we can do better. I think the Series looked at that, and if it happens again, I hope they learned from it and do a better job. For sure the fire extinguisher didn’t work and that didn’t help, but it can happen. I really hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else, because it was pretty scary. We lost a car in it too, so it was a pretty bad weekend for sure.
P: Was the entire car a total loss?
S: We could save some of the left side of it, but pretty much the whole tub was gone. It was pretty hard, because the team put a lot of work into that car. If the fire would have been extinguished a little bit earlier, maybe we could have saved the tub. I feel really bad for my guys, but they put my backup car together and have worked really hard the last two weeks. I think we’re going to have a good show here.
P: When the safety worker arrived at your car, he tried to remove the safety collar but wasn’t able to do so. Can you explain a bit about that collar? Are there pins there that hold that in place?
S: Yes, there are pins. In my case, I was trying to the collar out but the pins were kind of on fire. I got the pins out, but the fire was right there so I just decided to get out with the collar in place. It’s a little bit harder but if you twist, you can still get out pretty easily. It was difficult trying to figure out whether I should take it off or not with the flames right there. It usually comes out pretty quickly, but this was a rare case with the flames right there. It was pretty hard to get out.
P: So you were able to get the pins out that hold the collar in place, but you just couldn’t get the collar unwedged?
S: Exactly. It wouldn’t unwedge itself.
P: Were there any other impediments in the cockpit that were trapping your feet in? Suspension or other pieces?
S: No. They were just pulling me to the side so my feet were stuck down in the tub. It gets pretty tight down there so we were struggling a little bit with that. I think it happens though, and we’re just going to learn from it.
P: Let’s move forward to this week. Is Iowa the shortest track you’ve ever raced on?
S: Yes, it is. You know, everybody was telling me it was REALLY small so I was thinking really, REALLY small. When I got here though, it was ok. All the ovals are pretty new so I’ll take it like every other oval and just learn from it. I’ll go out and just experience it. It looks pretty cool though! The races the last couple of years have been pretty exciting, and I’m sure we’re going to put on another good show.
P: What is your procedure for learning these tracks that you’ve never been to?
S: I’ve always picked up tracks pretty easily. On the ovals, you just have to get the feel for the car and then start working on it. You look at a lot of video beforehand, but for me, it’s always been best just to feel it out the first couple of laps and get a good picture of how the car feels. Then you can move on from there.
Special thanks to HMV Racing PR Representative David Martinez for arranging this interview on short notice.