STORIES Timekeepers: Simona De Silvestro, Formula E Driver

This Wheel’s On Fire: Meet the Unstoppable Simona de Silvestro

7 min

In this series of interviews, we are meeting people for whom time really is of the essence. Our guests are real-life examples of how critical a millisecond can be. And it doesn’t hurt that they have some truly fascinating things to say on the subject… from entrepreneurs to some of the world’s best athletes, via time-walking wonders of all stripes (many of whom might as well be part-time philosophers), to discover how the best of the best keep, bend, or travel through time as we know it.

Join us for a very special conversation with TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E reserve team driver Simona de Silvestro; we discuss discovering a need for speed at the tender age of four, throwing off patronising nicknames, getting ‘back on the horse’, and becoming a hardcore badass with nerves of steel – who qualified for an Indy 500 with both hands badly burned from a crash. And that’s before we even get to the fact she’s the first female driver to score points in Formula E…

TH Let’s begin at the beginning: what would you say your earliest memories of racing – or even driving – are? When did you ‘catch the bug’? 


Simona de Silvestro  I think the first memory I have was when my dad took me go-karting when I was four. I was too small to reach the pedals, so I turned the wheel and he did the pedals. I think that’s really when I fell in love with driving – after that I started asking my parents about getting a go-kart quite a lot! And I was so bummed that I couldn’t drive by myself that day. I had watched a lot of Formula One on TV with my dad, but there was nothing else like that first time I got the feeling of holding a wheel…


TH And how old were you when you could first reach the pedals – when you were actually driving on your own? 


Simona de Silvestro After that first day, I bugged my dad enough that eventually he said OK, when you’ve grown a bit, we might get you a go-kart. So every month I’d tell him I’d grown – I had a chart on the wall to keep track, and I kept showing him how much taller I was. And when I was about six and a half, he took me to a go-kart shop, and there was this blue go cart waiting for me. 


TH So you were driving really young! 


Simona de Silvestro Yeah! I mean, I was playing lots of different sports, but when I drove the first time, I enjoyed it so much – every Wednesday afternoon or weekend we would go to the go-kart track. I was playing tennis, soccer, other sports as well, but I always kind of felt driving was what I loved the most. And when I was about 12 or 13 my parents asked me what sport I wanted to continue. And it was a no-brainer to choose racing!

TH Were you competing in those other sports as well? Were you quite a competitive person? 


Simona de Silvestro: Yeah, definitely, I was. Especially in tennis, that was something I really enjoyed as well – just not as much as driving, not as much as go-karts! 


TH: And do you think it was around that time, around 13, when it stopped being a hobby and became something that you were interested in pursuing as a career? Or did that ambition come later? 


TH  Yeah, it came pretty early – I just kind of knew that’s what I really wanted to do.  I remember thinking about racing all the time in school. I was really lucky that my parents let me do it – they’d take me to the Go-Kart tracks, and most of our vacations involved racetracks or something like that! So when I made the decision to get a bit more serious about it I was lucky [to have had all that practice], because as you move into the different categories, you need to find sponsorship. And there was a new pressure because you think, ‘OK, this is finally happening!’ And if I did well, maybe it could become something even bigger. I was  only a child, and I think that’s another reason why my parents were able to let me try anything I wanted to do – soccer, tennis, karting, whatever it was, they always let me try it. And they could see that driving was what I loved. I was never the type of girl who played with dolls – I had cars!


TH You quite quickly earned an interesting nickname: The Iron Maiden. It’s an amazing name, but is it an image that you cultivate? Is it annoying, or something that has served you well? 


Simona de Silvestro So my first nickname was actually ‘Swiss Miss’.  I guess it’s an obvious thing for any young Swiss girl, especially in America. And I never really liked it, to be honest. After a while I was like, I really don’t like it! But then at the Indy in 2011, I had a big crash during practice – there was an issue with the suspension. It was a pretty serious crash and I hurt myself quite a bit, and burned my hands badly. But then two days later, I was back on the track and qualified the car. That was when the fans gave me the Iron Maiden nickname. And when I heard that, I thought, OK, this is definitely more me. So, I embraced it – I didn’t even know it was a band as well! It’s not exactly my kind of music, but if I think about who I am, my personality – the name definitely fits me pretty well. 


TH We saw some footage of that crash – it was pretty scary-looking. To be able to get straight back in the car, not to mention qualify for one of the biggest races in the world… that must take some real courage. 


Simona de Silvestro It was definitely the toughest situation I had ever been in, in my life to that point. I mean, I’m a racecar driver, you know it’s dangerous, but, you kind of live with this danger that doesn’t always manifest.  You can think you’re invincible. And then when you do get hurt, there’s a pretty serious reality check. But like they say, you have to get right back on the horse – for me that was really important, to see if I still enjoyed it. Because if I was going to be really scared from then on, maybe it was time to stop. So I went back out there – and don’t get me wrong, it was definitely uncomfortable. But I still had a big smile on my face when I got out of the car, and I knew I had to push through. It definitely made me stronger as a person, going through that.  


TH I guess jockeys and horse-riders would understand that, on a much smaller scale…   


Simona de Silvestro Horses have their own mind, they can do whatever they want, so they freak me out a bit… 


TH Sure, but they can’t explode into a ball of fire! You’ve mentioned before that you let your lap times speak for you, which is fair enough, because they’re quite impressive. But while you’re racing, are you mentally keeping track of time? 


Simona de Silvestro Well, in racing, you’re always fighting time. Time is always your biggest enemy.  But while you’re driving, you’re pretty focussed on what the car is supposed to do, and how it’s supposed to feel. Because really, that’s what’s going to give you the best time. And then when you get out of the car, you always look at the board to see where your times are. Of course, you have a timer in the car as well.  You use it a lot, especially in corners – if you take the corner a bit differently, you can see immediately if it’s better or worse. You’re always trying to find that ideal line. 


TH And in moments when you’re surrounded by other cars on the track – are you someone who tends to compete directly with others? Or do you think of it more as competing with yourself?


Simona de Silvestro Well, that’s an interesting one, because you have this whole qualifying process where it’s really down to you to maximise everything. The whole two days before the race are about qualifying and making the car ideal for you. And then you have to go out and compete – not exactly against yourself, but just to get the best lap time out there.  And then when you’re racing, yeah, it’s a different environment. There are thirty three cars out there battling for the same real estate. So there’s another mindset. In qualifying, you do everything very ‘cleanly’. But during the race, you’ll be thinking more about how aggressive you want to be. You have to stay on top of these different scenarios. 


TH Speaking of different scenarios, your career has taken you all over the world in the last few years – you spent quite a bit of time in America, in Australia. How does it feel to be returning to Europe now, to your ‘home turf’, with the Formula E team? 


Simona de Silvestro If I look at my racing career, it’s taken me pretty much all around the globe in different racing series and events. It’s been such a good experience, because I got to work with all kinds of different people, from all kinds of backgrounds. Being back in Europe now, it does feel like home, because I guess I always knew I was going to live in Switzerland… I was always kind of aware of where the journey was going to end up! So from that point of view, it feels like a homecoming, you know, having my friends and family all around me.  But having said that, during the times that I’ve been away and living in different countries… you just realise how small this planet is. And I’m so lucky to have friendships all over the world now. So I’m really glad that I always took those opportunities when they came up.

TH Formula E has exploded in popularity over the last few years – is there anything you see in its future, in particular? How do you see it evolving?


Simona de Silvestro You know, it’s quite different and it is still new – but it’s super exciting from a driver’s perspective. Ten years ago, I never thought I’d be racing in an electric car! Even that recently, it was unimaginable that we would be racing electric – and only four years later, we were in the first era of formula E. Not to mention being a part of something that is, essentially, changing the whole world of racing, but also has the potential to change the world of mobility and electric mobility. Because everything that we are developing right now, we know it’s technology that will be used a lot in the future.  And if you compare this to Formula One 30 years ago – they were right at the forefront of car safety, and those changes were adapted into everyday cars. So, as a driver in this era, it’s amazing to think we might be developing things that will become incredibly common 20, 30, 40 years down the line. That’s very cool. 


TH: What has your experience been like joining the TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team? 


Simona de Silvestro Being with Porsche is super special because, you know, as a driver, you always want to be part of that brand; it has such a legacy in racing. So I’m pretty lucky to be on this amazing team, which is really pushing the boundaries with electric vehicles. And I think if you look at the two brands together, especially in racing, they both have so much history – for TAG Heuer and Porsche to team up, it’s quite special. I think the future is really bright. 


TH How does it feel driving an electric car at speed, compared to the cars you’ve driven previously ? 


Simona de Silvestro Well, when I first drove an electric car four years ago, it was a bit strange because you don’t really feel any noise.  That’s the biggest difference. When you’re driving, there are so many sensations that you’ve never had before. For example, when I’m on the grid, normally I’d be surrounded by this massive engine noise. And there I was sitting on the grid, and I could actually hear my heartbeat! It’s really strange to be aware of these little things going on – when you brake, when you lock up a tyre, you can suddenly hear it squeak. And in an electric car, you have energy management, which you don’t have in any other racing series. So it is a different type of racing – it’s a difficult type of racing, because you have so many new factors that none of us have really grown up with.  And here we are all adapting and learning new skills. 


TH And what ambitions do you have for yourself within the TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team? What kind of new horizons are you reaching for, personally? 


Simona de Silvestro  Well, you always want to be better! And of course, as a reserve driver you always want to be the main driver and things like that. There are certain things you’re always fighting for. But there are quite a few drivers within the Porsche family that want those things too – so the competition is really intense! But for me, that’s a great thing, because it makes you push even harder. As a driver, it’s definitely the right place to be. 


TH So, as part of your training, we’ve heard you spend quite a bit of time in some very high-tech simulators, perfecting your skills. What is that experience like? 


Simona de Silvestro Yeah, there are some quite long and intense days in the simulator! And that’s also a new process that has really come about in the last few years, that you test less on the track – especially in Formula E, because there is so much software development involved which you can only really test in simulators. You become so focused on what you’re doing, and the technology behind it is super exciting; you’re floating on a kind of tripod – it feels pretty realistic! It’s really interesting, and I guess that’s how the world is changing; we have these amazing tools now, so we use them to the max.


TH And is that something you’ve been able to use this past year, with all the restrictions in place? Have certain things been off limits? 


Simona de Silvestro Yeah, actually, all the simulator stuff has been ok. Last year was a bit difficult, but the working groups are quite small in the simulator. And with the technology nowadays, everything still works remotely. So the engineer can be at home while the simulator is running – under the circumstances, it actually worked really well.  And to be honest, I’ve been in racing for such a long time, and it’s been so busy running from one racetrack to another… I’d just moved back from Australia when it happened, and it was kind of the first time I’d taken a break. And somehow being at home made me reflect even more on how lucky I am to be in this position, to be doing what I love. So I kind of enjoyed that downtime. But I’m very ready to get going again!


TH And this year is particularly exciting, because you’ll be returning to the Indy 500 after quite a while – what would you say coming back to this race means to you? 


Simona de Silvestro It’s been six years – and I think the older I get, the more I realise how important that race is and how big it is! I remember the first time, when I was a rookie and just approached it like any other race. I didn’t realise the significance. And with the passing of time, you realise the history of the place, the speed, the number of spectators – it’s such a special event. And yeah, I’m really looking forward to it, especially with the team I have behind me right now; it’s definitely the best car and best crew I’ve ever had going to the Indy. It’s one of those holy grails, like Monaco or Le Mans. 

TH Can you tell us a bit more about that team – because it’s quite an unusual one, right? 


Simona de Silvestro Yes. It’s a new team, only just formed by Beth Paretta.  She has been in this sport for a long time, and she formed this team to empower women and to give young women the chance to participate.  Looking back at my career, that’s something that’s been missing at times. I’ve shown on the track that I can be fast, but never really got onto the big teams. Having Roger Penske and Team Penske behind us, being affiliated with them, is really big. And we’ve got these great girls who are into racing, and we can give them the opportunity to go over the wall and do the pit stops. They didn’t even know that was possible. And that’s pretty special. Beth is really opening doors, she’s demonstrating that anything is possible, that you just have to go for it. It’s amazing to see these girls practising every morning at 5:00 a.m., getting quicker and quicker. And hopefully it will inspire a lot of young girls, but also open people’s minds; to show that male or female, you should be given the chance to do what you love. 


TH That’s so exciting. What would you say to any woman, or even young girl, interested in getting involved?


Simona de Silvestro  I think the key message here is just that we should be giving girls this opportunity. And I think the only way is to just do it, and prove that you can be competitive. So there’s a bit of pressure, because we know we have the tools to get it done, but it’s never been done before. I’m pretty confident in my skills and I think that’s where we all have to get to. Guy or girl, it doesn’t matter. You just need to give your best – just go for it. If you want to be a driver, if you want to change a tire, if you want to be a mechanic, an engineer. That’s how I always went about in my life – I do things. I loved racing, and I didn’t really care that I was a girl. It didn’t matter to me. What matters is who was fastest out there. And I think this race, this team, is a great platform to demonstrate that. 


TH And there’s also this initiative that you mentioned, Roger Penske’s ‘The Race for Equality and Change’ – what role do you see that having in making racing more inclusive, more equal?


Simona de Silvestro It’s important that people like Roger Penske are behind it, and he’s really going for it. There are a lot of people out there who give equality lip service, but then don’t really offer people tangible opportunities. He’s saying it’s important, but he’s also saying ‘OK, we will help you achieve this’. And I think that right now, it’s essential: we have a chance to do the right thing. But in five years, my hope is that it will just become normal. I also hope we have a really good race at the 500, because I think that will change a lot of minds out there! That’s the goal, to give girls this new opportunity –  and then get the job done well. I’m pretty confident we can achieve that. 


TH We will be cheering you on!! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us, Simona.  


Simona de Silvestro Thank you, it was fun.