|Simona de Silvestro|
For several years now, the answer has been Danica Patrick. But that may be changing.
Simona de Silvestro recorded her second straight top five finish and first podium in the opening race of the IndyCar doubleheader this past weekend in Houston. What’s even more impressive, she manhandled her car around the roughest track on the IndyCar circuit, in sweltering 90-degree heat, on her way to the second place finish.
“We've been waiting for this for a long time,” Silvestro said afterwards. "It seemed like a pretty good car the whole weekend. I qualified up there, and then the race went actually pretty good."
Patrick, in contrast, triggered a first lap, first turn accident at Kansas and finished last, probably her low point of the year, perhaps her professional career.
“All I can say is that I didn't try and do anything,” a somewhat mystified Patrick said. “I just found myself sideways in the middle of the corner and that was it."
To be fair, it hasn’t been a bad year for Patrick. She probably exceeded any expectations for the year when she won the pole and finished sixth in the Daytona 500. She’s been impressive in several other races, especially Martinsville, and has four top-15 finishes. And Patrick is still the only woman to win an IndyCar race.
Although the Swiss-born Silvestro isn’t unattractive, she isn’t in Patrick’s league when it comes to swimsuit issue looks or media savvy. But she is quickly gaining on Patrick where it really counts, on the racetrack, and is clearly the best of the four women drivers competing on the IndyCar circuit. And her courage in the aftermath of two fiery accidents has already made her a fan favorite for other reasons.
Silvestro has been racing in the U.S. since 2006 and broke into the big-time in 2008 when she won the Formula Atlantic race at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. She followed it up the next year with four wins in the series, making the jump to IndyCar in 2010 and earning Rookie of the Year honors in the Indianapolis 500. She’s probably still best known for a fiery accident in the next race at Texas in which safety teams were slow to respond and she finally ended up hauling herself out of the was burning car. She was impressive at the start of the 2011 season, with 4th and 11th place finishes to open the year. She was fast at Indy until a suspension failure threw her car into the fencing and she once again suffered burns to both her hands. She courageously qualified a backup car, but suffered problems again in the race. Last year was a season to forget, as the team struggled with an underpowered Lotus all season.