Why Simona Will Be Good For Supercars
Supercars has secured Simona De Silvestroto to contest the championship in 2017. She will be the first ever female driver in Supercars. The reaction from the fans has been mixed. Some people claim that De Silvestro doesn't deserve the seat because it should go to a more talented male driver and she's only there as the token female driver, others say it should have gone to Renee Gracie. The team hasn't been announced, but it's generally believed to be Nissan Motorsport, who are running the Harvey Norman Supergirls wildcard entry at Bathurst this year. Other options include Walkinshaw, Erebus and BJR, but Nissan appears most likely at this stage. It will be announced after Bathurst.
There have been people saying that Supercars management, who normally aren't involved in the driver recruiting process, are giving De Silvestro and the team that receives the sponsorship preferential treatment because she's a woman. That is true, but Tim Blanchard is only in Supercars because his family’s business is paying for it and that does nothing for the sport. Whichever team she ends up in it will benefit all motorsport in Australia. This isn’t just about having a token female to boost TV ratings. If De Silvestro is competitive, then it will encourage young girls to take up karting or move up from karting into Formula Ford or 4. Currently there are three prominent female racing drivers: Leanne Tander, Renee Gracie and Chelsea Angelo. People might know Gracie from Bathurst last year, but outside of the motorsport community, Angelo would be completely unheard of. Tander is probably better known for being Garth's wife, when she's actually quite a talented F3 driver. While it's impossible to get an exact number, anecdotal evidence suggests that the female to male ratio in karting is higher than in the more advanced levels of motorsport. It could be that female racing drivers just aren't as good, but that seems unlikely. Being female is not a physical disadvantage in motorsport. Physical fitness is important, but you have to be light as well, removing any strength advantage a male racing driver might have. The most common reason for female drivers not progressing past karts is that they're told that women can't make a career out of racing. If there was a female driver in Supercars then parents might be less dismissive of their daughter's desire to become professional racing drivers and would be more supportive knowing that there's a future for them in the sport. It may have been better to use an Australian driver, but there were none available. Tander is semi-retired, Gracie doesn’t believe she’s ready for the championship series and Angelo isn’t ready either.
On the question of merit. De Silvestro does deserve to be there. At least as much as some of the current drivers in the series. She was the IndyCar rookie of the year in 2010 and finished on the podium at Houston in 2014. Her results also include four top fives and 15 top 10s. These aren't exceptional results, but they're good relative to other Supercars drivers. She was also an F1 test driver for Sauber, only missing out on a seat in the world championship over financial problems. Few Supercars/ATCC drivers have had the chance to drive an F1 car. James Courtney came close in 2002 with Jaguar, but injuries sustained in a crash at Monza ended his F1 career. Larry Perkins completed a handful of F1 races between 1974 and 77, but his best result was 8th at Spa in 1976. As for full time Supercars drivers who have raced in IndyCar or Champcar, there aren't any. Jason Bright finished 6th in Indy Lights in 2000, but never made it to Champ Car.
De Silvestro has only competed in one tin top race. The 2015 Bathurst 1000 in the Prodrive-run Harvey Norman Supergirls wildcard entry with Renee Gracie. She was the only driver without any tin top experience and qualified second last ahead of full time rookie driver Ash Walsh and 0.4 seconds behind fellow wildcard entry Aaren Russell. It was the only time other than practice 6 where Russell was faster. he also managed to finish the world’s toughest touring car race on her first attempt with a rookie co-driver who crashed the car after sliding on oil. That's better than 2015 Dunlop Series champion and main series race winner Cameron Waters did. He had a DNF in his first attempt at Bathurst. Dick Johnson recently said that finishing was a great achievement for two rookie drivers. Aaren and Drew Russell also finished Bathurst last year. and Aaron got a last-minute full time drive. In his half season in the main series as a pay driver, Russell was consistently at the back of the grid in his underfunded Erebus Commodore, so beating him isn't that big an achievement. But De Silvestro was faster than Russell with no tin top experience and should do a lot better in three years than Russell did in six months. Having a three year contract and having had two goes at Bathurst will help her do better than other international drivers. Alex Premat had two years and Robert Dahlgren and Maro Engel only had one each. That's not quite enough time to both learn the tracks and cars. It took Courtney five years to win a championship, but three years should be enough to achieve good results. While not as good as Triple 8 or Prodrive, if she’s at Nissan, she will have the car and the support she needs to get results. None of that is to suggest it will be easy for her. It will be a massive challenge, just as It was for the other international drivers. Her history however, suggests that she is a better driver than Premat, Engel and Dahlgren.
Simona De Silvestro deserves to be in Supercars. She’s certainly talented enough, and the potential benefits of having a female driver go beyond just one category. She may be there because she’s a woman, but having her there will mean that the next generation of female drivers have the motivation to keep racing. For it to work though, she needs to be successful, and with a three year contract, she has time she needs to find success. If you can get to the podium in IndyCar in three years, you can do the same in Supercars.