Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland sustained serious burns on her hands… (Jonathan Ferrey, Getty…)
Simona De Silvestro was among the most promising young drivers in IndyCar racing a year ago. Then she went to Indianapolis.
As she made a practice lap for the Indianapolis 500 in May, the suspension on De Silvestro's car broke while she was traveling 220 mph. The car slammed into the wall and slid down the track, upside down and on fire.
The Swiss driver was lucky to escape with only serious burns on her hands, and she later managed to qualify for the big race. But De Silvestro, who finished 31st in the 500, had sustained another injury: a crisis of confidence.
"I was like, I don't want to do this anymore," De Silvestro, 23, recalled as she prepared for Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. "It was real difficult for me after the crash."
De Silvestro later regained her desire to race, but now she's up against another problem. Her team, Lotus HVM Racing, is among those using a new Lotus engine that's struggling to keep pace with the Honda and Chevrolet engines used by other teams.
In final practice Saturday at Long Beach, De Silvestro's car had a mechanical problem before she could complete a lap. Then, in qualifying for Sunday's race, she was slowest among the 26 drivers.
When De Silvestro joined IndyCar in 2010, she quickly turned heads with her driving skills. It was widely thought she would be just as successful as former IndyCar driver Danica Patrick, who now races in NASCAR.
But the Indy crash was a setback, and De Silvestro is surprisingly candid in acknowledging that it gave her second thoughts about racing.
"It was really the first time I doubted myself about getting back in the race car," she said. "That took a while to go away. It took at least two months to get my confidence back.
"When you have a piece that fails on your race car, it takes you a while to believe in the race that nothing is going to break."
There also is "the fear of getting hurt," she said. "If you have a crash and nothing happens to you, you can put it away pretty quickly. But if you get hurt, it takes a while to get over it."
De Silvestro finished 20th in the IndyCar standings last year, and she's off to a poor start again this season, finishing 24th and 20th, respectively, in the first two races.
But De Silvestro said her confidence is growing, and, "We're improving every time we go out there."
In the meantime, she's become an advocate for the Sherman Oaks-based Children's Burn Foundation, and Friday she spent time with a young burn victim whom De Silvestro invited to the Long Beach track.
De Silvestro is glad to be at the track again too.
After last season, "I was happy to get away from it," she said. "Then, after two or three weeks, I said, 'This is boring. I want to get back in the race car.' It was a process I had to go through."
Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske, which uses Chevrolet engines, was the fastest qualifier at 103.264 mph on the 1.97-mile, 11-turn Long Beach course.
His teammate Will Power was second, and 2010 Long Beach winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, another Chevy driver, was third.
But those three will start 11th, 12th and 13th because all the Chevrolet drivers incurred a penalty of 10 starting spots due to unapproved engine changes by Chevrolet this week.
As a result, reigning IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti of Honda-powered Target Chip Ganassi Racing, the 2009 Long Beach winner who qualified fourth, will lead the field Sunday. Rookie Josef Newgarden starts second.