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Simona de Silvestro hopes Grand Prix of St. Petersburg brings new promise

A season that began with a career-best performance in St. Petersburg fizzled into dizziness, third-degree burns and frustration for IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro.

"I think last year was the most difficult year I've ever been through in anything," de Silvestro said.

And it started as one of the best.

The 23-year-old Switzerland native started 17th at the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg but battled to finish a career-best fourth. She followed that with a ninth-place finish in Alabama for the first back-to-back top-10s of her IndyCar career.

"I started off well…" de Silvestro said in a recent phone interview.

But her season began to unravel in Indianapolis when a mechanical issue made her lose control of her No. 78 Honda during practice a week before the Indy 500. Her car left the ground, hit the outside wall and flipped before catching fire and sliding down the track upside down.

De Silvestro was trapped.

"It's the first time I had a crash where I really thought that I couldn't get out of it," de Silvestro said. "When you kind of have that feeling, it takes a lot out of you. All the confidence is gone. Getting back in the car is a little bit scary."

De Silvestro suffered third-degree burns on her hands but returned, two days later, with heavily bandaged hands to qualify for the race. She finished 31st. Her confidence took longer to return.

"I think after the Indy crash, it really took a while for me to get back into it," de Silvestro said. "I think it was really tough mentally to get back to where I was."

She said she recovered mentally in about a month — just in time to suffer another setback.

De Silvestro spun out during practice at Milwaukee in June, the day before the race. Her HVM Racing car slammed into the outside wall, rolled down the track and hit the inside wall. The impact knocked her out, and she needed six stitches on her knee before being released from the hospital that night.

De Silvestro lined up the next day and raced 11 laps before dizziness and fading vision from her concussion began to creep in. She left the race and sat out the next week at Iowa, too.

"I needed time to build on myself to get back strong," de Silvestro said.

She finished 10th in Toronto in her next race, but it was her only other run in the top 10 during the season's final four months. She also missed a race in California because of visa issues. De Silvestro averaged a 17th-place finish in the last seven races and placed 20th in points.

De Silvestro said her struggles taught her how to handle failure, enjoy the small victories and count on the support of family, friends and teammates when disappointing runs add up.

"I think in any athlete's career, there's always that one year where nothing seems to work out — just really painful," de Silvestro said. "I think that was the year I had that. I just had to go through it. I look at it now, I'm lucky this happened pretty early in my career because I learned a lot about myself."

De Silvestro crammed more on-track learning into this offseason than ever before. She has tested the series' new chassis at Sebring International Raceway and will hop in her team's newly Lotus-powered machines this month to prepare for her third season in IndyCar.

De Silvestro said the new car — dubbed the DW12 in memory of the late St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon — brakes well and breezes through corners well. Both are good signs for street courses, like the season opener March 25 in St. Petersburg.

"I'm really looking forward to go back and get back into the racing groove," de Silvestro said. "Testing is fun, but racing is way better."

Times staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com.

Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

When: March 23-25

Where: Streets of downtown St. Petersburg

Tickets: $20 to $125. Paddock passes start at $40. Reduced rate tickets available for youths 12 and under. Check gpstpete.com or call 1-877-283-5385.

Simona de Silvestro hopes Grand Prix of St. Petersburg brings new promise 02/13/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 13, 2012 11:19pm]
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