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Why de Silvestro's Bathurst wildcard could lead to a Supercars comeback

Dick Johnson Racing's wildcard entry at the Bathurst 1000 has provided a route back to Supercars for Simona de Silvestro, close to four years after her last appearances with the uncompetitive Nissan Altimas. The Swiss is clear that it represents her best chance in the category yet, but could it end up in a full-time return?

Simona De Silvestro, Paretta Autosport Chevrolet

Simona de Silvestro makes no secret of her unfinished business in Supercars. She said as much immediately after her deal with Dick Johnson Racing, which will see her make a one-off return for the Bathurst 1000, was made public.

“I think there is always unfinished business,” she said. “When I look at my three years in Supercars I developed quite well in the three years, but the car I was in, you know, wasn’t able to be where it should be.

“Getting this opportunity, coming back to Bathurst is one thing, but coming back with this team... I want to work even harder to get a good result. Unfinished business, it’s always there. You want to be winning and show what you can do when you’re in a race car.”

Racing drivers blaming a lack of performance is nothing new. Neither is lamenting that lack of opportunity to shine in the right hardware. In the case of de Silvestro’s past Supercars career, she does have an argument to mount.

De Silvestro was initially imported into Supercars in 2015, as the category eyed a better handle on a female demographic. It found a keen supporter of the idea in Katie Page, CEO of retail giant Harvey Norman. Supercars placed de Silvestro at Tickford Racing in a wildcard entry for the Bathurst 1000, paired with the relatively inexperienced Renee Gracie.

The Tickford FG-X Falcons were rapid that season, but the ‘Super Girls’ as they were known, were up against it. For starters, Bathurst is as tough a circuit as there is to try and get your head around a brand new car. And realistically, Gracie was unlikely to perform at a level needed to replicate the success of Triple Eight’s X-Box wildcard in 2013, for example. The Super Girls car finished 21st, 40 laps down, after Gracie hit the wall at Forrests Elbow.

A year later the duo returned, this time in an additional Nissan Motorsport entry. Armed with more experience they put in an admirable performance, coming home 14th and two laps down.

After two cameo outings with Gracie, de Silvestro landed a full-time deal for 2017 but the Nissan was never competitive

After two cameo outings with Gracie, de Silvestro landed a full-time deal for 2017 but the Nissan was never competitive

Photo by: Daniel Kalisz / Motorsport Images

Ahead of that second Bathurst appearance, Supercars swooped on a more permanent claim to de Silvestro. It was announced that she had signed with Supercars, not a specific team, on a three-year agreement to race in the series. That the Super Girls programme had moved from Tickford to Nissan was a decent hint of what the future held, and at the end of the season Dale Wood moved on from Nissan to make way for de Silvestro.

It was a decent coup for what was at that point still a factory-backed team. De Silvestro arrived with all of her funding in place, plus that fresh marketing angle of being the only female driver in the field. It was a win for the team. It wasn’t, however, much of a win for the driver.

The Nissan Altima package was never regularly competitive in Supercars. As a manufacturer, Nissan had been first to join Ford and Holden under the Car of the Future regulations. It’s quad cam V8 (taken from a Patrol four-wheel-drive) struggled for fuel efficiency and power, and was never given a chance to catch the more proven units. Lessons were learnt when Volvo joined a year later and the S60 was immediately competitive. But that didn’t help the poor old Nissans.

That de Silvestro feels she has unfinished business in Supercars isn’t just clear in her words, but her actions. She has clearly been on the front foot with putting together a wildcard this year

The Altima struggled enough against its fellow COTF cars, but took an even bigger blow when the ZB Commodore brought in the Gen2 era in 2018. A year later the Gen2 Mustang followed suit, and the Altima was well and truly out-classed. Supercars tried to help with little changes like allowing composite panels like the ZB and the Mustang, but it was still an uphill battle.

De Silvestro’s three full-time seasons yielded a 24th (2017), a 23rd (2018) and a 19th (2019) in the points. She finished in the top 10 in just two races. It was a tough slog, not at all helped by the competitiveness of the Nissan. In that way, de Silvestro has a point when she says she was never in winning hardware. At the same time, only once did she finish ahead of any of the other three Nissan drivers in the standings – in 2019, when Garry Jacobson struggled to 23rd. The likes of Rick Kelly, Michael Caruso and Andre Heimgartner always had the edge.

In all of this, there is a sliding doors moment. In 2018, Triple Eight decided to have a crack at landing de Silvestro and her Harvey Norman backing. There were rumours of the team plotting a female all-star deal that would be run by Jess Dane and engineered by Romy Mayer. The whole thing got advanced enough that T8 freed up its third entry by encouraging veteran Craig Lowndes to announce his impending retirement midway through the season. That was until one of the backers of the de Silvestro deal pulled out at the 11th hour.

Triple Eight scaled back to two cars for 2019 and de Silvestro stayed at Nissan, now a non-factory outfit running under the Kelly Racing banner, for that final year before heading back to Europe. Would de Silvestro have been bashing doors with Jamie Whincup and Shane van Gisbergen in a third T8 car in 2019? That might be a bit of a stretch. But easily adding to her lean tally of top 10s would have been more than achievable.

De Silvestro was linked with a switch to Triple Eight for 2019, but it never happened

De Silvestro was linked with a switch to Triple Eight for 2019, but it never happened

Photo by: Dirk Klynsmith

That de Silvestro feels she has unfinished business in Supercars isn’t just clear in her words, but her actions. She has clearly been on the front foot with putting together a wildcard this year. Initially there were talks with Walkinshaw Andretti United about partnering Warren Luff in a third entry. When the team decided it didn’t have the resources for a wildcard, attention turned to Dick Johnson Racing.

The famous Ford team saw it as an opportunity to give teenager Kai Allen, believed to be on DJR’s books already, a shot at the Bathurst 1000, as it looks to the post-Will Davison era. Viva Energy, which has the keys to the Shell branding in Australia, liked the idea, and the de Silvestro/Allen entry came to life. Given that Scott McLaughlin won two titles in Shell Fords during de Silvestro’s stint in Supercars, it’s little wonder she sees this return as her best shot yet in Supercars.

“100%, if you look at what the team has achieved, they have achieved amazing things,” she said. “Even for me to get this opportunity is quite special. It’s the perfect way to come back into Supercars. If we do our job right, we can really have a shot at it. And for us drivers that’s the most important thing.”

What de Silvestro can’t underestimate is that things have changed down here in Australia. For starters, it’s not DJR Team Penske anymore. The might of Penske is gone and neither Anton De Pasquale nor Davison have been true title contenders in the past two seasons.

It’s been a tough start to the Gen3 era for the team, too. There are parity issues with the Mustang, which isn’t a match for the Camaro on rear tyre life. The team itself has had patchy form too, struggling even against the other Ford teams more often than not. De Pasquale does hold the only Ford race win of the season so far, but that came with a little luck with tyre strategy in Townsville. The reality is that it won’t quite be the same for de Silvestro as if she’d jumped in a DJR Ford for a crack at Bathurst in, say, 2020.

Given how hard she has clearly worked for this one-off shot at Supercars redemption, the logical question is whether she would ever make a full-time return. It’s by no means a far-fetched theory. The Supercars drivers market is currently in a bizarre place. As it stands, there is likely to be a seat open at de Silvestro’s old team.

The Nissan days are long gone and the squad, now fielding Mustangs, is owned and run by the ambitious Grove family. The Groves want to be title contenders and have plenty of financial firepower. They also have a fascination with Porsche and its motorsport programme, which de Silvestro is currently tied to as a test and reserve driver for its Formula E arm.

And then of course there is the curious case of the Triple Eight vacancy for next year, when van Gisbergen jets off to NASCAR. With Cam Waters staying at Tickford, and most other big names under contract, the powerhouse team currently faces either needing to buy someone out of another deal (think Brodie Kostecki or Will Brown), revive the full-time career of Jamie Whincup (not impossible), or go for a left-field option like Richie Stanaway. Or Simona de Silvestro.

DJR is no longer the force it was during its days allied with Penske, and its Mustang has struggled relative to the Camaro

DJR is no longer the force it was during its days allied with Penske, and its Mustang has struggled relative to the Camaro

Photo by: Edge Photographics

If she performs at Bathurst, perhaps amends could be made for her brush with the team in 2018. Of course it would be a tougher proposition this time around, simply as Gen3 has levelled the playing field. Triple Eight is still one of, if not the, best teams in the lane. But that doesn’t come with the ludicrous car speed advantage that it once did.

So, is de Silvestro open to another stint Down Under?

“I think when people know my career, they know I usually try to go where the best opportunity is,” she said when posed that very question. “I’m the type of person who never says never. If the opportunity is right to be in a competitive car, it’s always something to consider.

“At the moment I’m in a good position with Porsche, but at the end of the day I want to win races and be competitive. So whatever comes, never say never.”

De Silvestro isn't ruling out the prospect of another stint down under, and a competitive showing at Bathurst may put her on team bosses shopping lists

De Silvestro isn't ruling out the prospect of another stint down under, and a competitive showing at Bathurst may put her on team bosses shopping lists

Photo by: Dirk Klynsmith

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