Simona de Silvestro is already considered the runaway favourite to replace the retiring Craig Lowndes in one of the best seats in Supercars for 2019. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.
Three-time champion Lowndes’s impending exit from full-time Supercars competition should have sparked debate over who will replace him in one of the most sought-after seats on the grid at Triple Eight. But it didn’t.
As far as the rumour mill is concerned, a move to poach de Silvestro from Nissan Motorsport is well under way.
Triple Eight boss Roland Dane has so far done his best to keep a lid on the team’s third entry for 2019 and beyond, including claims that he hasn’t even decided if he’ll commit to the three-car model once Lowndes is gone.
If there aren’t signed deals in place, then sure, by pure definition then there’s no firm decision on the make-up of the team next year. So, technically a direct quote saying “we’ll think about what comes after that, whether it’s two, three, four cars, in the weeks to come” is true.
It’s also a crucial message in the scheme of Lowndes’s exit from the series. He’s a fan favourite and a media darling, which makes distancing the next step vitally important. Nobody can afford any blurred lines over whether his departure was anything but a heartfelt mutual decision from all concerned.
At the same time, it’s naive to think that the decision-making process regarding Triple Eight’s soon-to-be-vacant Holden Commodore starts here and now. Deep down, Dane already knows how many cars he’ll be running next season. At the very least he knows how many he wants to be running.
And that brings us on to what happens next.
The smart money is that this is the first step in a convoluted deal to land a female driver in that car. If you put two and two together, you get de Silvestro and her Harvey Norman backing.
It’s understood that the Nissan deal not being renewed opens the door for the sometime IndyCar and Formula E racer to make an early exit from Kelly Racing. After all, she’s already left the cold Melbourne winters behind and relocated to sunny Queensland.
She’s not a new addition to the Triple Eight wishlist either, with rumours swirling around last year that Dane was looking to draft De Silvestro into Tekno for 2018 and run that car as effectively a fourth T8 entry out of the team’s Banyo workshop.
Having a female superstar is important to Holden. Back in March, then-marketing boss Mark Harland went on the record and said as much. Behind the scenes there was also an ultimately unsuccessful bid to lure Molly Taylor (pictured below) away from her Subaru rally programme and into a Holden-backed SuperUte entry.
While Harland is now gone, and his successor Kristian Aquilina is yet to pick up the crusade with quite the same vigour (at least publicly), it’s unlikely the appeal of a female star in a factory Holden seat has vanished.
Even if it did, this supposed deal isn’t the work of a moment. If the grand plan does exist, it will have been in the works since long before Harland left the building.
If the whole deal has commercial legs, then it doesn’t have to be all about appeasing Holden anyway. Dane is as shrewd a businessman as there is in Australian sport. Any opportunity to shore up backing on a car should be taken very seriously. Even if it means making a seismic change to the make-up of the team.
Perhaps it’s not all about the rich getting richer, either. If you believe everything you hear, this rumoured plan includes a significant female presence top to bottom, the top likely to be Dane’s daughter Jess who currently heads the organisation’s communications and is an ever-present and highly-active part of the Supercars paddock.
Roland could feasibly be taking this very personally in a very positive way. During the Lowndes announcement, when questions about the de Silvestro theory, his clever non-denial, non-commitment was centred around Jess’s involvement with the team and a long-held target of a workforce comprising of 30% female staff.
If a team was running three cars, and one of them had a crew made up mostly of female staff, some pretty simple mathematics can land you at that 30% mark.
From a performance standpoint, it may not seem like the most dynamic choice. A proven performer such as Chaz Mostert going into that car and taking the fight to Jamie Whincup and Shane van Gisbergen and the Penske Fords would be mouth-watering.
To be brutally honest, de Silvestro hasn’t yet reached a point where she’s outperforming the Altima package. At least not in the same way Rick Kelly does so consistently. So it’s unrealistic to expect a Triple Eight Commodore to be the silver bullet that turns her into a regular race winner.
But in terms of replacing Lowndes, the most household of household names, it could well prove to a marketing masterstroke for both the team and the series.