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"When we put on our helmets, we're all the same"

Mario Andretti is a fan. Sauber are providing a full testing programme to get her into the Formula 1 groove. Simona De Silvestro is on a mission to nail Formula 1's gender question once and for all...

A few years ago, Mario Andretti was watching a pre-season IndyCar test from the side of the track. As the cars braked, accelerated and powered their way around the circuit for lap after lap, one driver in particular caught his eye. Turning to a colleague standing next to him, he pointed to the high-speed machine darting around the track and said: "He's quick."

It was only later, when the car returned to the pits and its occupant stepped out of the cockpit and removed their helmet, that he realised. She had been quick. She is Simona De Silvestro.

It's a little before 9am and already the sun is high in the sky, soaking the asphalt with its heat. Driving into the paddock of the Circuit de la Comunitat Valenciana Ricardo Tormo on this weekday morning is like arriving at any ordinary Formula 1 test. But today there is a difference. There is only one team. One set of articulated trucks. One motorhome. This three-day test is for one driver only: Simona De Silvestro.

You'd better get used to her name, since throughout 2014 the 25-year-old is conducting a dozen test days at the wheel of a two-year old Sauber, thereby circumventing the strict rules regarding Formula 1 testing.

Today, there's no one else on track. No distractions and no media - except F1 Racing, of course. Just a team of mechanics, an engineer, a car, 35 sets of control tyres, a circuit and a racing driver. This is a test in the real sense of the word. An evaluation; preparation for the real thing. The road to a full-time F1 drive starts here and everyone is waiting to see if De Silvestro is ready.

Standing on the pitwall are two happy parents beaming with pride. Her father, Pierluigi, claims that as a baby, Simona stopped crying only when Formula 1 was being broadcast on the television in their Swiss home. This test, he says, is the realisation of a very long-held dream. He adds that her first words were, in order, 'Mama', 'Papa' and 'Ferrari'... followed by 'Alain Prost'.

Simona picked up the racing bug from Pierluigi, who used to run car dealerships for Alfa and was a driving instructor for burgeoning sportscar racers in his spare time. He was also keen to give his daughter tips as she started to ply her trade in karts.

"I remember he would stand at the side of the track in the braking zone with a little flag, telling me where to brake," Simona recalls with a smile. "And, yes, every lap he would move closer to the apex. I used to have nightmares about that flag... Even now, he can't help himself. After testing the Sauber yesterday he was telling me to try certain things and I was like, 'Okaaay dad...!'"