In 2007, Formula 1 left Indianapolis for the final time and a few weeks later, America’s only representative on the grid, Scott Speed, was given the boot from Toro Rosso. Five years passed before the sport rekindled its relationship with the USA and now not only is there a race at the purpose built Circuit of the Americas near Austin, but an American driver is knocking on the door of a Formula 1 seat.
Alexander Rossi, who admits he had no interest in pursuing a career in IndyCar or NASCAR, is the only American with a Formula 1 super license and has been with Caterham’s Formula 1 team since the start of 2012. Rossi moved to Europe after a successful junior career in the States, finishing in fourth place in GP3 in 2010 and third in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series a year later. He remained in the championship for a second season but results were sporadic and he was set to spend 2013 out of competitive action, until Caterham’s GP2 team required a replacement for Ma Qing Hua. Rossi, who also participated in this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, joined the series in Bahrain and scored a podium on his debut. Two further rostrum finishes have followed, with Rossi currently in 11th place in the championship with a single round remaining in Abu Dhabi. He says that rating his season is difficult due to the short-notice of his presence in the series.
“I didn’t have any expectations going into it because at the beginning of the year I didn’t know I was doing it,” he says as we sit in the Caterham motorhome at a gloomy Silverstone.
“We missed the first race; we missed the testing, so I didn’t know what to expect. We’ve had a couple of podiums which is good, we’ve had pace off and on but we’ve suffered from not being able to do the testing. First of all the tyres changed quite a bit this year from what it was last year and during pre-season testing the team had two drivers [the aforementioned Ma and Sergio Canamasas] that weren’t quite on the pace yet. So coming into the race weekends where you only have 30 minutes of practice, the information, the data, the set-ups that we had from Giedo [van der Garde] last year didn’t apply on some tracks, so it’s been a learning experience. But since the August break we’ve found our way, what we need and we’ve been quick. It just came a little bit late in the year.”
Rossi’s comment about improvements may seem like typical racing driver optimism, but after his debut podium he amassed just 16 points in 11 races. In the six races since the summer break, Rossi has scored 31 points, with the American also running strongly in Singapore until a brake problem triggered his retirement. Rossi also registered his best qualifying performance (fifth) in Belgium, before trumping that result with fourth at Marina Bay. Experience is therefore crucial, with GP2 placing an emphasis on tyre preservation, leaving Rossi – a series rookie – in two minds as to whether it’s a positive aspect of the championship.
“We love racing, we love doing it but I would prefer to do it as you would in other championships where the tyre isn’t the deciding factor,” he says.
“At the same time it’s also quite interesting because as a driver you have to think a lot and every corner on every lap you have to approach differently. It’s two completely different mind-sets from the qualifying on Friday to the race on Saturday. The car’s completely different and the way you approach it in terms of racing lines, braking and kerbs is different so from that aspect it’s interesting, but you do miss the element of being able to drive flat out. But Formula 1 is like this and it’s the same for everyone so it’s an experience that you have to take part in.”
One decisive factor of GP2 in 2013 has been the strategic option to run both prime tyres in the feature race in order to achieve a better result; in turn, this scuppers any hope of points in the sprint race. This aspect of the championship is something that Rossi hopes will be addressed in 2014.
“It’s a bit annoying but as the same time it’s helped me so again it’s the same for everyone. I would like to see GP2 having one more set of tyres so that you could have two good races on a weekend, because if someone goes prime-prime on Saturday, it’s impossible to beat them if you go on an option-prime strategy. But if you go prime-prime on the Saturday and you have a good result, then there’s not even a point of turning up on Sunday because you’ll have no tyres left, so that race will be a complete disaster for you. When you think about how high level the championship is, the fact that it’s only kind of one race a weekend is not the best thing, but I know they’re talking about adding another set of tyres for next year.”
A recurrent theme in motorsport relates to the supposed lack of opportunities for young drivers to break through into Formula 1. But Rossi, 22, believes that any issues for youngsters is due to the vast amount of talent both in Formula 1 and in junior formula, rather than any financial constraints.
“Formula 1 is the same as it’s always been. It’s become a bit more predominant because there’s so many good guys in this generation; in the past five or six years there’s been a lot of big talent to have come through the junior formulas and there’s only 22 seats in Formula 1. There’s no way for everyone to arrive in a Formula 1 seat so teams are relying more on the financial package. Everyone in Formula 1 has won in GP2 or World Series so I don’t feel that there’s people who don’t deserve to be there. There’s people that have the backing and when teams are faced with a driver who’s won a race in GP2 and a driver who’s won two races in GP2, if the guy that’s won one race has a big enough budget behind him then they’re going to go with that, as he’s good enough and he’s got money. I don’t think there’s anything that’s different. It’s just been exaggerated because of the amount of talent on the doorstep.”
Rossi first received a taste of Formula 1 action at the end of the 2009 with BMW, but his role as reserve driver for Caterham’s Formula 1 team has resulted in him participating in the last three young driver tests for the squad. Aside from testing, Caterham has also given Rossi two practice outings on a grand prix weekend, firstly in Barcelona in 2012 and in Montreal earlier this season. A third outing, in Austin, would be well received but such plans remain unconfirmed.
“It makes sense, doesn’t it…,” says Rossi regarding plans to run in Austin. “But in Formula 1 it usually happens very last minute. I thought I’d be doing Friday practice in Japan but for team and performance reasons they needed to go in another direction. I’m definitely hoping so as I was a bit disappointed last year that we weren’t able to do it. The team was fighting for 10th in the championship and neither driver had been there before… this year we’ll just have to wait and see.
Rossi, who is unsure of his plans for 2014, reckons that the new regulations in Formula 1 next season will provide Caterham with the opportunity to progress up the grid.
“[It’s] very exciting. Formula 1’s getting to a stagnant point where the top teams have figured it out and the independent teams don’t have the budget to catch them up.”
“Next year, nothing that you’ve done in the past is going to apply, so all the teams will be on a level playing field again. Obviously the teams with the biggest budget will have more of an opportunity but the gap for us to the midfield will be very, very reduced which is something we’re all looking forward to.”
Formula 1’s sketchy history with Rossi’s homeland has been well documented. Rossi’s presence, plus the new Circuit of the Americas near Austin, has given the sport a boost in the USA, but Rossi reckons that this year’s race will be a true assessment of Formula 1’s popularity Stateside.
“Everyone loved the Austin Grand Prix last year: not only the spectators but also the teams and the F1 paddock. I think that it was a massive step forwards: this year will be the big test to see if has cracked the market yet, whether people come back for another year.”
However, Rossi believes that only an American driver will spark huge interest in the sport, citing the example of how Lance Armstrong (pre-drugs scandal) boosted cycling in America.
“Until there’s an actual driver I don’t think that it’s going to be a household name nor Formula 1 be a household topic until there is not only an American driver but a successful American driver. If you look at cycling, what happened in the States was that no-one really watched. Lance Armstrong came along and started winning everything so then all of a sudden people wanted to watch because Americans are so patriotic and want to get behind their countrymen, just like any country, then the sport will grow. It’s a long way out but Austin was a big success and a big step forwards in the right direction.”
Rossi also dismisses suggestions that Formula 1 can break NASCAR’s stranglehold in America.
“I don’t think it will ever compete with NASCAR, but I don’t think it’s trying to. It’s a different demographic, it’s standard cars on the road and that’s how NASCAR appeals to the audience. They don’t try and appeal to the people who are into the whole technical side and the engineering and ingenuity that goes with Formula 1: that’s not the NASCAR audience. When you think of the size of America, and the amount of people there, there’s plenty of audience for three championships, [so] I don’t think it’s an issue.”
But for now, Rossi’s focus is on breaking onto the Formula 1 grid. Time will tell whether he’s successful in his quest; he has the talent, and his presence on the grid would be a huge asset for the sport in his home country.