Alexander Rossi, Caterham’s newly-promoted reserve driver, had a tough time of it in 2012.
After graduating to the role of the team’s test driver last year, the Californian dovetailed that with a drive in the Formula Renault 3.5 with the Leafield-based team’s junior operation. It was a tough year that yielded a single podium finish, and the momentum he had on his quest to becoming a Formula 1 driver seemed set to stall.
“Obviously 2012 wasn’t what any of us wanted or expected,” he told RichardsF1.com in an exclusive interview during the Australian Grand Prix, a year on from our extensive interview with him following his appointment as Caterham’s test driver.
But Caterham has seen fit to recognise the talent that clear lies within, and have promoted Rossi to the reserve driver role left vacant by Giedo van der Garde’s own promotion to the race team line-up.
“I feel fortunate to be part of a team that looks at the bigger picture and not just take a black-and-white view of my results. They knew that there were certain factors that were out of my control,” he added.
This year will be all about rebuilding, and Rossi will be grasping at every chance to impress in his more senior role with the team.
“[Rebuilding] is a good way to put it, yes. I’m very, very pleased to be in the position that I am,” he told us.
“Obviously Valtteri [Bottas, Williams’ reserve driver in 2012] showed that it is a way into F1, and it is probably one of the more influential ways because you really get to be involved in the team and plenty of time in the car. With testing opportunities being so limited, it’s a great chance to really integrate yourself into the team and build those relationships that you so desperately need in F1.”
Rossi has been part of the Caterham family (in its various guises) since 2010. Blessed with prodigious talent and intellect – and PR skills many sponsors would kill for – the Californian became the youngest driver to ever test drive a Formula 1 car, when he had an outing for BMW Sauber after winning the Formula BMW USA title at the age of sixteen!
His new role will give him more time in the car – “plus or minus around the number ten” FP1 appearances this year – as well as a great opportunity to embed himself in the team’s operations at each Grand Prix and back in the team’s Leafield factory.
“This year will definitely put me back on the radar, and is has to, because of the lost momentum in 2012,” he acknowledged.
“I will need to do a good job with the opportunities that I have in the car and make the most of the 90 minutes in FP1 at the various circuits. I also need to become a face and a staple in the paddock, not only just building a relationship with the team, but building a relationship with F1 as a whole.”
The importance of relationship-building is something that Rossi is acutely aware of, and he’ll be investing every effort into integrating himself into every aspect of Caterham’s Formula 1 operations over the course of the year as he targets a race seat in 2014.
“It’s a much more involved role, and it gives me the opportunity to really establish those relationships with everyone at the factory – everyone from the management, to the mechanics and truckies – because at the end of the day, they’re pouring in massive hours in insane conditions so I have the privilege to drive the car.
“If you can build that atmosphere and support around you, they will go that extra mile, making sure each bolt is turned that little bit tighter. It’s great to not only have the opportunity to drive the car, but to also work and support the efforts back at the factory.”
Support form his homeland will also be critical, and with the United States returning to the F1 calendar last year and having an American driver in the paddock, it will only serve to bolster more media and commercial interest in his progress.
“I’m actually going to be on the very first F1 broadcast they’ll do from here, and this is the first step to getting me that exposure back home and building that support.
“Having a race in the United States is great, but unless I’m racing there then I’m not going to have the full benefit of that. So this involvement in the broadcast side is something that will be key to my success and the support I will receive.”
Added to that is the significant sponsorship investment in the Caterham team from several major US-owned multinationals, including DELL, Intel and GE.
“Because the majority of our sponsors are American, and the guests who come to the Grands Prix on our behalf are American, it (A) gives me another thing to do during each Grand Prix and (B) gives me the opportunity to engage with an American audience,” he nods.
“Admittedly this is a very small audience, but if I have the opportunity to show someone around who doesn’t know much about motorsport, they will be a fan when I’m done – it’s impossible for them not to be.
“I’m fortunate that our team embraces American corporations and I take a big interest in that: their support is going to play a direct role in whether I am on the grid next year. I need to make sure I keep the relationships with GE, DELL and Intel in a very solid state, so in that respect I am a good asset to the team.”
Now entering its fourth season of competition, the team is still chasing its first points finish and has undergone a significant managerial restructure late last year, which saw team founder Tony Fernandes hand over the reins to former Renault Sport manager Cyril Abiteboul (pictured below). The impact of the restructure has already been felt.
“One of the issues within Caterham before was that there were a lot of people in charge of the team. All of them wanted the team to succeed and had plenty of passion to make it happen, but none of them had a motorsport background. They were very business-minded, but lacked the critical experience needed,” Rossi acknowledged.
“Cyril has been around teams and – while he’s never been a Team Principal until now – he’s well positioned to give people the direction they need, and his arrival has been fantastic. He’s been the guiding force the team needed because he’s someone with the experience and knowledge to execute change.
“The same people who were involved in 2010-2012 are still involved, but with Cyril at the top, he’s able to segment the team into clear positions and structures where everyone knows their role and accountabilities. I have every belief that they’re hiring the right people and taking the steps in the right direction. It now just needs time, and the outfit will be one that runs consistently in the midfield and scores points.
“As Honda and Toyota very well proved, you can all the budget and resources you want, but if you don’t have direct input and strong leadership then you will never succeed.”
That renewed focus will be critical to Rossi’s chances of a promotion. If he’s given a structured environment where he can focus on the job at hand and be part of the team’s bigger strategy to success, then surely the next step – a full-time Grand Prix drive – is just around the corner.
“To be part of a team that is growing and looking after its crew is wonderful,” Rossi beamed.
“I don’t know if you have that set-up in larger teams. This is an environment where I can be comfortable and be myself, and you need that to find yourself and have longevity in the sport. That’s my sole aim and I hope to make that a reality.”
And we certainly hope so too.
We offer our sincerest thanks to the Caterham F1 Team for their assistance in making this interview possible.