Since he first set foot in a go-kart at the age of ten, American Alexander Rossi has aimed for a single goal: to become a Formula 1 driver.
A winner in karting, it was success in the Skip Barber championship that helped him stand head and shoulders above his peers, coupled with being selected as a finalist (among thousands of candidates) in Red Bull’s young driver search programme.
In 2007, he joined the Formula BMW championship, finishing third overall in his rookie season, and he backed this up with a dominant run to claim the Americas Championship – and the World title – the following year.
His reward, at just 17 years of age, was a test outing with the BMW Sauber F1 team. It was the first step to realising his dream of becoming the next American driver, a goal he has never lost sight of as he continued his climb up the motorsport ladder.
Later years have seen him succeed in Formula Master, GP3, GP2 and the World Series by Renault championships, and he was back behind the wheel with Team Lotus at the recent ‘Young Drivers’ F1 test at Abu Dhabi.
The team – set to be renamed Caterham F1 ahead of the 2012 season – enjoys close ties with several major American sponsors, and Alexander’s close relationship with team owner Tony Fernandes will put him in good stead to realising his ultimate goal of being on the Formula 1 grid.
It’s a task where few Americans have succeeded since the heyday of Mario Andretti in the late 1970s, but the intelligent and articulate Alexander believes that his path will be different to his compatriots. On the basis of his grounded and self-aware approach to everything he does, there’s every likelihood that we will finally see an American driver on the grid by 2013, when the Formula 1 circus makes its return to the USA.
We’re extremely grateful to Alexander for taking his time to talk to us during the off-season, and we’ll certainly be charting his progress with great interest…
|Full Name:||Alexander Rossi|
|Born:||25 September 1991, Auburn, California (USA)|
|2005||International Kart Federation 100cc Yamaha Class, 1st overall|
|Red Bull Formula 1 American Drivers’ Search, Semi-Finalist|
|2006||Skip Barber Western Regional Championship, 10 races, 7 wins, 538 points, 1st overall
|Skip Barber National Championship, 14 races, 3 wins, 613 points, 3rd overall|
|Formula TR 1600 Series, Odyssey Motorsports, 11 races, 4 wins, 469 points, 2nd overall|
|2007||Formula BMW Americas, Team Apex Racing, 14 races, 3 wins, 410 points, 3rd overall|
|2008||Formula BMW Americas, EuroInternational, 14 races, 10 wins, 249 points, 1st overall
|Formula BMW World Final, EuroInternational, 1st overall|
|2009||International Formula Master, Hitech / ISR, 16 races, 3 wins, 52 points, 4th overall
|Formula 1, BMW Sauber F1.09, Test Driver at Jerez|
|2009-2010||GP2 Asia Series, Ocean Racing / Meritus, 8 races, 12 points, 9th overall|
|2010||Formula 1, USF1 Team, Test Driver (team collapsed)
|Formula Renault 3.5 Series, ISR Racing, 1 race, 0 points, Not Classified|
|GP3 Series, ART Grand Prix, 14 races, 2 wins, 38 points, 4th overall|
|2011||Formula Renault 3.5 Series, Fortec Motorsport, 11 races, 2 wins, 156 points, 3rd overall
|Formula 1, Team Lotus T128, Test Driver at Abu Dhabi ‘Young Drivers’ Test|
|2012||Formula Renault 3.5 Series, Arden Caterham Formula 1, Caterham Renault CT01, Test Driver|
What sparked your initial interest in motorsport? My initial interest got sparked at a very young age actually as my father would take me to the ChampCar (CART) races that were held every year at Laguna Seca in Monterrey, California. It was something that we always shared an interest in and one day when I was ten I said that I wanted to be a race car driver, so he got me a karting school in Las Vegas, Nevada as a birthday present. It was supposed to be a once in a lifetime opportunity, that turned into a preview of a lifetime.
Who were your motorsport heroes during your early years? Bryan Herta (ChampCar) and Mika Häkkinnen (F1).
After success in karting, you were a semi-finalist in the Red Bull Formula One American Drivers search with a top-five finish overall out of over 2,000 nationwide candidates in 2005. How did the opportunity come about, and what did this recognition mean to you at the time, in terms of the opportunities it has ultimately given your career?
My focus from the first time I stepped into a go-kart until this very day has been Formula 1 and we as a family understood that in order for that to happen, I would need to eventually compete in Europe. Red Bull was giving young American drivers an incredible opportunity to do this with the driver search and while I didn’t end up winning because of my age (I was only 13 years old at the time), it gave me confidence that I would be able to one day compete with the European drivers.
You graduated to the Skip Barber National Championship, and became the series’ youngest-ever race-winner at the age of just fourteen! What was it like competing against comparatively older opponents, and how did you adapt in your first foray into open-wheeler competition?
I was always the young one when coming through the karting ranks and formula car schools, so it was something that I was honestly quite used to and little did I know that it was developing the crucial groundwork that I needed in order to grow up quickly. I am so thankful that I started in race cars at such a young age as it has given me valuable personal and professional experience in how to deal and communicate with people in this world that are much older, wiser than me still.
You competed in the Formula BMW USA series for two seasons, claiming the championship in your second year and becoming the first American to do so, and you went on to win the World Championship at the finale event. The reward was an F1 test with the BMW Sauber team in 2009, a phenomenal experience you. Can you tell us more about your maiden experience behind the wheel of an F1 car?
Winning the World Finals in 2008 was my big break, if you will, as it allowed me to burst onto the European radar as it proved that I was capable of competing against European drivers in one of the most respected junior categories of its time.
When I got into the F1 car at 17 years old it was by far the best experience of my life. Driving out of pit lane was absolutely surreal and on the installation lap, it was difficult to hold back my emotions as I was getting such a rare opportunity that I didn’t want to take anything for granted.
I was pleasantly surprised with my pace and performance as we led the timesheets for most of the day and I was able to earn my FIA Superlicense at the end of the test. This motivated me to push myself to a level that I hadn’t attained yet in my career as I wanted to get back into the car as soon as possible.
In 2009, you made the important decision to move to Europe and you competed in the International Formula Masters championship. Competing in the European scene is typically a tough training ground for many aspiring drivers from America, quite a few of whom don’t make the transition successfully. As one of the ones who has managed that transition, can you describe some of the challenges you faced in adapting to the European scene?
The most difficult thing that I found when transitioning to Europe was the racecraft and sheer determination required to gain just a single position. Whether you are fighting for P10 or the race win, it doesn’t matter. One has to earn every position that the advances and while this is very intimidating in the beginning, you soon realise that there is a very high level of talent that is constantly around you.
There is an unwritten trust among racing drivers (most of the time) that we will push you all the way down and keep you there, but at the end of the day … there will be just enough room to survive. This is what makes racing in Europe so much more enjoyable as when the respect is earned on track, the battles and intensity that are carried forward are truly impressive.
You became just the second American driver to compete in the GP2 Series when you contested the GP2 Asia championship with the Ocean Racing and Team Meritus outfits. It was another transition to more powerful, aerodynamic cars and another new environment with circuits in the Middle and Far East, and you finished ninth in the championship in the 2009-10 season. How did you adapt and succeed in this new environment?
This was a crucial part, albeit small, part of my career as it was a training ground for me in learning to deal with races that were over one hour, instead of the thirty minutes that I was previously used to.
Along with this came the need to understand tire preservation, pit stops, and race strategy. Unfortunately, the finishing position in the championship did not reflect our true potential as we had quite a bit of bad luck in terms of mechanical failures, technical infringements and penalties.
With that said, the pace that we had at times was very encouraging and it was recognised among the teams in the paddock.
You were one of three drivers linked with the USF1 operation in the lead-up to the team’s debut for the 2010 season, but the project dramatically folded before the pre-season even got started. Can you discuss this period in a little more detail, particularly how the opportunity arose, and your thoughts at the time (and today) about the failure of this project?
I was contracted with USF1 to be the third/reserve driver for the team, which was a huge honour as I was still only 17 years old and had only competed in one year of European competition. Not only was I signed with a Formula 1 team, but I was going to have the opportunity to represent a US team effort as an American driver, which carried with a lot of pride and determination to represent my country at the highest level.
While the ideas were in place, time was unfortunately not on our side as the team was not able to secure enough funding to move the project far enough forward, fast enough, in time for the first race in Bahrain. I had my fingers crossed until the very last moment and when it was announced that it had fallen through, I was of course disappointed, but knew that I had time on my side and would have another opportunity to get back into the F1 paddock.
With the USF1 opportunity now gone, you regrouped and joined the top-line ART Grand Prix team in the new GP3 championship for 2010, and the following year you joined the Fortec Motorsport team in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series, finishing third behind Robert Wickens and Jean-Éric Vergne. Your success saw you recently rewarded with another F1 test, this time with Team Lotus at the ‘Young Driver’ test at Abu Dhabi. Can you tell us more about these years, and your latest experience in an F1 cockpit?
The 2010 year was honestly very difficult for me as I went into the championship with the expectation and hope to win, but soon learned that there are many more factors in motorsport than being able to drive quickly. Moving into 2011, I knew that I would need to redeem myself and prove that I was ready to stay for the long run and I believe that we did that after what I consider to be my best year in Europe thus far.
Getting back into the F1 car was again very special for me as this time it was with a team that I had been working alongside all season long and I finally got to show what I was capable of in their equipment.
The technology is a bit different, but honestly the DRS was something that came very easily to me; however the big differences came in the Pirelli tires and learning to adapt the driving style to maximize the potential available to you.
Among your commercial supporters, one of them is AirAsia. Are you currently in a partnership with Tony Fernandes’ motorsport operation, and what are you able to tell us about your plans for racing in 2012?
I am very close with AirAsia and Tony Fernandes and they both have supported me throughout 2011. The opportunities that have arisen because of them have been countless and I owe so much thanks to everyone involved not only at AirAsia, but Team Lotus as well for their never-ending belief and support in me. We are a family and I am looking forward to growing alongside them in the future.
America has a rich motorsport tradition in a variety of championships, but only a few American drivers have graced the Formula 1 landscape in the last thirty years since Mario Andretti won his world championship. Those who have done so since him have not enjoyed anywhere near the level of his success. The majority of up-and-coming American racers tend to dovetail into NASCAR or IndyCars; is F1 too tough a market to crack for American drivers?
I don’t think so and believe it or not, I actually think it is getting easier. With the return of two GP’s to the calendar and America being such an important market for Formula 1 and the manufacturers, the realisation that an American driver is needed is higher than ever.
I am fortunate enough to already have a strong F1 affiliation with Catherham F1 and God willing, the timing seems to be falling into place for a race seat by 2013.
In 2012, we will see Formula 1 make its long-awaited return to American shores with the inaugural Grand Prix at Austin, Texas, followed by a second race joining the roster in 2013 at New Jersey. How will the addition of these races improve interest in Formula 1 among race fans at home?
Americans are by nature a very patriotic people and if they have something to support and believe in, then you can almost guarantee that there will be interest generated. Whether that comes in the form of an American team, driver, or manufacturer, it doesn’t matter so long as American is represented on the grid.
Catherham F1 is one of the only teams that realises this and are going after the US corporate market and succeeding in sponsorship deals from GE, Dell, and CNN.
Do you hope you will you be the next American driver to compete in Formula 1, and what timeline are you setting yourself to get there?
The goal and path is simple, to be on the grid by 2013.
Images via Alexander Rossi, Caterham F1 Team Media, Formula 1.com, GP2 Series Media