Our last encounter with Alexander Rossi was exactly a year ago, and it would be an understatement to say that this charming Californian has had an interesting twelve months in between.
Promoted to the role of Caterham’s reserve driver for the 2013 season, Rossi was set to have a number of Friday practice outings with the team but remain away from his primary love: racing in anger.
But that changed early on. The 2013 CT03 racer was little more than a developmental version of the previous year’s car, and in an effort to expedite its development, the team’s former driver, Heikki Kovalainen, was drafted in to lend his experience to the effort.
Meanwhile, Alexander found himself placed in Caterham’s GP2 outfit, and his Friday practice outings in the F1 car were limited to just two appearances at the Canadian Grand Prix, and – to his delight – his home Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas.
“I was doing the reserve driver route similar to what Robin [Frijns] is doing this year,” he told RichardsF1.com in an interview during this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
“I was not actually going to be racing at all, but then that changed very abruptly after the Chinese Grand Prix and so I was drafted into the GP2 team.”
While he showed plenty of his speed and claimed a podium finish first time out in Bahrain, the sudden move back into a racing environment brought its own challenges. Alexander finished the year ninth overall in the Drivers’ Championship standings, peaking with victory in the Feature Race at the season-ending round in Abu Dhabi.
“It was okay considering we had missed testing – and we had missed the first race – so where we ended up at the end was quite a positive. But 2012 wasn’t a great year [in Formula Renault 3.5] and conversely 2013 wasn’t a great year, so it was two years on top of each other that weren’t the best.”
With the 2014 season focused almost exclusively on a full GP2 Series campaign, the strong end to the previous season and some excellent pace in the recent pre-season test in Bahrain has given him the platform to achieve the ultimate goal: a championship title.
“Coming back this year, there is a very clear objective set out by everyone: we’re going into the season doing everything we can to win the GP2 championship. So far, testing has been okay and so we’ll see where we are after next week’s opening round in Bahrain.
“It’s different mental approach to be honest, because in the past its been always about ‘Okay, you have to get this result, you have to get this result,’ and I know very clearly that if I get a result something can happen and if I don’t get a result something might not happen.
“So for me, I don’t have anything to lose. I just need to go and optimise every opportunity that I have and just take it one day at a time and not approach it as though I have to win this championship. I want to win as many races as I can, and if that turns into something at the end of the year then it will be great. But I’m much more relaxed about it because it is what it is, and whatever is going to happen is going to happen. I’m going to enjoy it.”
So is 2014 a make or break year?
“No matter how much you want to win something that doesn’t mean you’re going to win it,” he adds. “You have to make sure you are prepared in the best way possible . I spent a lot of time at home this winter which was good, and in terms of the engineering side at Caterham Racing I kept my engineer from last year which was a big – it was very important to me.
“At the first pre season test we just hit the ground running because we had a year working together. Last year was his first year as a full-time race engineer, so we were both learning GP2 together. So now going into this year, the chemistry between us is quite good.”
A surprise opportunity last year was an invitation to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving a Greaves Motorsport LMP2 with tom Kimber-Smith and Eric Lux. Being able to race across disciplines is not something those within Formula 1 circles get to tackle, but it was an opportunity he relished and – if given the chance again – he would tackle again.
“To have your first endurance race to be 24 hours long was quite a big one, but I really enjoyed it,” he smiled.
“I loved it actually and it’s something that if I had the opportunity to do again, I definitely would. The reliability of the LMP2 cars, especially, is so good, so it was an easier transition for me. You could push every lap like a qualifying lap, you don’t have to look after the car that much in terms of saving the gearbox or the engine.
“There is none of that. You just go and drive as quickly as you can. One thing that impressed me was the Dunlop tyre, it lasted forever so you could literally drive more flat out than what you can in GP2.
“Having said that, it was quite difficult to work your way through the night to give your car to someone – to a gentleman driver – to then see the three hours of hard work go out the window! But that’s part of racing, I guess, and I liked it.
“I also did the Daytona 24 Hours in January, but unfortunately we didn’t make it past Hour Six, but again I have now got my eyes open to sports car and endurance racing as one-off events. I think they’re great fun and really cool to do.”
While Rossi’s focus will be “100%” on his GP2 Series campaign, his role will allow him more opportunities within the Caterham F1 Team, including some Friday practice outings and further support work behind the scenes.
“Austin would be one [Friday outing] that would be a priority of mine and the team as well, and also Montreal because of the North American connection. Those two are high on our list and for me to be able to drive in Formula 1 in front of the home crowd in Austin last year was an amazing experience. It went really well and I’d definitely like to be able to do that again.
“I hadn’t driven in America since 2008,” he said, recalling last year’s Friday outing at the Circuit of the Americas. “So it was the first time I had driven back at home for five years. I left America to try and get into Formula 1, and the next time I came back and drove a race car at home I was in an F1 car. So from that sense it was very good.”
While the sport is gripped with rumours of the United States landing a second event on the Formula 1 calendar, there remains the challenge of trying to increase local interest in Formula 1.
“It’s not going to be on Good Morning America. It’s not going to be at the level that the NFL, NBA or NASCAR enjoys, and I don’t think it ever will be until there is a American driver who is winning. Having an American driver who’s driving around in 19th isn’t going to cut it. The country needs to have a driver who’s fighting for a World Championship.
“I certainly hope it can be me. I came into motorsport not only to get into F1, but to win in F1, and that was my goal since the beginning and it remains that today.”
As the sport moves into the most overhauled set of technical regulations in Formula 1’s history, Rossi is excited about the road ahead, and urged the nay-sayers to come around and support the changes.
“If you look at how it shifted in 2010 when we went to these massive front wings and tiny rear wings, I’ll admit that the cars in the beginning looked absolutely hideous. Everyone hated them and they complained and moaned, and we went from V10s to V8s they didn’t like the sound. It’s always the same when there are big rule changes
“Fans will come around, perhaps it will take a bit longer because it is so different. But at the end of the day, people see that the racing’s good that the competition will get closer once those inside the sport figure out the systems and get the reliability sorted. The field will be quite tight and I think people will enjoy it and forget about the noise.
“Of course we’ll always miss the screaming 18,000rpm engines, but at the same time, for the sustainability of the sport we have to appreciate that it needs to be this way. Hopefully this entices manufacturers back like – it would make the sport that much stronger.”
We extend our thanks to the Caterham F1 Team for making this interview opportunity possible.
Images via RichardsF1.com and XPB Images