To say it’s been a good year for Manor Marussia Formula One driver Alexander Rossi would be an understatement. He’s currently second in the GP2 Series standings, and at long last and after years of false starts, Manor Marussia gave him an F1 race drive through the end of 2015. This week, we’ll finally see an American race in the United States Grand Prix.
As he prepares for his own first race in the U.S. in seven years, race-watchers with an eye on Rossi’s career are wondering what’s next for the young driver.
“It’s been tough getting there, and it’s been a long time coming,” Rossi told Black Flag in a phone interview right before his trip to the U.S. “I’ve been involved in Formula One for quite some time now, but always in a kind of a sideline role, if you will—being a reserve driver.”
Prior to Rossi’s drive with Manor Marussia, there hadn’t been an American in F1 since Scott Speed last competed in 2007. Eager to see an American return to that level, the racing world, especially here in the U.S., has followed Rossi’s career with great interest for years.
Rossi moved up from racing go-karts into the Skip Barber and Formula BMW series. After winning the Formula BMW championship in 2008, Rossi moved into the European open-wheel ladder system in 2009. With success in lower-level formula series like GP2, we’ve been on pins and needles waiting for someone—anyone—to put this man in an F1 race.
To Rossi, having this loyal set of fans certainly hasn’t hurt his path into F1.
“Looking back at 2013 where I just did the Free Practice session Friday mornings for Caterham, there was already kind of a massive reception,” he said. “So, I’m really looking forward, obviously, to come back, and do full races. I’m really looking forward to the total experience.”
It took Rossi a few years to work out of the practice ranks to get this opportunity with Manor Marussia, though. He credits having established a relationship with the team in their Marussia days as playing a huge role in his current drive.
“I had obviously had a relationship with the team last year,” he said.
“While that didn’t translate into anything directly in 2015, obviously, the GP2 season had been going quite well. So, I was asked if I would be interested in finishing out the season after Monza. The response from our side was, however, that I was already totally committed to Racing Engineering in GP2. Because we were in quite a good position in the championship and up until last weekend, fighting for the title, that wasn’t something that I could skip out on. So, the agreement was that I would do all of the remaining F1 races that I could for them, aside from Sochi and Abu Dhabi.”
Sochi and Abu Dhabi, of course, are where Rossi had existing commitments to drive for Racing Engineering in GP2. Seeing as he won the feature race in Sochi, sticking with GP2 there was probably a good decision.
So, will racing for Marussia this year and doing well in GP2 lead to a full-time race seat in Formula One next year? “I don’t know,” Rossi said. He did admit that he’s in a better position now than he’s ever been in before.
“I have the opportunity now to show that I’m capable in F1,” he said.
As far as an actual race seat, having been a driver—a current driver—when you’re discussing the following year with teams makes a whole lot of a difference. When you’re already in the championship versus a driver trying to come in. [...] I’d say that it’s definitely raised my stock value quite a bit.”
The question of where he’ll be next year looms large. We’re getting down to the wire, with driver commitments being announced and open seats being made public. That remains to be seen, he said.
“I’ll put myself on the market, and say I deserve to be there,” Rossi said.
While a certain American Formula One team wasn’t entirely comfortable with Rossi’s limited race experience in F1, Rossi’s outstanding performance in Manor Marussia’s outdated and outclassed car certainly shows that he does, in fact, deserve a full-time drive somewhere next year.
“The car is a 2014 car, that’s totally been updated to conform to the 2015 crash regulations,” he said. “In terms of performance, it is, I think 95 percent of the car from 2014, which is why the gap that we have at the moment from us to the lead car is what it is. Obviously, the team wasn’t even in existence in January of this year, so for them to be on the grid, be as reliable as they are, and firmly within the 107 percent [of the leading car’s pace], that’s a massive credit to them. I think that we are achieving everything that can be expected of us, considering that...there wasn’t even a team in January.”
While Rossi credits the team for much of their success, much of that credit should fall on his own ability to get the most out of a less than ideal car.
Since driving in Formula One, though, Rossi says he’s been able to have more fun back in GP2.
“At the end of the day, a GP2 car is not that much slower than an F1 car, so the actual [driving] technique is pretty much identical,” he said. “In F1, you have a lot more consistent demands, and people to deal with, and it’s a more high-pressure environment, just because F1 is what it is. There’s a lot of expectations, whereas GP2, while highly competitive, is still a step below F1.”
Understandably, he feels more relaxed in the GP2 environment.
“I felt like I had already done something that was harder,” he said. “To take a step back, if you will, made it a little bit easier.”
Still, one of the issues with moving up into Formula One from those lower series is that there is a ton of competition for a limited number of seats. While it made sense for Rossi to move into the European ladder system in 2009 to chase his dream of driving in F1, he admits that there is no clear path into a race drive in the world’s top open-wheel series.
“The struggle, I think, for a lot of people—young drivers who are trying to get to F1—is that there’s not a direct path into F1,” he said. You know, there’s a lot of different championships, and while GP2 is the primary feeder series into F1, you’ve got a variety of different championships from World Series to this year, F3, to GP3, to DTM and GP2, as well. [...] There’s people coming from all angles, and that’s why it becomes so difficult to make the final step into F1.”
The number of seats open varies from year to year, contributing to the difficulty of getting into F1.
“There’s a lot of guys that have the potential, but there’s only 20 cars,” he said. “Of those 20 cars, you have probably, you know, twelve to thirteen of good drivers, which could be world champions. Those guys aren’t going to go anywhere, so at the end of the day, there’s maybe a handful of seats available — five seats available. You have probably ten to fifteen qualified drivers, and then it becomes a race to see who can put together a deal first. It’s a very, very competitive environment.”
Rossi considers himself fortunate that he has an existing relationship with Manor Marussia. Factors like that make it far easier to stand out from all the other drivers and get a race seat in F1. After all, it was this history with the team that was instrumental in getting his drive with Manor Marussia this year.
“We went through talks the last four or five months of 2014, and it was a team that I immediately felt at home with, way more so than I ever did in almost three years at Caterham,” Rossi siad . “So, that relationship from 2014 I think clearly translated into this opportunity... in ‘15 because I knew the car, and the personnel.”
Right now, though, Rossi is focused on performing well at the United States Grand Prix this weekend at Circuit of the Americas in Austin—and he told us that he’s looking forward to having the extra support from the American fanbase.
“For me, it’s my opportunity to be and to drive in front of a home crowd,” he said. “Since 2008, I haven’t actually done a race [in America] aside from the 24 Hours of Daytona. For me to be able to come back seven years later and be able to be driving in a Formula One car, which is the goal that I set out for myself seven years ago, it’s a very special event for me personally. In terms of what I’m expecting from Austin, I mean, obviously, the reception’s already been very positive.”
Rossi has some prior experience driving Circuit of the Americas from driving Free Practice 1 for Caterham in 2013, but this will be his first time driving the circuit in the new turbo V6 hybrid cars.
“[Circuit of the Americas] is quite special to drive, because when they designed it, they had a lot of the best elements from tracks all around the world,” said Rossi of this weekend’s location. “When you drive it, you recognize corners that you’ve driven at other circuits.”
As far as sections of the track go, he couldn’t pinpoint any that stood out as particularly challenging.
“Obviously, turn 1 is spectacular from a spectator’s point of view,” he continued. “You feel the elevation as a driver, but it doesn’t make it any more difficult.”
Rossi swears his race days aren’t anything too special: he wakes up, has breakfast, meets with the team over things like strategy and weather, and then eats a decent lunch about two or two and a half hours before getting in the car to drive. On track, it takes him about two to three laps to get into a good rhythm and get familiarized with the track again.
“It’s not as dramatic as you might think,” Rossi explained.
“I don’t have any pre-race rituals, or anything specific that I do,” he continued. “I just make sure that the simple things are taken care of, and that the food that I have is adequate, and that’s about it.”
It’s clear that Rossi takes a no-nonsense, serious approach to every race weekend, and it’s been paying off with race wins and decent drives. For his sake and the sake of everyone who wants to see him land a full-time F1 drive next year, here’s hoping COTA isn’t too much of a challenge in the new cars and that he continues to impress in the backmarker Manor Marussia.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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