MONTREAL — Caterham reserve driver Alexander Rossi will be on the track Friday morning for the first free practice session of the 2014 Canadian Grand Prix. The 22-year-old is aiming to become the first American driver since Scott Speed, in 2007, to race in a Formula One grand prix, and these practice outings are part of his development program.
On Thursday afternoon, I sat down with an apprehensive (his word), but self-assured Rossi in the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve paddock to discuss the new 2014 cars, a rough start to his GP2 season and F1's future in the United States.
"Excited is one of the emotions," Rossi laughs when asked how he feels about getting back in an F1 car for the first time since last season's U.S. Grand Prix. "I'm a bit apprehensive, I guess, because I don't really know what to expect. The cars are so different from last year. But I'm very much looking forward to it at the same time."
He has spent a lot of time in the Caterham simulator, but even the most advanced simulators are no replacement for time on the track.
"Because I haven't driven the actual car," Rossi admits, "I don't know how representative [the simulator] is. You realise that the braking is a bit different, and how all the systems work, but in terms of actual performance and grip and how the car behaves in a corner...I don't know."
Despite those unknowns, the young American projects a calm, quiet confidence in his own abilities. Without a hint of braggadocio, he says, "I feel 100 percent confident that I can step into a Formula One car tomorrow, in a race environment, and be able to extract the performance. And I've proven that every time I have gotten into an F1 car, being right on the pace."
Still, Rossi acknowledges that, "There's always pressure every time you get into the race car. There's always areas where you don't quite exploit it. And I think that is what makes motorsport so addictive for all of us, because every lap that we do, there's always areas where you can do a bit better. I don't feel that I've proven myself at all in GP2, nor have I in Formula One."
Although most American racers grow up aspiring to a NASCAR or IndyCar drive, Rossi has always had his sights set on F1. He left home—Auburn, California—at 16 to race in Europe, and has been climbing the ladder ever since, from GP3 to Formula Renault 3.5 to GP2.
He took his first GP2 victory at the end of last season in the Abu Dhabi feature race, but the first three events of the GP2 season have been disappointing for Rossi and his EQ8 Caterham Racing teammate, Rio Haryanto. Rossi has yet to score in 2014, although that is mostly due to factors outside his control.
"I totally believe that the car is a good race car," he says. "Our races just haven't come together yet, for a number of different reasons. The key at this point is just not to get frustrated, even if people around you are starting to stress a bit. You just have to realise that it will come together at some point."
After Canada, Rossi will be back in the F1 cockpit during free practice for his home race in Austin in November. He acknowledges that, "Being an American gives me opportunities that I otherwise wouldn't have because, being the only American, it gives teams the ability to possibly find American sponsors. It's something I can offer that no one else can."
With the Texas race proving to be a popular event, even in the heart of NASCAR country, and a new American F1 team joining the series in 2016, Rossi is bullish about his country's F1 future.
"I think the fanbase is growing," he says, "but I don't think it will become a household topic of discussion until not only is there an American driver or an American team, but until there is a successful American driver or American team."
When asked whether F1 can break out of its niche in the U.S., Rossi is unequivocal. "100 percent. I think Americans definitely appreciate what Formula One is from an engineering standpoint, or in terms of the race experience. I think there are plenty people that are interested in it. And America has a big enough population to support all three series [F1, NASCAR, IndyCar]."
It has been clear for the last few years that F1 wants a second race in America to take advantage of that large population. "As a Californian, I would love for F1 to return to Long Beach—that would be amazing," Rossi says, referring to the rumours (which now seem unlikely, at least in the next few years, per ESPN F1) of a possible return to the circuit that hosted F1 races from 1976 to 1983.
"However," he continues, "I don't really care where it is; I just want there to be as many American races on the F1 calendar as possible."
With or without more American races, though, Rossi's target remains the same. "The goal has always been to get to Formula One," he says. "Now I just need to take that final step, and it is going to happen at some point. It's just a matter of when."
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