One month ago in Singapore, 24-year-old Alexander Rossi fulfilled his lifelong dream of racing in a Formula One grand prix. The California native finished an impressive 14th in his debut, ahead of his more experienced Manor team-mate, Will Stevens.
This Sunday in Austin, Texas, Rossi will become the first American F1 driver to start his home race since Scott Speed at the 2007 U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis.
But all of it—part of a five-race deal with the Manor team—almost never happened.
"I think after what was a very challenging three or four months in 2014, at the end of the year, it was the first time where I considered going a different route," says Rossi over the phone from New York, where he stopped for a media blitz on his way to Austin.
"It’s not a secret that I was looking at IndyCar, and I was actually very, very close—I’d say maybe less than a week away—to signing the deal to race in IndyCar this year."
At the last minute, GP2 team Racing Engineering offered Rossi a seat. Current Manor reserve driver Fabio Leimer won the GP2 title with the team in 2013, as did Giorgio Pantano in 2008, and the team's pedigree helped convince Rossi to jump aboard.
"When the opportunity to drive for a championship-winning team in GP2 came, it was something that I couldn’t say no to," he explains. "I always felt that if I’d had a competitive car in GP2, I’d be able to be up front and fight for a championship, and I’d never had that opportunity."
Had he chosen to return to America to race in IndyCar, the Manor deal would never have happened. Instead, he has won three GP2 races and sits second in the championship with four races remaining. That performance, along with his previous association with Manor/Marussia (he was the team's reserve driver at the end of the year and nearly raced in Belgium and Russia), helped lay the foundation for him to slide into the race seat this year.
It was a long time coming (Rossi has been racing for 15 years), but when the deal finally happened, everything moved very quickly.
"On Sunday at Monza, there was kind of a brief, passing comment, and through that week there was discussion, probably a bit more serious," Rossi says, when asked how he first heard about Manor's interest.
"I wasn’t aware that it was actually going to happen until the Monday evening prior to Singapore and, at the time, I was in Spain with my GP2 team debriefing on the race weekend at Monza."
Once the deal was finalised, Rossi called his father, who has supported him throughout his career and attends 95 percent of his son's races (Rossi's estimate). But there wasn't really time to celebrate—with free practice starting on Friday, he scrambled to book a plane ticket to Singapore as quickly as possible.
When I spoke with Rossi last year in Montreal, ahead of his first practice outing in the new generation of hybrid F1 cars, he said he was excited and apprehensive. But what kind of feelings are going through a young driver's head as he makes his F1 debut?
"For me, the change didn’t really happen until Sunday, and it didn’t happen until I was on the grid," Rossi says. "At that point, I realized that I was finally going to take the race start, and I think that’s when I was really excited, but knowing that as soon as you start the formation lap, all the feelings that you were feeling four minutes ago disappear, because you’re in the car and you have a job to do, and you have a million things running through your head."
Once the race started, the young American did not look out of place. The Manor cars are using 2014 Ferrari engines, so they have no hope of competing with any other teams on the grid, but Rossi did beat Stevens and drove a clean race at a tricky street circuit, even after his team radio failed, leaving him near the front of the queue for a safety car restart.
Rossi's cool performance was no surprise to anyone who has watched him in GP2, nor to Rossi himself, who says, "A race environment is where I’m most comfortable. First lap and Turn 1, I always feel quite comfortable in that situation, and I always feel like I can come up, winning positions."
On the other hand, "The biggest thing that I’m focusing on in terms of self-evaluation is single-lap qualifying," Rossi says.
"For me, in terms of getting better at one thing, it’s putting everything into one lap in qualifying."
Part of his ritual before each session, qualifying or otherwise, is to say a short prayer with his dad. "It’s kind of our way to acknowledge and be thankful for the situation we find ourselves in."
"I believe there's always a greater plan," explains Rossi, who was raised in a Protestant Christian household and cites God and his parents on his website as the two most important influences in his life.
For him, there is no incongruity between his faith and his participation in the most technologically advanced sport on the planet. "I feel that driving race cars and being involved in Formula One and motorsports is my opportunity to share my beliefs."
Don't mistake him for an in-your-face evangelist, though. Rossi seems comfortable talking about his faith when asked, but doesn't come across as pushy about it.
Now, the Circuit of the Americas looms on the horizon. The U.S. Grand Prix will serve as something of a homecoming for Rossi, who left America as a 16-year-old to pursue his F1 dreams in Europe.
Although there is no home advantage in F1, Rossi will no doubt receive a warm welcome in Texas. But despite all the extra attention and media commitments, he is focused on his work at the track, knowing he must prove himself if he wants to earn a race seat for 2016.
And what are his prospects for next year, with only a few seats remaining on the grid?
"I’m not having any conversations with Haas," he says, rejecting my speculation that his deal with Manor is a chance for him to gain the race experience Gene Haas wants for his new team.
"At this time of the year, it’s very difficult to say," Rossi hedges, when asked about opportunities with other outfits, although he recognises that this is his best chance to grab a full-time F1 drive.
"Once you’re a grand prix driver, it changes the way you’re viewed a little bit."
Having an American driver and an American team alongside the rejuvenated U.S. Grand Prix in Austin would be great for the sport as it continues its efforts to carve out a niche in the American market.
For Rossi, he is happy to finally be in F1, but he is not satisfied.
"You never really have time to enjoy the moment, which is very typical of Formula One, I think. You’re always chasing something."
After the race in Singapore, he thought, "We have reached this point in my career and accomplished a goal, but it’s a whole different job, now.
"Now, we need to find a way to stay."
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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