Given chance, American Rossi fighting for full-time F1 seat
AUSTIN, Texas — Alexander Rossi’s first drive at the Circuit of the Americas came in a friend’s Maserati when the still-being-built track had just put down its first asphalt. Construction crews hadn’t even finished most of the turns yet.
“I don’t think I hit 60 (mph),” Rossi said.
For a race car driver, it was a slow burn of anticipation and potential. Much like Rossi’s Formula One career.
The American returns to Texas for this weekend’s U.S. Grand Prix with the small-budget Manor Marussia team. He will be going much faster from the starting grid in pursuit of a permanent driver’s seat in 2016.
“To come back here as a driver is the completion of one dream,” Rossi said. “I have (four) more opportunities to show what I’m capable of and that I deserve to be on the grid next year.”
Rossi has long been viewed as the up-and-coming-American in Formula One. Too long, perhaps.
The 24-year-old Californian’s name has been bounced around for years as the potential American ambassador for a sport that has an U.S. footprint in the Austin track and little else. But Rossi’s real time behind an F1 wheel was mostly limited to roles as a test driver or a few practice rounds.
That changed in September, when Marussia announced Rossi would drive five of the final seven races this season. His debut at Singapore, where he finished 14th, made him the first American driver to race in Formula One since Scott Speed in 2007.
The championship drought has been even longer. Formula One’s last American world champion was Mario Andretti in 1978.
Rossi’s fledgling career has been filled with curves that kept him off the track.
In 2010, he was lining up a spot as a reserve and test driver for the planned U.S.-based team USF1, but the team folded just before the season.
Last year, he was a test driver for Caterham until the team changed owners midseason amid financial troubles. He went to Marussia, which announced he would replace regular driver Max Chilton for the Belgian Grand Prix because of a contract dispute. But the problem was quickly resolved and Chilton was back in car.
At the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, Marussia’s other regular driver, Julies Bianchi, was severely injured in an accident. The team selected Rossi as his replacement for the next race, but that too was scrapped when the team decided to race only one car out of respect for Bianchi and his family. Bianchi never recovered from his injuries and died earlier this year.
Rossi waited and watched as teams switched drivers or signed rookies with even less experience than he had. Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen was just 17 when the 2015 season began, and just got his Dutch drivers’ license last month at 18.
“It wasn’t difficult to accept that he was 17. It was difficult that he was taking a seat,” Rossi said. “There’s a limited number of seats and if (teams) are going to sign 17- or 18-year-olds, that adds more drivers competing for seats and makes it more challenging.”
Rossi kept his racing form driving in Formula One’s feeder series, GP2, where he currently ranks second in the standings and won in Russia two weeks ago.
Andretti, the best American Formula One driver ever, said Rossi has proven he’s worthy of a regular seat in F1.
“I feel that Alexander is probably being overlooked unfairly. He should have been picked up by one of the teams,” Andretti said.
There was hope Rossi might connect with the new U.S.-based Haas F1 team that will start in 2016. But Haas has ruled out signing an unproven American driver just for publicity and signed Frenchman Romain Grosjean, an F1 veteran, as its leader next year. Haas hasn’t yet announced a second driver, but Rossi says it won’t be him.
“It was a little bit of a surprise they were against the concept as they were. But I’m very aware this is as much a business as a sport. I get it,” Rossi said. “I think there was quite a bit of a potential to having an American driver on an American team.”
Circuit of the Americas founder and chairman Bobby Epstein is a Rossi fan and counted on his early help to promote the track. But he says it will take more than just having an American driver or American team to drive interest in a sport dominated by Europeans.
That will take an American winner, Epstein said.
“In reality, we need Alexander to win in order for the sport to broaden its appeal,” Epstein said.
That won’t happen this week. Marussia’s cars can’t compete with front-runners Mercedes, Ferrari and Williams. But Rossi will have a chance to impress those teams and the others he’ll be driving against.
“I got a seat,” Rossi said. “Now I have to find a way to stay.”
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