Canadian F1 Grand Prix - Practice

Exclusive interview with Caterham’s Alexander Rossi

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As Formula One’s interest in America continues to grow and thrive thanks to the return of the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas, the one piece missing from the jigsaw is a driver from the US. Currently, Alexander Rossi is the only American driver with an FIA superlicence required to race in Formula One, taking part in tests and practice sessions for Caterham F1 Team as their reserve driver, making him well-placed to secure a full-time drive in the future. At the British GP, Alexander sat down with NBC Sports to give his view on F1 in the USA, the new track at New Jersey and his aspirations for 2014.

You had your first go at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last weekend. A few problems with the car, but how was the weekend as a whole?

Alexander Rossi: The weekend was long. You arrive on the Sunday before and everything is kind of drawn out longer because of the event. During the event and the actual race, I didn’t really like it, solely because you don’t sleep and when you’re not doing well it’s a struggle. In the end, on Monday morning, it was something that you look back on and say “alright, when’s the next one?” In the end it was something that was very cool and the thing that stands out to me the most is being able to drive and being able to push throughout the entire stint.

Is it something you would want to do again?

AR: (immediately) I would do it again, yes, absolutely. It was something that I was very happy to have got the opportunity to take part in and, honestly, my knowledge and appreciation for sportscar and endurance racing was next to none prior to the weekend. Looking back on that, it was very cool!

You’re into your second year with Caterham in the reserve driver role, how are you finding it with the team?

AR: Yeah, it’s going good. Every year we make a step forward and progress a bit more and I become a bit more part of the team which in F1 is not the easiest thing to do, it’s a very closed environment. But being able to be a part of this team and to grow with them has been very positive. I’m very happy. If things keep progressing as they have been in the past couple of years, the goal is to be racing next year, and I think that we have a good opportunity to do that.

You did your first practice run of the season at the Canadian Grand Prix, even if the weather didn’t really help out, but was it good to get back behind the wheel of an F1 car?

AR: It absolutely was, I hadn’t driven the 2013 car on track prior to that so it was good to do that. Obviously being a changeable weather session like it was in a car that wasn’t my own… the risk versus reward scenario was a bit… I had to be a bit cautious because you don’t want to be the person who crashes someone else’s car in free practice. In full wet conditions I think the pace was alright. It was just that I had never driven on intermediate tires before so I was a bit lost on where the pace was. But at the end of the day we completed the programme.

Are there any more lined up? Are you looking at Austin potentially?

AR: Oh, yeah. I was going to have quite a few at the beginning of the year before GP2 happened, and now GP2 conflicts with quite a few of them, it reduces the number. But yes, there will be more I am sure.

Was it good to get into the GP2 car and keep racing this season?

AR: Yeah, coming into this year I was expecting to just be at the track and having to watch people race, so to be able to race is obviously great as it’s what I love to do and what I want to do. It’s a bit difficult because we missed testing and we missed the first race so we have been on the back foot, but yeah, it’s good to be a part of Caterham’s GP2 team and keep the progression going.

You said in an interview recently that you would be disappointed if you didn’t have a full-time seat next season. Have you had any talks with teams? Are there any plans in motion, or is it a case of playing it by ear?

AR: I think you always have talks with teams. It’s been the goal and the focus to be in a race seat by 2014. Obviously Formula One is a tricky business and things need to fall into place, so we need to focus on GP2 and make sure that the results in that are positive. I think if that happens, there is no reason why we shouldn’t have a race seat.

You’re the only American driver with an FIA superlicence at the moment. With interest in F1 in the US on a high, is it something you’re quite proud about? Are you aware of this mass interest coming out of the States?

AR: I’m obviously quite proud of it, to be able to represent America in the paddock which is very scarce of Americans. Yes, absolutely. The interest in the States was very clear in Austin, and I think everyone was absolutely blown away and surprised by the turnout, how good it was and how much everyone enjoyed the race. So, for me, it was a big boost, because I find that maybe people are going to start recognizing this and recognizing what I’m doing. I think it’s positive, I think that there’s a long way to go. Obviously, America’s a big place and it’s difficult to penetrate, but I think Austin will be even bigger this year as well as New Jersey coming up next year. The pieces are slowly falling into place. The timing is quite good for me to be racing.

Have you had a chance to race around the Circuit of the Americas yet?

AR: I’ve driven round COTA, yeah, I actually drove in Jim Clark’s Lotus 49, which was amazing. The track is very cool. I mean, I’m biased, of course, but yeah, I really enjoyed it and I’ll definitely be looking forward to driving there.

The track at New Jersey is coming into place and getting together. Have you had a look at the layout and what are your thoughts on it?

AR: I actually drove the layout in a mini-van in 2012. It’s mental. If that’s the layout that’s actually going to get approved and signed off by the FIA, that’s cool, because it is incredibly quick and there’s a lot of elevation, and it’s a street course. I mean it reminded me a bit of Macau to be honest. If it gets produced the way it’s thought of right now, it will be amazing.

Would it be one of your favorite circuits?

AR: I think so, yeah. Imagine Monza on the city streets!

If you could race with any American driver, past or present, from any series, who would it be and why?

AR: (long pause) Woah! Well done, I’ve never been asked that before! (long pause) Can I do past and present? Present, I would love to race with Conor [Daly], solely because I never have. His goal has always been F1, my goal has always been F1, he took the American route for a bit, I took the European route but now we’re both here on the same weekends and such. The thing is that we have never been able to race on track and I think it would be quite cool to have two Americans in a European junior formula. To be able to just compete against him would be great. Past, I’m going to be cliched and just say Mario [Andretti] solely because he was most recognized American in F1 and to be able to see where I kind of compare with him. We’ve both been young, we’ve both been in a similar car but it would be very cool to see how I match up against who is considered to be the most successful American in F1.

You said that Conor went through the American route. Why did you go through the European route then? Was it quite difficult doing that considering that NASCAR and IndyCar are so popular in the US?

AR: It wasn’t difficult because since I was 9 or 10 years old my goal was Formula One and I knew in order to get to F1 you had to be on a European radar and you had to be doing things in Europe. Winning things in America would mean nothing to Europeans, so that’s why I got over here as soon as I could and I’m very happy that I did. It’s gotten us into the position that we are now. I think Conor will be successful, it’s just two different approaches of doing it. His way seems to be working for him and my way seems to be working for me.

With the new regulations for next season, the Young Drivers’ Test has been scrapped which you have partaken in before. How valuable was that test to you and how do you think it will harm other young drivers by losing that test?

AR: It’s incredibly valuable solely because when else does a young driver get to drive an F1 car? So, even if it’s one day, it’s something, and F1 is such a big world and so much more involved that any other category in the world, so to be able to be in the car even for a half day, even for a 90 minute FP1, you’re going to gain something, you’re going to pick up something to help you when you’re in a racing environment. For young drivers to have yet another experience taken away from them is difficult, but you know, at the end of the day it’s the same for everyone and I think teams will find ways to give young drivers experience because they’re going to have to be in F1 cars at some point. I think teams see the value of giving them some track time.

From the current F1 calendar, what is your favorite corner on any of the circuits?

AR: Swimming Pool at Monaco.

Most people I have asked so far have just said ‘Eau Rouge’!

AR: The thing about Eau Rouge is that it’s cool the first time you do it, but the second, third, fourth, fifth time it’s not… I would imagine, I’ve never driven it when it was a ‘proper corner’, in the sense that it was almost flat but not quite, but now it’s every lap flat, easy, without much issue. But the Swimming Pool is not every lap flat and it’s not easy and if you get it wrong it’s going to be a big one.

Who is your tip for the world championship this season?

AR: As much as it pains me to say it, Sebastian [Vettel]. Saying that, no disrespect to him or Red Bull but I think all of us would love to see Lewis or Fernando or someone else have the championship but hats off to them for what they’re doing. We haven’t seen anything like that since Ferrari and Michael.

CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.