Exclusive interview with Caterham’s Alexander Rossi

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Formula 1 is enjoying a surge in popularity in the USA at the moment. The return of the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas has been a huge success, and there is a push for a second race to take place in New Jersey, or even at Long Beach. Furthermore, an American team is poised to join the sport in 2016 after Gene Haas’s successful bid to get Haas Formula on the grid.

The only thing missing? An American driver. Enter Alexander Rossi.

As the only American to hold an FIA superlicense required to race in F1, Rossi is the closest to joining the grid and becoming the first home driver since Scott Speed in 2007. At the moment, he is balancing his test driver duties at Caterham with a full GP2 campaign, but he hasn’t had the start to the year he may have liked.

In Canada, ahead of his practice run-out for Caterham, Alexander sat down with MotorSportsTalk to discuss his season so far, his future, and Formula 1 in the United States.

2014 has been a difficult year for you so far. I imagine it wasn’t the start you wanted in GP2?

Alexander Rossi: It’s been very difficult. However, I’m a firm believer that if you stay calm and stay focused on what you need to do, it will turn around. Obviously we’ve shown at times that we’re very quick. I believe that the car is fast, I believe that the team is great, it’s just been some very unfortunate circumstances that have sort of compiled themselves, and in GP2, if that happens in any one of the sessions, your weekend is kind of ruined.

Rio [Haryanto] put it on the front row in Monaco, so it must fill you with confidence knowing that the car is quick, and it has just been outside factors that have complicated things.

AR: Exactly, so I have no issues in the sense that I believe the car isn’t quick. We have every opportunity to compete for podiums and wins, so it’s just a matter of it all coming together.

This weekend you’re back in the car for FP1. It must be a really good feeling to get back in the car and back on it?

AR: Yes, exactly. For me, this FP1 is the strangest of all of them, because it’s the first time that I haven’t actually driven the car prior to doing it, so I’m going into it a little bit blind and obviously with the massive changes that we’re all very aware of, it’s a bit of an unknown. But fortunately, I’ve been working with this team for quite a long time, so I know the people, I know how they work, and I can kind of get right into it. So I’m not overly concerned about it, I’m just more excited and apprehensive about not knowing what to expect.

And the simulator work I imagine will have helped coming into this?

AR: Yeah, to a certain extent, but at the end of the day, I don’t know how realistic the sim is because I haven’t driven the car. It’s helpful to a certain extent but I don’t know what I can take as fact and not. But as I said, the engineers have been very helpful. Marcus [Ericsson] and Kamui [Kobayashi] have given me all of the information, so now it’s just about getting up tomorrow morning and experiencing it with the first couple of laps. I think after three or four laps go by it’ll be very much second nature.

Austin might be a bit more representative in terms of being at one with the car?

AR: Yeah, obviously every time you get in the car you’re gonna improve, but as I said I don’t think that it’ll be too difficult after I do the first few laps to get on terms with it.

In Canada this weekend you’ll have a strong US fanbase. It must be something you’re quite proud of, being able to put in the laps in front of your home fans?

AR: Yeah, absolutely, this is why the two FP1 sessions that I do are here and in Austin. This is kind of the second home race for me if you will, and yeah there’s a lot of pride in it.

There’s a lot of talk about F1 in the USA at the moment. We’ve got Haas, we’ve got New Jersey, we’ve got Long Beach. It must be a good time to be an American driver on the cusp of Formula 1?

AR: Yeah the timing has worked out alright, for sure! (laughs) Obviously, at the end of the day, results dictate a lot of where you end up in this sport, and as they should. My focus remains on turning around this GP2 championship, and going back to where we need to. But yes obviously Haas is very exciting for all American Formula 1 fans, me especially, and I wish them all the best, and I certainly hope that they’re able to accomplish everything they set out to do.

New Jersey has sounded exciting for quite some time. And Long Beach, being a Californian, that would be amazing!

That would be the best for you?!

AR: Yeah that would be the epitome for me! But at the end of the day, all we have right now is me being the reserve driver and Austin coming up in October, so those are two things that are kind of at the forefront of our book.

Next season, the target must be a full time F1 driver. Is it a case of putting all of your efforts and resources into this GP2 campaign to try and make that step forwards?

AR: In a nutshell, yeah, and that’s why this year is very important, and the start we have had has been quite disappointing. But GP2, the thing about it is that it’s a very, very long championship, and it rewards race wins. So if you’re able to win some races, it kind of wipes out any bad results you would have had because the points, like Formula 1, are so heavily weighted towards the winner.

We just have to focus on taking it one race at a time. There’s no point looking at the championship as a whole, we need to take it one race at a time, because we are so far in a hole, and if we just kind of do that, stay focused on each race at a time, then come the end of the year we’ll see where we are.

Going back onto Haas, Gene has said that he would like an American driver to be leading that team. Surely you’ve got to be thinking “that’s got to be me”? It’s either you or Conor [Daly], surely?

AR: I’ve had some very brief discussions with the Haas group, and they’ve expressed their interest, I’ve expressed my encouragement to them in the hope that they’re able to get on the grid, for sure. But as I said before, everything’s kind of around results, and at the end of day they’ll speak for themselves more than anything else. My focus has to be on GP2 with Caterham and pulling out the most we can from 2014.

So you wouldn’t mind waiting until 2016 to get an F1 drive?

AR: Well, no, I want to be in Formula 1 next year. I’ve been saying I want to be in Formula 1 next year for a long time (laughs). To be honest, I’m quite tired of waiting on the sidelines. But yes, my focus remains of being in F1 next year with whichever team affords me the opportunity.

Let’s say it doesn’t come together. Would you be happy with another year in reserve and another year in GP2? Or do you want this to be your last year in GP2?

AR: No no, absolutely not. My goal, 100%, for next year is to be in a Formula 1 seat. However, if the opportunity presented itself to do another year of GP2 with the expectation of being in F1 in 2016, then of course, I’m not going to give up until I’m in that place.

You did Le Mans last year, you’ve got that and F1. The Indy 500 is the ‘third’ big event if you will. Is that something you’ve ever though about doing?

AR: I think any race car driver would be interested in doing the Indy 500, but I kind of moved to Europe when I was 16 with the intention of racing in Formula 1, so my IndyCar knowledge, contacts and potential is much less than others because I’ve put my eggs in the European basket. I think the Indy 500 one day would be amazing to do, but it’s not something I’ve kind of put on my to-do list in the next five years or so.

With FP1 this weekend, is it just a case of getting to know the car and trying to do as well as you can?

AR: My primary is objective is to drive the 2014 car, I haven’t done that yet, and then, I’ll be honest with you, beyond that, I want to show the team and Formula 1 community what I’m capable of. I think every race car driver will tell you that at the forefront of his mind is lap times, performance, results and everything, and while the main objective has to be to complete the run programme for the team, to do everything that they ask, there is a part of me that also wants to put in the best representation possible.

What are your thoughts on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve as an actual racing circuit?

AR: I love this track, it’s one of these tracks that rewards risks if you will, it’s one of the classic tracks in that sense. There’s not a lot of run-off so you need to be precise with what you do, and at the end of the day, if you’re a quick driver, it’ll show around here.

To finish off, if you’ve got a message for the American fans who are watching and cheering you on, what would it be?

AR: The message is even though there’s been some setbacks so far this year, my goal and focus still remains 100% Formula 1, and I haven’t lost any confidence in my ability to get there, and I think things will be looking very different come November.

And Austin will be the icing on the cake?

AR: Absolutely, 100%!

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Formula E team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – McLaren Racing

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”