With the Formula 1 and IndyCar seasons now in full swing, the month of April heralds the beginning of a number of junior championships throughout motorsport as the stars of tomorrow try to find their feet and make a splash in the racing pond.
In terms of American talent, Alexander Rossi continues to be the most notable racer in junior circles, competing in GP2 for a third year in 2015 with Racing Engineering.
However, another youngster trying to make an impact in European racing circles is TJ Fischer. Hailing from Vacaville, California, the 21-year-old is preparing to make his debut in the Formula Renault 2.0 Alps championship this weekend at the iconic Imola circuit, former host of the San Marino Grand Prix.
An accomplished karter and racer in the Formula Car series, Fischer bucked the trend set by many young American racers by switching to the European ladder in 2014 by racing in the Protyre Formula Renault championship in England.
“We were figuring out our plans, we were thinking Pro Mazda, but budget was a little high for that series and kind of out of our range,” Fischer explained to MotorSportsTalk. “But that’s what I wanted to do. Then we were looking around and I was calling a lot of different teams looking at different options and eventually we got an opportunity to race with Cliff Dempsey Racing.
“And so it just kind of fell into place. I didn’t really think ‘I’m planning on racing in Europe’ at the end of the 2013 season I didn’t think that at all. But things just fell into place, and we got the ride with Cliff.”
Fischer enjoyed a solid year in the British championship, finishing sixth in the final standings and enjoying a run of six top-five finishes in the final seven races of the year. However, the bigger challenge he faced was acclimating to the European racing life, which he found to be very different to that of the United States.
“It was definitely a new experience for me, racing over in Europe and England especially,” Fischer said. “It was a different task for me, obviously the driving is different. It’s maybe more forgiving in the States; over in England and Europe it’s pretty cut-throat.
“Getting used to that was an acclimation period, but we just kept on learning, plugging away at it. Throughout the season we were getting quicker and quicker, and towards the end we started getting some better finishes and really started showing the potential of what we could do.”
And that potential led to a big step up for the 2015 season. After just one year in the national championship, Fischer is now preparing to embark on his debut season in the Formula Renault 2.0 Alps series that will see him race at some of the most famous circuits in the world.
Alps has produced a number of exciting drivers despite only enjoying its debut season in 2011. Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat won the series back in 2012; two years later he’d be in F1 with Toro Rosso. Ferrari junior Antonio Fuoco won the title in 2013, whilst McLaren youngster Nyck de Vries took the crown last season.
The enormity of the challenge ahead is not lost on Fischer, though, and he feels ready to make the step up in 2015.
“It still is a bit of a big step for me, going from the Protyre Formula Renault championship up to Alps,” he said. “Sometimes, the guy who wins the championship or is second or third, they’re the guys who move up.
“We weren’t quite there yet, so it’s a bit of a jump still to go to Alps. But I think we’re prepared. Testing with the new car has been going really well and we’ve been very competitive, so I’m feeling confident going into this year.”
Fischer will be racing with Salvador Duran Racing in 2015, but faced an age-old question for young racers: funding. Moving with the times, he embraced a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to help get everything in place for the year ahead, and he is now all set to race at Imola this weekend.
The famous track is just the tip of the iceberg, though. The calendar for the series features many of the most famous tracks in Europe – Spa-Francorchamps, Monza, Mugello, Pau, Jerez, and the Red Bull Ring – and racing on them is a prospect that excites Fischer.
“As an American, coming across the pond and getting the opportunity to race at these tracks – Spa, Monza, Imola – it’s pretty crazy,” he explained.
“Just looking at the circuits… I mean I’ve been watching onboards a lot, and I just get goosebumps watching it because it’s crazy to think that I’m going to be racing at them.”
It is an opportunity that many young, American racers do not get and puts Fischer on the right ladder to perhaps reach F1 one day, which remains a largely Euro-centric sport.
“Getting engulfed in the whole European experience at a young age at the junior formula level, I think is the better route to go,” Fischer said. “I get the experience of racing against the drivers that are at my same level trying to reach F1 as well, and I’m competing against them as opposed to racing in the United States and then having to acclimate later on if I chose to try and do F1 later in my career.
“I think it’s better off just getting fully immersed in the whole culture, the whole style of racing, and learning from it. That’s the most I can do, just learn as much as I can and try to improve as I go along.
“Things fell into place, and then I realized that this is very realistic and I can actually pursue my goals and dreams.”
The ‘drought’ for US drivers in F1 may be a long-running one, but it is the likes of Fischer who play a part in ensuring that the future is bright for American racers in the European scene and, one day, perhaps the top line single-seater series.