In this joint feature, lead MotorSportsTalk writers Luke Smith and Tony DiZinno consider the impact that American driver Alexander Rossi’s arrival in Formula 1 has had on the sport as a whole, and also in helping to crack the U.S. market.
Luke Smith: The USA has traditionally been Formula 1’s ‘problem market’. Despite hosting 44 world championship Grands Prix and even having World Champions Phil Hill and Mario Andretti, America and F1 have never quite clicked as many would have liked.
Ever since the return of the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, though, a great deal has changed. This year’s race will be the fourth event at the Circuit of The Americas, and an American team is set to arrive on the grid in 2016 in the form of Haas F1 Team.
But an American driver is arguably the most important part of the puzzle so far.
As Tony will expand on later, Alexander Rossi is not your ‘average’ American F1 driver. He didn’t work his way up the ranks towards IndyCar and get a chance to switch to F1. At a young age, he had the dream of being an F1 driver, bravely working his way up the European ladder.
This weekend, he will finally realize his dream of (quite literally) racing with the star-spangled banner on his car at his home Grand Prix. The importance of this moment really cannot and should not be understated.
Rossi’s arrival makes an important statement about America’s standing within F1. It proves that the sport is not simply a fleeting interest, but instead something that is here to stay. COTA’s success and Haas’ arrival are both big factors in this, of course, but in Rossi, American fans finally have a driver to get behind and cheer on.
As impressive as COTA and Haas are, when trying to stir up interest in the sport and get others curious about grand prix racing, there can be little more convincing than talking about the success of an American – and Rossi’s story is one of success.
He may not have obliterated GP2 like Stoffel Vandoorne or stepped into an F1 car just two years after leaving karts like Max Verstappen, but Rossi has beaten the odds as an American, who perhaps ordinarily would have been expected to aspire to become an IndyCar or NASCAR driver when he was a kid.
To make his feat all the more impressive, some of his most important racing years would have come when F1’s status in the USA was at a low ebb. Rossi made the move over to Europe for the 2008 season, just one year after the Grand Prix at Indianapolis had its last running; a time when it was believed that F1 just could not work in America.
To have risen up through the ranks in light of this only make his achievements all the more impressive.
So as well as helping to debunk the myth that F1 could not work in the USA – which many could still have argued had he moved into IndyCar for 2015 as originally planned – Rossi is also helping to conjure up interest in the sport for new fans.
As I wrote yesterday about Lewis Hamilton, by doing simple things such as appearing on TV shows and news items, he is speaking to a whole new audience. The same is true for Rossi, who had a whirlwind media schedule in the lead up to the Austin weekend – an American driver in the US GP gives serious traction to the race.
Rossi wrote in his NBC Sports blog earlier this week that his push for a seat with Manor in 2016 was going well, and ensuring that his F1 career is more than a five-race sojourn is crucial. Haas may have overlooked him for the time being, but with Romain Grosjean a Ferrari target for 2017, opportunities remain on the horizon. Staying in the picture with Manor would certainly aid any future push for a seat.
F1 may still have much to do in its drive to crack America. Haas needs to prove itself on-track, COTA needs to defend itself after the arrival of Mexico, and Rossi has just two races under his belt thus far.
However, more and more progress is being made, and arguably, things have never been better for the sport in the USA.
Tony DiZinno: The thing that’s different to me about Alexander Rossi compared to Scott Speed and Michael Andretti, the two only other American Formula 1 drivers in the last 25 years, is the fact he has unquestionably wanted the distinction for years – and he’s not gone to F1 either for marketing reasons or to test his luck in another championship.
Andretti, of course, made it to F1 in 1993 two years after winning his only CART championship in 1991. And he entered into a largely untenable situation. With McLaren, he had a customer Ford engine program and only one of the best drivers of all-time – Ayrton Senna – as his teammate. He’d spent the year commuting between the U.S. and Europe and had more valleys than peaks. At least he’d ended on a high note, with a podium in Monza before then-test driver Mika Hakkinen took over for the final few Grands Prix of the year.
It took another 13 years before Speed finally made it to a race seat. Speed was the result of the Red Bull Driver Search – a targeted program designed at getting a young American driver back into Formula 1 – and his timing was good only because Red Bull had taken on another team. Scuderia Toro Rosso was born from the remnants of Minardi, and its arrival gave Red Bull a place to essentially “stash” two of its young drivers, in Speed and Vitantonio Liuzzi.
Yet that plan was flawed, too. So began the internal Red Bull F1 pipeline, and if you didn’t cut it at Toro Rosso, you didn’t move up. Speed’s F1 career ended – like Andretti’s 14 years earlier – prior to the end of the 2007 season and with another future World Champion replacing him, in the form of a then-20-year-old wunderkind named Sebastian Vettel. Vettel won Toro Rosso’s first and only Grand Prix at Monza, ahead of Red Bull mind you, a year later, and repeated the “first” with Red Bull at China in 2009.
Coincidentally, Speed now drives for Andretti’s Red Bull Global Rallycross program, in a Volkswagen Beetle, some eight years on after a journey through stock cars and a quick detour for a handful of FIA Formula E races.
It’s left Rossi – a promising young American who started on these shores, won a Formula BMW title in 2008, then focused fully on pursuing his F1 dreams – as America’s brightest, primary young hope. And he’s doing so, in a Beetle-inspired No. 53 car paying tribute to Herbie the Lovebug.
It’s left him and his supporters more determined to make it, and the fact they have, without a major company such as Red Bull behind him, or without the name and cachet of an Andretti going into a top team such as McLaren, speaks volumes of their resolve, their dedication and their tenacity.
Rossi’s run through World Series by Renault, GP3 and GP2, with a couple sports car endurance races sprinkled in, has been occasionally circuitous. He’s not necessarily had the best team or equipment at his disposal, but he’s frequently persevered.
He stood on the precipice of his Grand Prix race debut multiple times in 2014, only to see it snatched away by precarious and highly abnormal circumstances. He’d looked towards IndyCar, and this isn’t a slight on IndyCar, but his moving Stateside for 2015 would have likely, permanently, ended his F1 dreams after a six-year pursuit.
It was only thanks to Racing Engineering – a GP2 championship-winning team only two years ago with Fabio Leimer – making the reach out to Rossi that his European dream endured, while his American fans continued the hope, continued the support as he continued to close on his F1 race debut.
From just seeing at the fourth annual Buxton Big Time Bash last night, Rossi has the fan support needed to succeed in F1, even if he doesn’t yet have all the budget sorted for a full season.
First off, he’s making his debut with Manor Marussia – so there’s a perfect underdog story right there, which Americans seem to like. While Speed debuted at Toro Rosso, the fan passion wasn’t there as a more-or-less first year team, without the soul and history of Minardi. Coming in with the smallest team on the grid limits expectations to begin with, which allows Rossi to flourish.
Secondly, he’s got enough name recognition among F1 hardcores – if not the general U.S. audience, yet – to be well known for the last few years. As an example, my interest in GP2 and GP3 hasn’t been great the last few years; they’re series I don’t cover. But tell me that Rossi and Conor Daly are involved and you bet I’ll be paying attention.
And third, he’s got the right temperament. He’s got a very good personality, he’s smart, and also has an ability to understand how to say the right things in the right moment. What he would say on a FOX Business interview fits that business-focused demographic about how he and his family have had to work at for 10 years is different than what he’d say to our Will Buxton, whom he’s gotten to know very well coming through the F1 ladder, during filming for “Off the Grid.”
How much Rossi goes forward from here will be determined firstly by budget, secondly by continuity and thirdly by general widespread U.S. awareness. The key for him, undoubtedly, is to secure a full-time seat in 2016 to carry the momentum he’s building this year, which will come if he and his supporters find enough budget. Once those two elements are complete, it might allow the key U.S. constituents to be able to market and sell Rossi over the course of a year.
He’s not there yet from a true big-in-the-U.S. standpoint, but he’s closing on the true big-time.