Alexander Rossi will not be racing in the United States Grand Prix this weekend, but he’ll be doing the next best thing.
The Caterham reserve driver will drive during the first of three practice sessions and inch closer to his goal of securing a slot on the Formula One grid.
“It’s quite special for me,” said Rossi, a 22-year-old California native. “Getting the opportunity to drive an F1 car is so scarce and difficult to come by that any day or laps or demo run — anything you get to do in the car — is just an added benefit for the next time you get in the car.”
Rossi will be the only U.S. driver behind the wheel this weekend, and he’ll be the first in the two years who Austin has put on the U.S. Grand Prix. As such, Rossi said he plans to wave the U.S. flag for the occasion. He even thought briefly about customizing a helmet for the occasion.
“But it would be a little bit of overkill for one session,” Rossi said.
Americans on the F1 grid, which has 22 drivers this year, are rarer than Europeans racing in NASCAR. There hasn’t been an American in F1 since Scott Speed raced in 2007. In his two-year run in Formula One, Speed failed to score a single point. The last American F1 champion was Mario Andretti, way back in 1978.
Rossi’s F1 dream isn’t just a casual ambition. Many believe that a young American driver needs seasoning in Europe to make it to F1, and Rossi moved to Italy when he was 16 to concentrate on his racing career. He’s lived in London for the past year and a half.
Earlier this month in Abu Dhabi, Rossi secured the pole and then picked up a landmark victory in a support series for F1.
“It was something that was very special for me to be the first American to win a GP2 race,” Rossi said. “I think when Scott Speed did GP2 in 2005, I think his best result was third. It was quite emotional on the podium.”
The win capped what Rossi characterized as an up-and-down season. He finished in ninth place in the series but was closing strong.
“It was my first year in GP2, and I came in quite late and we missed the first race and we missed all the pre-season testing,” Rossi said. “In GP2 you have a 30-minute practice and that’s it before qualifying so if you’re behind the eight ball, it’s very difficult to catch up. It took four or five races to catch up to everyone else. The results were there, they just came too late in the season.”
With the GP2 season finished, it’s a perfect time for Rossi to take a spin at Circuit of the Americas. He’s driven the track before, once in a Corvette and in January in a vintage Formula One car from 1967, Jim Clark’s 49 Lotus.
“You’re kind of trusting the fact that everything is going to work as it should,” Rossi recalled. “Still at the end of the back straight and you’re doing 170, 180 miles an hour, you realize that this car is 50 years old.
“At the end of the day, it was such an experience, such a cool thing to do … It makes what we do look pretty tame.”
Driving in the first practice on Friday, Rossi will get some initial impressions of the car’s setup for the circuit and establish a general baseline for the car. He said the car will be running about three seconds slower per lap than it will in qualifying Saturday after all the adjustments are made.
Rossi said even though it’s a practice session, he’ll have friends and family coming in for the event. It’s rare that they get to see him race in the U.S.
Finding American firms willing to sponsor a driver in Europe can be a difficult sell. It’s a challenge that Rossi and any other U.S. driver aspiring to Formula One faces.
“We all know that to get into Formula One racing you need to do more than just being able to drive quickly,” Rossi said.
On Friday as the only U.S. driver at Circuit of the Americas, Rossi should have a nice showcase for his skills.