Lone Star: An Oral History of Alex Rossi, America’s Only Formula 1 Driver
Here is how the 23-year-old Californian's F1 dream almost died.
On September 20 in Singapore, Alexander Rossi became the first American to race in a Formula 1 Grand Prix since 2007, and only the fourth since 1978, when Mario Andretti won the F1 championship. Rossi’s ride is the realization of a dream that has obsessed his entire family for 15 years. Even his grandmother worked her fingers to the bone getting the young Californian on the grid. Rossi says it became the sole focus of their lives.
This weekend, he’ll drive in his second Grand Prix, at Suzuka Circuit in Japan. He’ll qualify on his 24th birthday. Few humans will ever confront the pressure he’s endured during this odyssey, and fewer still will experience the triumph. But, as the saying goes: Be careful what you wish for. Herewith, a short oral history of the Rossi saga.
Alexander Rossi: “The Eureka moment came when I was five years old. I was at Laguna Seca watching a Champ Car race with my father. I was, like, ‘I wanna do that. That’s what I have to do.’… When I first started racing, people would ask me what I wanted to accomplish. I’d always say F1, because my father told me those cars were the fastest.”
Pieter Rossi (father): “Alexander was an only child and I remember as far back as five years old, he was going to races with me. At about 7, he started getting the itch and talking about wanting to race go-karts. I didn’t take it too seriously, but I thought we’d give him a shot. I took him to a three-day school in Las Vegas. He did so well, the instructor—a guy named Matt Jaskol—came to me afterward and said, ‘Boy, not only is he passionate, he’s really good. He should race.’”
Matt Jaskol (first instructor): “I remember him being extremely focused at such a young age. Even at 9, he knew what he wanted to do. Kids that young, who are so serious, they run the risk of burning out.”
Rossi: “We made a family decision over lunch one day at a Mexican restaurant, in Nevada City [California]. It was next to a movie theater, and we were going to go to a movie. My parents said, ‘Do you want to do this? You obviously see that there’s a lot of hard work, and you’re not always winning.’ I said, ‘Yes, I want to do this.’ They said, ‘If you commit to it, then we will as well.’”
The family got a motorhome and hit the road—mom, dad, Alexander, and the dog—pulling a trailer full of go-kart equipment.
Pieter Rossi: “We were on the road 45 weekends out of 52. It was a sizable investment. Alexander was home schooled. The commitment went way beyond racing. This was his dream. He was my only child. He was good at this… I’d leave the office [Pieter was an architect and contractor at the time] on a Thursday and literally drive all night to get to where we needed to be. He’d race all weekend, and I’d drive all night Sunday and be back at the office Monday morning and he’d be doing his homework… Those years are what made him who he is as a racecar driver.”
Rossi, racing on a scholarship, won the Skip Barber Western Regional Series in 2006. He moved to Formula BMW, winning that championship in 2008. Then he took a leap, moving to Europe full-time to race. Since he was only 16, his mother accompanied him.
Pieter Rossi: “There was always one goal. It’s always good to have a B plan, but I can assure you, there was one goal: F1.”
David Hobbs (F1 driver, 1967-1974): “If you want to be in F1, you have to take all the basic steps: preferably Formula 3, maybe Renault 3.5, or GP3, then GP2. In F1 they don’t take notice of American success. You have to move to Europe and live there. It’s a massive commitment, financially and emotionally. You either need to have massive personal wealth, and be very good, or you need to find someone to back you extensively. If you stay in the States, there’s NASCAR, IndyCar, sports cars. You go over there, you could spend four or five million bucks and still not make it to F1. It’s a hell of a risky thing to try to do.”
The family created Team Rossi Motorsports. Grandma served as team accountant. Rossi’s father commuted from California to every race in Europe.
Rossi: “It was the operational side of this whole thing, a company that was able to accept sponsorship and manage a driver. Part of me would say that my father has been even more instrumental in all this than myself. He’s been able to make sure I’m in a racecar every year, and he built relationships in F1, which is notoriously challenging and not very receptive to Americans… Budgets go up astronomically when you cross the Atlantic. In 2009, my father and one of his friends set up an investment fund where private people could buy a unit [in Rossi’s future], which cost X amount. If there was ever a time when I reached a certain level, there’d be a return-on-investment.”
Pieter Rossi counts dozens of private concerns who invested in his son. Meanwhile, for teams to keep afloat financially, drivers need to place cars near the front.
Anonymous (GP2 insider): “The sport is very expensive. A GP2 budget today, with a good team that takes no shortcuts—it’s about $2 million. It costs about $12,000 just for the brakes, for one weekend. At the end of that weekend, you get a new set for the next weekend.”
The pressure to prove himself mounted. But Rossi had learned how to handle the heat early in his go-kart days. Gradually, his name started popping up—Who’ll be the next American F1 driver?
Pieter Rossi: “Then politics got involved. A lot. It kept him from getting a full time F1 drive. We deal with an international sport. Not only are there cultural differences but we also had to deal with the downturn in the economy. The recession was a big factor in the sport, affecting a lot of the seats that rookies were vying for.”
Rossi inked deals to become reserve driver at two F1 teams—first Caterham, then Marussia. On more than one occasion with Marussia in 2014, his Grand Prix debut was announced; but it didn’t happen. By the end of the season, Marussia had gone bankrupt.
For this season, Rossi nabbed a seat in GP2 with Spain’s Racing Engineering, and reclaimed his reservist position for Manor Marussia, which had crawled back from the bankruptcy. All summer, Rossi kept himself near the top of the GP2 leaderboard, the lone American competing in the biggest F1 feeder series. Then came the call he’d been waiting for most of his life.
Rossi: “There was some talk about me racing for Manor in Singapore. I’d been down this road before, so I wasn’t thinking too much about it. I got a phone call in the middle of the night on the Monday before Singapore. It was my father. He said, ‘It’s happening.’ I said, ‘Okay, I should book flights then.’ And he said, ‘Yep.’ It was really last minute. To put together the contract, my father didn’t sleep for literally five days. I’m the luckiest driver on the grid, because I don’t think any other manager would do that.”
Pieter Rossi: “I was on the west coast. All the negotiations were London time. So all the negotiations happened for me in the middle of the night. We had to come to a place where it was a win/win for both parties.”
There was a mad scramble to get the paperwork done by the deadline—Tuesday afternoon London time. Rossi was on a plane that night for Singapore.
In Free Practice 1, he climbed into the car and moved onto the circuit, lapping with the best of them—not just of today, but some of the best ever. Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso. Then, disaster: Entering Turn 18, Rossi lost control and put the car into a wall.
Rossi (to a journalist after the shunt): “I was quite upset to be honest. It’s not what you want to do in your first practice session. I’m quite critical of myself.”
But the team got the car patched up. By Free Practice 2, Rossi was over two seconds faster than his teammate, Will Stevens. Still, he qualified 20th out of 20.
Rossi: “It didn’t hit me until Saturday night that I was going to be doing a Grand Prix. I didn’t sleep at all.”
Singapore is F1’s only night race. The track is illuminated, giving it an alien atmosphere. When the race got underway, twenty cars—some 12,000 horsepower, the fastest pack of thoroughbreds on earth—bolted forward. Rossi got a bad start, but soon got his feet under him and passed teammate Stevens. Lap after lap, attrition moved him higher up—16th, then 15th... On lap 29, Rossi’s radio failed. Suddenly, he was alone in the car, with no help from the team.
Pieter Rossi: “Overcoming no radio? People in the sport know what it means. People on the outside won’t understand the level of what that meant. With two full course caution safety cars, the technical knowledge you need to drive the hybrid F1 car of today, all the setting changes that you’re doing throughout a single lap….”
Rossi finished 14th in an uncompetitive car, beating his teammate, with no radio.
Rossi: “When you get out of the car you have to go to the FIA and weigh yourself. Then you’re taken into the media pit for 10 minutes. As soon as that was done, my father was there. I gave him a hug. He said, ‘Awesome drive. I’m really proud.’”
Pieter Rossi: “I was amazed in the sense of where we were standing at that moment, after all the years and all that he’d accomplished.”
Graeme Lowdon (President, Manor Racing), post-race: “[Alexander] managed to race pretty well all things considered… He is going to be back in the car again so he is still a Formula 1 driver.”
And an American one, too.