By now, we all know how rookie Alex Rossi won the 100th running of the Indy 500; on fumes and with some clutching and coasting. Somewhat unknown, however, is that earlier this year, Rossi wasn’t sure where or when he’d next be racing. The 24-year-old from California has never been quiet about his designs on making Formula One his forever home, although after spending eight years in Europe trying to make a go of it, nothing really stuck. His practice and test driving deals with Caterham and Marussia fizzled and it was looking like he’d be spending 2016 sans team.
In February, Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta, who had recently joined up to co-run an IndyCar outfit, tapped Rossi for a spot. He readily accepted, though when Manor Racing, an F1 group, asked if Rossi would be interested in a reserve spot, he signed on with them, too. Many questioned which series commanded his true allegiance, though he publicly promised to give IndyCar his all. With Sunday’s win, he’s cemented a solid place for himself within the American series, but will that be enough for him? We sat down with Rossi to find out.
Congrats on the win. That was such a close race. Did it feel as such from the driver's seat?
Thanks. Yes, it did. It was weird because the 500 is such an elaborate race and it’s so long that there is a lot of times where you’re at the front, you’re at the back and you don’t really know what’s going on. I knew that we were fast. Anytime that you’re passing Scott Dixon or Will Power, you have a good car underneath you. But it wasn’t always for the lead. It was for seventh or eighth or ninth. It wasn’t until the very end that I knew that we had a pretty big shot at it.
You didn’t feel like you always had a chance?
The very first stint, prior to the pit stops happening, I was easily in the top six or seven and I was just cruising, happy to be there. I knew 40 laps into the race that we had a car that was good enough to win. I had no idea what was then to come with two bad pit stops and then having to go off sequence.
Honda Performance worked very hard to get the car in fighting shape, especially after the domed skid pad threw a wrench in the aero works. How'd it feel on race day?
I had no prior point of comparison, so I don’t know what the cars felt like last year, but I know Honda and HPD did an incredible job over the winter to improve the engine performance. That was evident by James [Hinchcliffe] being on pole and then obviously Honda cars taking one-two in the actual race. I think they really came through, especially against a lot of pressure from all the Honda teams.
Walk us through your strategy for the last 15 laps.
The strategy for the last 15 laps actually came 75 laps prior. We went off sequence, we fell to the back and we knew that we had and extra four or five laps on everyone else, on the leaders, but we knew we didn’t have enough to get to the end so it became about trying to make up two laps of fuel over the final two stints. It was incredibly challenging to keep and improve track position without using fuel. For me it was about finding a way to use the cars around me to always make sure that I was in a tow. If someone pitted and there was clean air in front of me, I’d then let the car behind me go by and tow off them for a bit.
Was that your call?
That was my call. As far as the actual fuel mileage number, the crew was telling me that and the last few laps when it got desperate, they were walking me through a few things.
What was Bryan Herta saying in your ear during those laps?
Bryan kept me from losing my shit at various points during that race. He talked me off the ledge a little bit, especially around lap 80, we had our second pit stop which went terribly wrong, he kept saying to me ‘just focus on the fuel number, keep hitting that. That’s the only way we’re going to win this race.’
Did you disagree? Was there ever an argument over fuel strategy?
No, no. Never. I don’t have enough information as driver to know what’s going on. It’s very hard for me to actually be driving around the place flat out for two weeks to then never have more than 80 percent throttle. It was pretty stressful the last 15 laps, the last lap, especially. That’s not something that I really want to do again.
You were a 66-to-1 longshot to win. Can you believe there are people who are not pleased you pulled it off?
That’s the first I’ve heard of that. People want to see a huge massive fight to the end and I appreciate that, but this race had one of the highest amount of lead changes that we’ve had in a very long time. It was an incredibly exciting race from lap one and there were very few incidents
Josef Newgarden said, “I don’t think they were quite as strong as us today. I don’t think they had as strong of an opportunity to win at the end, so they had to mix it up. They mixed it up, and it paid off big for them.” What do you say to the folks like that who think you simply just got lucky?
We were the quickest car on track, we had the fastest lap of the race...
You also had the slowest lap, too.
That’s absolutely right. I’ll take it. We were easily in the top ten all day long and we had a pit stop that dropped us from p9 to p17. We drove back into the top ten, then we had a pit stop that dropped us from p8 to p28. At that point were we realized we can’t now pass 27 cars. We can maybe pass 11. It forced our hand. All of Andretti motorsport, the entire month, were five of the quickest cars on track. We had circumstances that prevented us from being on the normal strategy but I think Carlos [Munoz, Rossi’s teammate] used the normal strategy and he finished second. To be honest, I thought he was going to come away with the win on that one.
This was a big win for Andrettis, especially in the 100. Was there any talk of that dreaded curse being gone after this victory?
Uh, I think you’d have to talk to Marco about that.
What did you and Michael Andretti say to each other after the race?
We were very proud. It’s been an absolute joy for these three months that I’ve been able to work with him and a huge privilege. We accomplished something great a couple days ago and I look forward to carrying that forward for the rest of the season.
At the start of the season, Michael called you clueless about IndyCar. Take any pride in throwing that quote back at him now that your face will be added to the trophy?
Totally true. [Laughs] It’s a pretty good turnaround, I guess you could say. When I came over it was a very last minute deal. I had about a week and a half to prepare for the first race. My car came from a merger of another team and the first four races were a struggle. We started to turn the corner at the Angie’s List Grand Prix and we had a lot of pace and we were quick through the whole weekend. That momentum carried forward through the 500, and now we need to keep that for the rest of the season.
You mentioned Lewis Hamilton's win while addressing people post-race. You were on the reserves for the Manor F1 team this year, and you'd mentioned you've "invested most of your career in F1 and you're not one to kick your heels and wait for things to happen." Some people thought that quote meant you didn't care about IndyCar, just getting back to Formula One. Was that how you really felt?
Absolutely not. I dedicated my whole life and career to Formula One and that’s no secret. When I got the opportunity to drive with Andretti, I knew that I had the opportunity to win. That wasn’t something that was existing in Formula One at the time. When you have an opportunity to win as a racing driver, you’re going to put everything you can into that. That’s what I felt that I’ve done for this entire year up to this point and will continue to do. Now that we’ve gotten through the 500, and we got the points that we did from the win, and we’re in championship contention, for me that’s a huge motivating factor to continue to push forward to try and put up a fight for the championship.
What's more important to you: IndyCar or Formula One?
IndyCar. I’ve learned to not try and predict what’s gonna happen in the future because you could’ve asked me February 15th where I was going to be, and I would’ve said F1. Then I was racing IndyCar two and a half weeks later. So I don’t even know what’s to come. At the moment I’m enjoying where I’m at.
Think F1 will come calling given this victory?
I don’t know. It’s been completely silent on the other side of the pond and all of the exposure, happiness and the growth of my name has happened stateside and that’s something that I really want to take advantage of and maximize to my full potential.
If they did come calling, do you think you owe the Andrettis and Bryan Herta anything?
Michael and Bryan gave me an incredible opportunity. They opened my eyes to an entirely new world. I was clueless about IndyCar. I had no idea how much fun I would have and how much I would enjoy the championship so for right now I’m very, very content where I am.
Where do you go from here? What's next?
Detroit is the next IndyCar race. I’m looking forward to getting back in my car.
How do you make sure you’re not coasting off this win?
Well, I make sure I’m not coasting by making sure I have fuel in the car. [Laughs] That’s useful. As people often critique about me, I’m never happy enough because I’m already thinking about the next race. I’m already focusing on how to win at Detroit. I want a win there as badly as I did the 500.