America’s Next Formula 1 Driver

With the top down, stereo cranked, and stability control off, the black BMW M6 glides through the neon caverns of Las Vegas. At the wheel, twenty-year-old Alexander Rossi is driving his father’s car with the nonchalance and grace you’d expect of the only American holding an FIA Super License — a prerequisite for racing in Formula 1. Although he’s just finished an elaborate celebratory dinner after meetings with potential sponsors at the Consumer Electronics Show, Rossi shows remarkable restraint as he cruises through the typical flotsam of a Las Vegas night. He ignores a young reveler who’s retching outside the open door of his limousine, then declines a challenge to street race with a sport-utility vehicle filled with giggling hotties. In fact, he hardly pushes the speed limit until passing well beyond the city limits on his way to his hotel near Lake Las Vegas.

There’s nothing out here — no cars, no cops, no traffic lights, just a long, straight furrow of empty road that fairly beckons for speed. Rossi can’t resist the temptation to let the V-10 sing, and the speedometer winds past 120 mph, 130, 140. He brakes firmly and carves into a left-hander. As the car rotates down toward the apex, he plants the gas pedal and deftly catches the sliding rear end with an effortless application of opposite lock. Up ahead, a roundabout awaits. Rossi pulls off to the side of the road to let a few cars pass. His father, Pieter, knows what’s next. “Don’t hit the curb,” he murmurs, more concerned about his expensive wheels than any mayhem to come. Alexander doesn’t bother to reply. When the roundabout is clear, he nails the throttle, cranks in a bunch of steering, and dirt-tracks around the traffic circle in a heady haze of engine noise and tire smoke.

After completing one full revolution in perfect drift form, he comes to a stop. “How are your rear tires?” he asks his father.

“OK. Why?”

“I want to do it again.”

Pieter shakes his head. “Once is fine. But then somebody calls the cops, and that’s how you get into trouble. Come on, we’ll be back here on the way to the airport tomorrow.”

And there, in a single 360, is Team Rossi in action: Alexander takes care of business in the cockpit with verve, aplomb, and precision. Pieter is the deal-maker, the sponsor-finder, the whatever-it-takes guy who keeps his son’s career on the right course. Working together, they’ve secured a highly coveted slot as a reserve driver for Caterham F1, which means Alexander will test during free practice before grands prix in 2012. And next year, if all goes according to Team Rossi’s fastidiously laid plans, he’ll be the first American to race in Formula 1 since Scott Speed flamed out so spectacularly in 2007.

Meanwhile, halfway across the country, the heartland racing mecca of Indianapolis is the unlikely home of another father and son chasing the F1 dream. Actually, the father — Derek Daly — spent five seasons in Formula 1 before hanging up his racing suit. Now, he’s using his F1 contacts and hard-headed negotiating skills to help his twenty-year-old son, Conor, follow in his wheel tracks. This year, Conor will do his second consecutive season in GP3, which is an international open-wheel series that’s two rungs below F1, and he’s reportedly on the radar of at least one Formula 1 team. So it’s not inconceivable that there might be not one but two Americans fighting for F1 podiums a few years down the road.

It’s been a long time coming. The lack of competitive Americans in the world’s most expensive, exotic, and internationally popular form of racing has long been the source of national soul-searching, especially during an era when F1 is drawing drivers from motorsports backwaters such as Poland, Russia, and India. After all, what do they have that we don’t? The issue seems particularly galling now that a U.S. Grand Prix is scheduled for Austin, Texas, in November and a second F1 race in New Jersey is tentatively set for 2013. And as Derek Daly puts it, “Unless there is an American driver in F1, those races will not succeed.”
So plenty of eyes are on young Rossi and Daly. Not just in Formula 1 but also here in the States. Will they be the next coming of Phil Hill and Mario Andretti, the only Americans to win world championships? Or will they join the long list of Americans who made a run at F1 but didn’t have the talent, or money, or luck — or all three — to make it to the top?

Americans haven’t always been strangers to Formula 1. During the 1960s and ’70s, there was a formidable American contingent in international motorsports, but the ranks of Yanks thinned considerably in the ’80s. The pipeline dried up after Michael Andretti’s debacle at McLaren in 1993. Unable to get enough proper testing time in a difficult car and unwilling to commit to living in Europe, Andretti looked second-rate next to his teammate — who happened to be Ayrton Senna at the height of his powers. The episode convinced F1 movers and shakers that there was no reason to look for drivers in the United States.

If the mountain wouldn’t go to Muhammad, then journalist/broadcaster Jeremy Shaw — a Brit who’d moved to the States — realized Muhammad would have to go to the mountain. With the help of various motorsports professionals, Shaw created the Team U.S.A. Scholarship in 1990 to help Americans race in the hotly contested and closely watched Formula Ford Festival in the United Kingdom. Besides spotlighting the talent of young Americans, the idea was to show Americans what it took to succeed in Europe. “Here, the racing is a lot more chummy and fun,” Shaw says. “Over there, it’s much more cutthroat. You get thrown in at the deep end, and you’re on your own.”

Shaw proved to be a remarkably prescient evaluator of young talent; the Team U.S.A. honor roll includes top-shelf pros such as Jimmy Vasser, Bryan Herta, Buddy Rice, A. J. Allmendinger, and Joey Hand. Eventually, though, it became clear that one European race a year wasn’t going to cut it. So the next generation of American F1 hopefuls moved to Europe. Patrick Long, Paul Edwards, Jonathan Summerton, and Josef Newgarden showed plenty of speed, but their progress up the European formula-car ranks stalled when they ran out of money, and they returned to solid careers in the States. Only Scott Speed grabbed the brass ring, largely thanks to the financial backing and marketing clout of Red Bull.

Formula car racing is hellishly expensive, especially in Europe. A ride in a premier GP3 team runs about $800,000. To that, add travel and living expenses. And insurance. And crash damage. “We didn’t have a Brazilian bank account with gazillions of dollars, so we had to be creative,” Pieter Rossi recalls. When Alexander was racing in the Formula BMW series here in the States, the Rossis defrayed their expenses by putting together elaborate VIP programs for paying guests. Later, they created a limited partnership composed of commercial sponsors and personal investors to fund their racing program in Europe.

Conor Daly has taken a somewhat different route. Until this year, most of his racing expenses have been covered by scholarship money earned the previous season. For 2012, though, he struggled to come up with the funding for another year in GP3, and his father says they came close to forming a Rossi-style investment group. Derek Daly acknowledges that his own reputation in Europe probably helped his son secure a race seat with a front-running team. “But no matter what doors I can open, Conor has to be strong enough to walk through them by himself,” he says. “Racing has a way of finding you out very, very quickly.”
There’s not much shop talk about racing while Daly and Rossi kill time during a photo shoot in San Diego. That’s business, after all. Instead, the conversation is dominated by the mundane stuff that interests most twenty-year-olds.

“So, have you met any famous people in Formula 1?” Daly asks Rossi.

Rossi thinks it over. “Natalie Portman at Cannes,” he says.

“No way!”

Rossi scores extra points with Jennifer Lopez in Monaco and Paul McCartney in Abu Dhabi. The best a jealous Daly can do is having talked to Troy Polamalu in an airport lounge.

Rossi is the greyhound to Daly’s bulldog. He’s lithe as a dancer, fashion forward and quietly confident after three years of living largely on his own in Europe after growing up in Northern California. Daly is built more like a wrestler, and he’s earnest and eager to please, with a deep voice and Midwestern accent that betrays none of his Irish heritage. Yet it’s the similarities between them that are the most striking. They were both born in 1991. They both started karting when they were ten. And neither of them can imagine a life other than the one they’re leading.

Rossi: “This wasn’t a hobby that turned into a career. It was more like a career from day one.”

Daly: “It’s the only thing I’m really, really good at, and I love doing it every single day.”

Although they have never raced against one another, their careers have followed remarkably similar trajectories. Both parlayed dominant performances in karts into Skip Barber championships. For Daly, his breakout season was a magical year in Star Mazda in 2010. Last year, he managed a few races in Indy Lights before moving to Europe to tackle GP3. There, he endured a hero-to-zero nightmare, going from first in the Indy Lights championship to last on the grid in Turkey. Although he never got to grips with the peculiarities of his Pirelli tires during GP3 qualifying, he was a demon in race trim, putting together a highlight reel full of ambush-style passes and briefly leading the field in the final race at Monza.

“He’s still a goofball kid, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders, and I was surprised by his maturity in the car,” says Chris Finch, his race engineer in Indy Lights. “He’s willing to take the risks necessary to make a car go fast. But he thinks about racecraft, and he understands that you have to adjust your driving to the demands of the venue.”

Rossi’s meteoric rise began in Formula BMW, an exorbitantly expensive junior series with the notable benefit of an international component. (Three of last year’s F1 drivers were former Formula BMW champions.) He won three times during his first season, in the States. His second, he won the World Finals in Mexico City, which earned him a Sauber-BMW F1 test (and an FIA Super License). In 2009, Rossi excelled in the International Formula Master Champions. The next year, he won twice during a frustrating up-and-down GP3 season. Last year, he was third in World Series by Renault, which is one rung down from Formula 1 and which has produced two world champions in Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.

“You don’t meet very many people like Alexander,” says Stuart King, his race engineer in World Series. “He’s not arrogant, but you can tell that he believes in himself. He’s so clued in. He knows exactly what he wants from the car, and it never seemed as if his brain was saturated when he was on the track. There were times last year when he made everyone look pretty average.”

For Daly, 2012 promises to be a make-or-break season. If he doesn’t win races in GP3, he realizes that he can probably forget about Formula 1. “The politics are brutal,” he says matter-of-factly. Rossi, a year or two ahead of Daly, is already on the cusp of F1. But he, too, knows how quickly the dream can evaporate. “We’re getting closer, but there is still a long, long way to go,” he says.

Purely from a statistical standpoint, the odds against making it to Formula 1 are astronomical. This is the goal of virtually every driver in the world outside the United States, and it’s uncommon for more than five or six seats to open up any given year, so you do the math. Back when Derek Daly was clawing his way up the ladder in the 1970s, the map for reaching the Promised Land was simple: prove that you’ve got the requisite skill and determination, amass a reasonable sum of money, and you, too, could be a Formula 1 driver.

These days, the model is much more complicated. Talent is still a given, and winning races is still a must. But Daly and Rossi realize that they also have to align themselves with the right sponsors and fashion a persona that attracts the right team. Caterham F1 wouldn’t have been interested in Rossi if he wasn’t blazingly quick on the track. But as team principal Tony Fernandes says approvingly, “He conducts himself extremely well in and out of the paddock, and he is the sort of ambassador that ticks the boxes of many global brands.”

It has been twenty-nine years since two Americans were in the same F1 field. Here’s betting it won’t be another twenty-nine years before we see two more Americans sharing a GP grid.