Rossi Will Have Better Seat For This 500

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 29 2016
American driver Alexander Rossi won't be watching the Indianapolis 500 on television this year. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

American driver Alexander Rossi won’t be watching the Indianapolis 500 on television this year. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

INDIANAPOLIS _ In pursuit of a career in Formula One, Californian Alexander Rossi spent last Memorial Day Weekend in Monaco…watching the Indianapolis 500 on TV. It doesn’t get much more red-blooded American than that.

“Yes. There’s a place called Stars ‘n Bars – pretty good. Lots of burgers and video games and…bugindy500sports,” Rossi said at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I’ve always watched the Indy 500, sure.”

Rossi’s seat at the bar will be open Sunday, when he instead will make his first start in the historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. In a flip-flop of his race-watching routine, Rossi plans to check out the F1 Monaco Grand Prix on network TV before taking the green flag in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

The Principality, of course, plays host to the world’s oldest/most glamorous street race _ the crown jewel of the FIA’s F1 World Championship. Additionally, the FIA’s GP2 feeder series for prospective F1 drivers like Rossi also competes on that famous venue. Rossi finished the 2015 GP2 season as point-runnerup for Racing Engineering, scoring wins at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, Monza in Italy and Sochi in Russia.

“Especially in these past years, I’d always finish in Monaco and try to find some sports bar that was showing the Indy 500,” Rossi said. “It’s something that I’ve watched probably for the past six or seven years in a row. Everyone loves that race. I mean, even if you’re not an Indy car fan or you’re not a fan of American racing people want to watch the Indy 500. That’s what’s so special about it and why it is the largest single-day sporting event in the world.”

Rossi’s career path detoured from F1 on Feb. 23, when he was introduced as Andretti Autosport’s fourth driver for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season. The 24-year-old native of Nevada City, Calif., is driving the No. 98 Honda, following a merger with Bryan Herta Autosport that moved that entry into the Andretti stable.

Rossi drove in five Formula One races in 2015 for the Manor Marussia F1 team, delivering a career-best, route-going/56-lap, 12th-place finish in October’s rain-plagued fourth annual U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. In his third start for the underfunded Manor team, Rossi became the first American to compete at COTA and first American to drive in F1 since Scott Speed in 2007. But Rossi failed to land a fulltime drive when the organization based in Banbury, United Kingdom, signed rookies Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Rio Haryanto of Indonesia during the offseason.

“I didn’t expect to be here three months ago,” said Rossi, who nevertheless qualified 11th at 228.473 mph around the 2.5-mile IMS oval for what will be his second oval race. “I’d never been to an Indy car race before (the season-opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 13) and so it’s definitely not kind of the direction I was headed for my career.”

Rossi is, in fact, the highest-qualified driver among the Class of 2016’s five first-timers. But Rossi admitted the idea of turning left exclusively at over 200 mph for 500 miles remains an acquired taste.

“Completely. I mean, this is my second oval I’ve ever been to in my life,” said Rossi, who made his roundy-round debut with a 14th-place start/finish on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway on March 2. “I like it. Every lap is a new experience and I’m learning something new every time. It’s exciting, it’s interesting and I’m very fortunate to be at Andretti Autosport and have the depth of knowledge around me. The NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda was fast straight from Day One and that’s made my job as a rookie that much easier.

“I’m a road-course and street-course guy. But it’s been positive. I think (qualifying) 11th was under our potential actually and it was very disappointing to miss out on the Fast Nine. Definitely, we should be starting higher than we are and we can take that confidence going into Sunday.”

Rossi added it has been difficult for him to assess his progress during the Month of May. But at the end of Friday’s Carb Day practice, Rossi stood sixth on the speed chart at 224.276 mph. Again, he was the fastest of the five rookies participating in the race’s final tune-up. More significantly, three of the five drivers ahead of him on the chart _ Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing Teams and Andretti teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay _ are Indy 500 champions.

Rossi’s four classmates _ Spencer Pigot of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing; Max Chilton with Chip Ganassi Racing Teams; Stefan Wilson of KV Racing Technology and Matt Brabham of PIRTEK Team Murray _ occupied positions 29 through 32, respectively, on the 33-driver chart.

“I think this week has been pretty positive and we’re maximizing our potential, and 11th is a decent place to start,” Rossi said. “But I have no idea what to expect. The advantage of being on a five-car team is you can do organized group runs and we’ve done a lot of that through the week. Obviously, Monday was kind of a whole field group run and that was a positive thing for us.”

In addition to Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy 500 champion, Rossi’s teammates are Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz and Indy 500 specialist Townsend Bell. “I’ve gotten along with all three of my regular teammates immediately from Day One, and now Townsend has been a great addition,” Rossi said. “We work together every day and talk every day and help each other and push the whole team forward.”

Andretti said Rossi has been a quick-study for the team owned by his father, Michael, who made 16 winless Indy 500 starts. “I think Alex did a good job in Phoenix,” Marco said. “He asks the right questions in meetings and that’s when you know that he’s on the right track. He’s done a great job so far.”

While many European motorsports purists dismiss American open-wheel, oval-track racing as pointless, Rossi said he has learned there is a high degree of craftsmanship involved. “I mean, any form of motorsports looks easy on TV until you’re there and doing it,” Rossi said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a club go-kart race there’s going to be someone that’s there that’s fast you have to work hard to beat. That’s the way the sport is. If you want to be competitive you need to go in with no preconceptions of what it’ll be like. So yeah, it’s a long race. There’s a lot you can talk about, plan about but it’s not going to happen. Andretti knows how to be successful in this race.”

Among the lessons he has learned, Rossi said, is there is a difference between PIR and Indy. “Huge difference, man,” Rossi said. “I mean, Phoenix is exciting. It’s fun but it’s chaotic. Here it’s faster but it’s much more mellow in a way in the sense that things aren’t constant. You have the straightaways where you can kind of re-set yourself and gather your thoughts, emotions, whatever it may be. Where Phoenix is constant…even the backstraight isn’t straight. So it’s pretty intense, especially the average speed you have around there is very high as well.  I’ve actually found this to be less stressful than Phoenix, which is a positive thing for an event of this magnitude.

“The physical demand around Indy is not that high. Phoenix was very high. Here is more of a mental game and you’re paying attention to a lot of things outside the car which you normally aren’t. Like when I first started driving, people would always tell me about the wind and how it really affects things. I was like, ‘OK, come on. It’s not going to be that bad.’ Saturday was windy, and wow, it makes a difference.

“So now I understand that, I appreciate that so now I’m paying attention to wind socks twice a lap. It is a different kind of mental preparation and activity that’s going on because you are thinking about a lot of things other than just driving a race car as fast as you can.”

Rossi said it has been impossible to not get caught-up in the hoopla leading into this landmark race. “When you’re at the track and you’re driving, I don’t think of it at all,” Rossi said. “I think about it as another day trying to go quickest and work through the process that way. But when this week, especially after Monday, when you kind of do some of the festivities and the traditions and that’ll carry all the way into Sunday morning, you can’t help but be impressed by it and kind of be in awe by the size of it.

“Really, what’s taken me aback is how many little things there are that all have a meaning, all have a reason, because it’s been going on for so long. I think that means it’s not only important to the motorsport industry, it’s important to American history as well.

“I’m really excited, man. This has been a very crazy experience and something unlike anything else I’ve experienced. Every day I’m learning something new about this place and about the history of it and about the significance of the event. It’s a great privilege, especially this year for the 100th running.”

That said, Rossi is keeping his options open on a fulltime F1 ride. On March 9, he was introduced by Manor Racing as its official reserve driver for the 2016 F1 season. As such, Rossi works with the team’s engineers and drivers to develop the Mercedes-powered MRT05, participates in marketing activities and is available for stand-by race day duty.

“I spent a huge part of my career _ or my entire career _ going towards Formula One,” Rossi said. “I was in a position I thought at the end of last year to be racing this year. I’m still the reserve driver at Manor F1 and still participating in that and going to all the races that don’t conflict with IndyCar. Yeah, I’m definitely going to keep my foot in the door. But I’m not even going to try to predict where I’ll be in a couple of years. I’m taking it day-by-day and trying to perform in whatever car I’m in.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 29 2016
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