When Alexander Rossi left Europe to return to the United States and race in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series with Andretti Autosport, he had to relinquish his dream of racing in Formula 1, representing his country as he’d been trained since childhood.
At the Phoenix test, he stood on the timing stand – his car and crew were not ready yet – and took it all in. This was definitely a racing stage upon which the Californian had never stood before that time; he needed to see how it all worked so he could fully commit.
INDYCAR really doesn’t make it easy for drivers and/or teams coming into their playground from elsewhere. Testing opportunities are severely limited, as is race-weekend track activity. Just about the only place where a true rookie can get seat time is during a race weekend or the few Firestone, engine manufacturer or permitted test days. So it takes a while to get to know the tracks, the cars, the opposition. It takes time.
Alexander Rossi learned – and learned well – by listening to his race strategists and engineers, just as he’d done in Europe, in lower formulae like GP3 and GP2, World Series by Renault. He progressed towards the goal of Formula 1, working with Caterham and Marussia Manor F1 teams. But there was no 2016 seat for him in F1; he needed to find a new home.
Rossi’s first payoff in the IndyCar Series, which he joined so late he couldn’t get much pre-season track time other than a single test in Sebring, was his victory in the 100th Indianapolis 500. The win came five years to the day after race strategist and former driving standout Bryan Herta helped the late Dan Wheldon secure his second Indy 500 victory. Rossi seemed in shock; winning Indy on the first try can do that to you.
Many people thought he won that race strictly through luck. Luck it wasn’t; hard work has taken Rossi from that puzzling first win (puzzling to those who hadn’t been watching) to being a championship contender in 2018. He had sophomore struggles in 2017, but the poor luck evaporated as the season progressed, with Rossi earning his third career podium at Pocono, then winning from pole at Watkins Glen for a second career victory.
This year, Rossi and teammate Marco Andretti swapped car numbers, giving the No. 27 to the third-year Andretti Autosport driver. That’s the number used by Jacques Villeneuve when he won the 1995 Indy 500 ad CART championship, and by Dario Franchitti while he worked with Michael Andretti’s team, earning 2007 Indy and series championships. It seemed a good omen for a driver who seemed poised for a breakout 2018 campaign.
The 2018 INDYCAR season had 17 races. Alexander Rossi won three of them: Long Beach from pole position – his third straight podium to start the year – and took back-to-back triumphs at MId-Ohio and Pocono. Much of the year, though, was an exercise in “Something bad has happened; now go pass a bunch of cars.” Despite those three wins and three pole positions, to gain his eight podiums and 14 top-10 results, Rossi found himself having to pass a lot of cars in order to gain positions.
The statistics are really incredible for Alexander Rossi’s 2018 season. While he didn’t beat (now) five-time champ Scott Dixon for the title, the 27-year-old Rossi never raced below third place in the standings over those 17 races and did finish second to Dixon. He completed all but two of the season’s total race laps, 2366 of 2368, made 321 total passes – 151 of them for position – and never let poor track position hold him back.
That’s racing. That’s a real racer. Rossi knows how he lost the championship: His collision with Andretti on the first lap of the Sonoma Raceway season finale sent Rossi to the rear of a 25-car field, yet, as seems to be his custom, he battled back to finish seventh. Can he take his blue-and-gold No. 27 to the title in 2019? If Alexander Rossi shows the temperament that guided him and engineers Jeremy Milless and Brian Page to P2 in 2018, they’ve got to be favorites to succeed next year.