Maybe you’ve heard of the superstar German driver Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton, that guy who hangs with Gigi Hadid. They’re probably the only Formula 1 drivers most American nonracing fans could name.
What about Alexander Rossi? For stateside readers, it probably doesn’t, even though he’s America’s main prospect in F1. Last month in Singapore, the 24-year-old from California made his F1 racing debut for the Manor Marussia F1 racing team alongside teammate Will Stevens and finished 14th. This Sunday in Austin, he will compete in the only America-based F1 Grand Prix race of the year. The better he does, the better his chances of starting a full season with an F1 team in 2016.
I met with Rossi this week in the Bowery Hotel. He was in New York on his way to Austin, making media rounds before the big race. We talked about how he prepares for a race—it’s way more physical than you’d think—and why he thinks Americans just don’t get F1 racing. (Not yet, anyway.) And we talked about the cleansing power of cucumber. Here’s part of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Hannah Elliott: Tell me what Americans don’t understand about Formula 1.
Alexander Rossi: What a lot of people don’t realize is that driving Formula 1 cars is extremely physical. People think you’re just sitting down and driving a car, so it can’t be that hard. But when you brake, you hit 6 Gs. That’s six times the weight of gravity.
If you get into a [Ferrari] 458, for example, and smash the brakes to its full capacity, you’d be just under 1 G, so you’re 6 times that. And if you compound that for 20 corners per lap, for 60 laps, that’s where the physicality comes in.
There’s a mental component as well, isn’t there?
Yes, the mental aspect by itself raises your heart rate. We’ve found that even in a simulator, your heart rate is still 120, 130, just because of your concentration. Because your mind is demanding that much. And in driving, obviously strength is important, but it’s secondary to the cardio.
Does diet matter too?
Yeah, massively. Because the weight is a big deal. To be 6’2’’ and 170 pounds rather than 150 is very much about controlling that. With my trainer, we focus a lot on eating foods that cut down on water.
What are those foods?
Are you sick of it?
No. [pause] But it’s big. But I eat once in the morning and once at night. And you let the metabolism work through the day. It’s a low quantity of food.
So on a race day, what do you eat in order to prepare?
Well, an egg white omelette and cucumber.
No. But about nine cups of coffee.
Yep. Got it. I know you live in London—but I guess you haven’t picked up that British love for tea yet, right?
Yeah. But the home for Formula 1 is in the U.K. So ….
How is it living there as an American and coming back here and having to explain what it is you do?
Virtually impossible. What I will say is that the fan base has grown since Formula 1 came to Austin. In terms of the online presence of the sport and what you read about, the engagement has increased a lot. People who were motorsports fans have now become Formula 1 fans.
But to other people, they are still not getting what the difference is. And I don’t think they will until there is an American driver, and beyond that, someone who is winning. We saw what Lance Armstrong did for cycling in terms of its popularity. It wouldn’t have been the same if he hadn’t been winning.
Until someone is actually dominating the sport that is American, it’s not going to become a household thing.
And that’s regardless of how much money we throw at it, and whether a race ever comes to New Jersey?
Well, having two races will help, of course. Having Haas [racing] will help. And if big American corporations were involved, it could be. And that is something that I am really hoping to bring to the sport. This week in particular is critical.
Do you think the elitist perception people have about F1 hurts its popularity here?
There’s no understanding of what Formula 1 is here in terms of technology. So it gets this elitist perception because obviously there is a lot of money that goes into this sport to develop the technology. But at the end of the day it’s all technology that is coming back to road cars. If you realize these cars are actually developing the technology that is going to be in your car in three years from now, people would have more of an appreciation for it.
So how is it that you were able to get this far, with practically no infrastructure in the U.S. to help kids move toward driving in F1?
Formula 1 is an unbelievably hard thing to achieve. There are only 20 seats. So my family support was massive. For about 13 years my father has worked 16-hour days to try to make this a reality. What we were able to do was get to Formula 1 from the States, with no corporate help. It was all private people who believed what we were doing, and a grass roots story, and an unbelievable amount of tenacity from all of us to keep going even when it was looking quite dire.
How old were you when you first got involved?
I was 11.
So what do you recommend for people wanting to follow your path? Or maybe more generally, parents and corporations that want to see the sport grow here?
I’d try and make a series and a championship that is respected by Europeans but didn’t require families to uproot themselves and go to Europe. Maybe you have a championship that is supported by a European manufacturer—for example, what Formula BMW use to be in 2005-08. That doesn’t exist any more. Right now, there’s not a clear path to Formula 1. No one knows where to go.
If you think about it, it’s the only sport in the world you can’t practice. If you want to play in the NBA, you can play basketball until you literally can’t move anymore. You can’t do that with an F1 racecar. And there’s no one teaching you about what to do off-track, about fitness, media, sponsorship, so how would you expect young kids to get there if there’s no education or form of training of any kind? Kids would do it, if they had an opportunity.
How important is this weekend?
I need to position myself to America, really, to show how important Formula 1 is. And really, more than anything, I want people to fall in love with it.