It has been fun to follow Alexander Rossi’s career since he left Europe to race in IndyCar. And it has also been interesting to see how his switch to IndyCar has been received by fans. A common opinion seems to be that it’s always better to race in a series where you can be competitive than one where you know from the beginning that you can’t, which was the case for Rossi when he was in F1 with Marussia. But the reality isn’t that simple.
I raced in Formula 1 for Caterham in 2013, and I went into that season with my eyes wide open. I’d already been a part of the team for a year before that as an F1 reserve and GP2 driver, so I knew where the team stood in competitive terms. But that wasn’t really the point.
Formula 1 is something that many drivers in Europe – and elsewhere – spend their entire lives dreaming of and working towards. It’s the highest level of our sport, and merely reaching it is a big achievement. It’s a really nice feeling to be one of only 20 people that year who get to race in the Formula 1 world championship.
If you have that chance, as a driver, you’re going to take it every time, regardless of where you are going to be on the grid. OK, maybe you’re going to be fighting for 16th every weekend instead of podiums like you were when you were racing at the junior level, but even a smaller team is an opportunity for you to show what you can do, and demonstrate your potential.
So that’s what I did, and it was a great experience. In my case, that year with Caterham got me a deal for the following season with Sauber – they’d finished four places ahead of us in the constructors’ championship in 2013, so that was a very good step. Of course, then everything turned to s*** with the contract and I didn’t get to race for them, but it still proved that my season with Caterham had done what it I’d hoped it would in terms of positioning me for a move up the grid.
That said, there’s some truth to the argument that drivers on the ladder to Formula 1 are somewhat blinkered to anything else. Getting to F1 requires every bit of your dedication and focus, and also that of the people around you. So you really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about racing elsewhere, and if something does come up, chances are that you won’t give it much consideration as long as that door to F1 is still a little bit open. In my case, I had a chance to do DTM at one stage. But that wasn’t my goal. Once you choose a different path, you have to give up on the dream. Esteban Ocon went to DTM and then got back to Formula 1, but those cases are the exceptions. As long as you stay focused on the one thing, you’ll have some possibility to reach it. But as soon as you take a sideways step, that main goal gets harder.
I think that might be starting to change now, though. Between all of the politics and money, making it all the way to F1 is even harder now than when I did it. And not just F1: even for a series like Formula 2, you need a lot of money to get there. So a lot of current junior drivers who are following a similar path to what I did a few years ago are having to switch their focus away from F1 a lot earlier. If you’re racing in the junior classes and are winning races and championships, then sure, F1 might be achievable. But if you’re running around outside the top five every weekend then you need to look at other options and try to at least find a drive where you’re eventually going to get paid.
Or, you might decide to not even get onto the F1 ladder in the first place. For example, Rinus van Kalmthout [ED: aka Rinus VeeKay] won the Pro Mazda series this year, and right now I think that’s a really nice route, because if he continues like this, hopefully he’ll eventually reach IndyCar. Sometimes it’s good to look at the bigger picture than focusing on just one thing. In his case, he also had a sponsor from Holland that wanted to build its presence in America, so going down the American route rather than the European one was logical. But even though the budget needed to race in American might be less than it is in Europe, that’s not going to matter to your sponsor if their focus is global – they’re going to see F1 as a better way to show off their brand, regardless of the relative cost or potential for competitiveness. That’s another reason why a driver might remain committed to Europe even if it seems like there are more competitive opportunities elsewhere.
As a final point, the value of any time that you get to spend as a Formula 1 driver extends beyond just the results. I definitely gained a lot of knowledge and experience from my time there. And I know Rossi quite well, and his car in F1 was not nice to drive; it was always last, and it wasn’t very quick. But what he learned while he was there was very valuable. I think that showed when he went back to America – where the racing is not easy – and won the Indianapolis 500 in his first year, and in what he’s been able to there since.