F1 must open up to conquer America, says Alexander Rossi
As F1 returns to the United States, American driver Alexander Rossi tells Sarah Holt that the sport needs to lose some of its elite sheen if it's to win over Stateside fans.
Glenn Dunbar CaterhamF1.com
Plugged in: Caterham's Alexander Rossi knows F1 needs to change if it is to broaden its appeal to American fans
Formula 1 is facing one of its biggest challenges this weekend as it returns to the United States, according to American racer Alexander Rossi.
After a five-year absence, the US Grand Prix is back at a new $400m circuit built just outside Austin, Texas.
But Caterham’s reserve driver says having a race on US soil is only the first step towards reconnecting with the audience it abandoned in 2007.
“Americans are already a bit skeptical about Formula 1,” Rossi - the only American driver in the paddock - told MSN.
“They are massively patriotic and there is nothing American about F1. Not only was there no American race, there are no American cars or drivers.
“Part of what makes F1 so special is the exclusivity but that is the one thing that repels Americans the most."
“It’s very European and Americans are not really that interested in that.”
Despite producing two F1 world champions in Phil Hill (1961) and Mario Andretti (1978), American racers have struggled sustain a presence in F1, whose teams all operate from European headquarters.
Scott Speed was the last American to race in F1 but it has now been five years since the Californian lost his place at Toro Rosso to Germany’s future world champion Sebastian Vettel.
“F1 doesn’t have America and first of all to get America you need a race, but second of all you need a driver,” added Rossi, who is targeting a race seat in 2014.
“It’s a very important step that needs to happen to captivate America again.”
Another of F1’s biggest obstacle to achieving mass appeal on US soil is the dominance of the domestic Nascar and IndyCar series.
As F1’s 2009 world champion Jenson Button pointed out, the timing of the 2012 US GP couldn’t be worse for F1’s hopes of converting some stockcar-racing fans to F1 as Nascar is also staging its season-finale in Miami this weekend.
“It’s a tough one as this is the biggest weekend for motorsport in the US,” the McLaren driver commented. “So it’s probably not the best weekend for us to be racing here.”
New home: the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas
And in the long-term, Rossi is doubtful that F1 can compete with Nascar for its share of the US television audience.
“I don't think it ever will,” Rossi said. “Not until there is an American manufacturer in F1 that people can go and get excited about.
“How many people really have the ability to drive a Ferrari? Not a lot. It's something they don't really have a relationship to.”
But Rossi believes F1 could learn lessons from Nascar and IndyCar to help it gain ground on the domestic series.
The dilemma for F1, however, is that applying those lessons would mean a fundamental change in its philosophy.
“What F1 as a brand needs to do to appeal to America then taints what F1 is,” said Rossi.
“Part of what makes F1 so special is the exclusivity and the mystery but at the same time that is the one thing that repels Americans the most.
“In Nascar and Indycar you can go into the paddock and the drivers are more human, they’re more approachable.
“Americans quite like to feel that they can be close to the people that they’re supporting but in F1 it’s very much an exclusive sport and the drivers are very much on a pedestal.
“While that needs to remain the same there needs to be some way to incorporate the fans, to give them a big bigger glimpse of what F1 is.”
“The F1 fan base in America is actually quite strong but it’s been stifled."
Despite the challenges facing F1, organisers of the Austin race at the Circuit of the Americas expect Sunday’s GP to be watched by a sell-out crowd of 120,000.
There has been genuine excitement in Austin about bringing F1 back to the US and pride throughout the state of Texas – even though some locals are uncertain about the nuances of the sport.
“The F1 fan base in America is actually quite strong but it’s been stifled because there hasn’t been an American race,” said Rossi.
“The passion for it is there but now it's about reactivating that again.”
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