The greatest thing about a journey is that we never truly know where it might take us.
You may have a desirable destination in your heart, and an ambitious plan to get there, but the winding roads of life offer us alternative paths that can often challenge our fortitude. If we persevere, but adjust our plans accordingly, there may be an even greater reward that awaits us.
Alexander Rossi is still the last American driver to compete in a Formula One race. That was nearly three years ago at the 2015 Brazilian GP for Manor Marussia. Rossi filled in dutifully at the end of that season, following the tragic accident of Jules Bianchi at Suzuka. During that same year, he competed in what was then called the GP2 Series (now FIA Formula 2) for Racing Engineering and seemed ready to take that next step up the international racing ladder.
Rossi lost the championship to current McLaren driver Stoffel Vandoorne (left in the photo), who put on a clinic of sheer pace and consistency, but their career paths have taken very different trajectories since then. It is all too apparent nowadays that manufacturer support and substantial budgets are necessary to reach the professional level of open-wheel racing. There are some alternative paths that are also proving to be successful, like using GT or touring car experience as a way to hone your skills and build up your reputation. Just ask Paul di Resta and Pascal Wehrlein how instrumental their success was in DTM with Mercedes before getting their respective big breaks in F1.
The issue with the current support series ladder for F1 is that the championship winner is not guaranteed a spot on the grid for the following season.
Sauber driver, Charles Leclerc, is a recent exception, but the previous two champions had to spend a season in Japan before getting their shot.
This is why Rossi's decision to leave Europe and sign with Andretti Autosport, for the 2016 IndyCar season, was so instrumental in his current success. After losing a shot at an F1 drive, due to another driver bringing a bigger budget, he chose a different path where there was a more realistic opportunity of being competitive. He was very right! While his GP2 Series title rival was finding his feet in the Super Formula Championship, and Rio Haryanto was trying to come to grips with life as a backmarker in F1, Alexander Rossi won the Indy 500 on his first attempt! The guy who openly admitted that he was more attracted to F1 partly because of the lack of ovals, won his first race on the most daunting oval track in the world.
Manor Racing offered Rossi a seat alongside Wehrlein, coincidentally, when Haryanto ran out of funds. The American driver and his management team confidently declined the offer and appear to have not looked back.
Fast forward two years later, and the California native has added three more victories to his increasingly impressive resume. A win on home soil at Long Beach and a most recent victory at the twisty Mid-Ohio road course this season would be considered career highlights for someone who was just happy to be where he currently is. That's not enough, as the (some would say) infamously aggressive battles with his competitors have shown. He wants to be a champion.
Although Alex Rossi isn't a graduate of the traditional road to IndyCar, which is currently undergoing a raft of changes, his story should be no less inspiring to other young racers out there. You can have a goal in your mind, traverse the forest of uncertainty, and reach your desired destination. However, the level of satisfaction you feel and depth of influence you have ultimately depends on what path you choose to walk.
Rossi is four races away from a potential IndyCar championship, in only his third full season in the series. Had he made a different decision, a couple of years ago, he probably wouldn't be in such an enviable position. Meanwhile, both F1 teams he drove for cease to exist, Wehrlein is back in DTM, and Vandoorne is in danger of losing his seat with McLaren in F1.
I just heard this quote in a movie last night, and it poignantly fits: "Sometimes you have to travel far far away in order to find what is closest to you."
Thanks for reading my first in a series of opinion articles about the IndyCar Series. There's plenty of other motorsport content to check out here at MotorLAT.com!