Young Americans make F1 test debut in Jerez

Alexander Rossi testing a BMW Sauber at Jerez

January 3, 2010
by Dan Knutson

Alexander Rossi and J.R. Hildebrand added a chapter to the history books about American drivers in Formula One when they participated in the "young driver" test sessions at Spain's Jerez track during the first three days of December 2009.

It was the first time that two drivers from the United States participated in an official F1 event at the same time in current specification F1 cars since Eddie Cheever and Danny Sullivan competed in the 1983 F1 season. Prior to that, Cheever's F1 career overlapped with that of Mario Andretti's from 1978 through 1982.

Taking part in that test session last December, which was open only to young drivers with limited or no experience in F1 machinery, Hildebrand and Rossi did more than just make history. The duo also proved that they, like a number of other young American drivers, have the talent and skill to turn competitive lap times in an F1 car.

Born September 25, 1991, Rossi, who resides in Nevada City, California, when not traveling all over Europe during the racing season, began his career in karts in 2002. He was US National Karting Champion in 2005. Graduating from karts to open-wheel formula cars, Rossi competed in the Skip Barber Western Series Championship and in the Formula Renault 1600 category, quickly showing his talent in both.

He then switched to Formula BMW with Antonio Ferrari's Euro International Team in 2007-08, capturing international attention by winning the 2008 American Championship (ten wins), the hotly-contested Brazilian GP round of the series at Interlagos and then the World Championship finals in Mexico. In 2009, he switched to Europe, finishing fourth overall and winning Rookie of the Year status in the International Formula Master Championship, scoring three wins and turning heads in the F1 paddocks at circuits like Spa and Hungaroring. He also made his debut in the Formula GP2 Asia series, running top-six in both rounds at Abu Dhabi.

For winning the 2008 Formula BMW World Finals in Mexico City, BMW awarded Rossi an opportunity to test one of its F1 cars at Jerez last December. Early in 2009, this in most people's minds would have been just another test. By December, with BMW having announced its withdrawal from F1, Alexander found himself making history as one of the last drivers ever to sit in a BMW F1 car.

"It definitely was a fantastic experience - the most fun I have ever had in race car," Rossi said after completing 82 laps (or 13 laps more than the equivalent of a Grand Prix race distance at that track). "We made quite a bit of progress with the aerodynamic work that we did, and I was able to help the team run through their program. We did a good job with that."

"Every test you do you are there to prove something to somebody," he said. "So, being at a F1 test, the logical thing is that I am trying to prove myself to (perspective F1 teams.) With that being said, this was a good example of what I can do. I only had the one day but it was a day I will always remember."

Does Rossi look up to any F1 drivers in his formative years?

"I grew up watching Mika Hakkinen," he said of the 1998 and 1999 World Champion. "He was my inspiration as a young kid, and in the beginning during my kart stages. And then from there I started my own racing career and focusing on my own driving and not really anyone else's."

Rossi's goal, like that of many young Americans, is to race in F1.

"F1 is the best of the best," he said. "It has the best drivers in the world, the best manufacturers, and the best teams. To be able to compete in that and to push yourself to be at the top of that is a very incredible thing. Always being a competitive person I've wanted to be at the top of whatever I am doing, so the only natural thing was to go to F1 and try and win."

And how did Rossi feel after his first brush with F1? "You know, I wasn't very surprised by how the car felt. Nothing was more than I expected it to be. In GP2, for example, the steering is much heavier. Obviously there's more downforce with the F1 car, and it has much better brakes, but everything is in proportion. If just felt like a great racing car. I love it...."

Alexander is continuing to race in the ultra-competitive GP2 Asia championship in early 2010, a series in which he currently lies fifth overall with four rounds to go. He is switching from Ocean Racing Technology to Peter Thompson's Malaysia-Qi-Meritus team in his bid to finish top-three. Next races: Bahrain, on February 25-26.

John R. Hildebrand was born on January 3, 1988 in Sausalito, California. He made his go kart competition debut in 2002 racing in the Jim Russell Arrive and Drive Championship. Graduating to cars, he was the Formula Russell champion in 2004, and then finished second in the Pacific Formula 2000 series in 2005.

He crushed the opposition to win the U.S. Formula Ford 2000 championship with 12 victories in 14 races in 2006. After a season in the Atlantic Championship, he moved up to the Firestone Indy Lights Series in 2008 and finished fifth in the standings. Then, in 2009, with four wins, six poles and 11 top five finishes, Hildebrand dominated the Firestone Indy Lights Series and won the championship by nearly 100 points.

After giving AJ some runs on its F1 driving simulator, the Force India Mercedes F1 team asked Hildebrand to test alongside Scotland's Paul di Resta at Jerez. Force India's program called for the drivers to split the testing duties on each of the three days.

"I was really impressed with the ability of the car," Hildebrand said after his first outing. "It is different in every way to what I'm used to, both in terms of the outright speed, but also in terms of the characteristics of the car and how it behaves, brakes and drives through corners.

J.R. Hildebrand testing a Force India at Jerez

"Having raced on ovals I'm used to a high top speed, so that wasn't too much of a shock, but the amount of load it runs and how much speed you can carry through the corner took some getting used to. I felt I was getting there and was starting to get the most out of the car, particularly towards the end of the morning."

As with Rossi and BMW, this was not a joy ride for Hildebrand: he worked closely with the Force India engineers to develop parts and concepts for the 2010 car. Hildebrand completed a total of 139 over the three days, whereas Alexander ran for just one day only.

Hildebrand was a little bit annoyed when mechanical woes plus some other problems out of his control kept him from clocking what would have been his fastest laps.

"Knowing I had the time in me and couldn't get it is in part frustrating," he said, "but I can only be so frustrated as I know how much quicker we really were. I was still struggling with some instability into the corners, but the team was able to make some improvements for the afternoon and with a bit more time I could make some adjustments myself.

"I had a great experience and I really feel at this point that my confidence and comfort in the car was quite high. I've been happy with my performance and I would like to thank the team for giving me this opportunity."

One of Hildebrand's heroes is Dan Gurney: the Indy Lights Champion would like nothing more than to be able to follow the great American driver's footsteps into F1.