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Winning on fumes: A year in the life of Alexander Rossi

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Alex Rossi's favourite Indy 500 memory (0:57)

2016 Indy 500 race winner Alex Rossi recalls what made the win so special for him. (0:57)

The 12 months which followed Alexander Rossi's Formula One debut at the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix were remarkable. The California-born driver went from believing he had his first full-time F1 drive, to making a late switch to IndyCar, before winning the Indy 500 without a drop of fuel in his car as he crossed the finish line. Rookie of the Year honours followed at the end of a remarkable IndyCar season which could well be the first of a memorable career in North America.

It's an unexpected twist to a journey which always seemed destined to lead to F1 - the path Rossi and his family chose at a young age when they moved to Europe to pursue the pinnacle of motorsport. With F1's next United States Grand Prix on the horizon, America's newest racing hero spoke to ESPN about his rollercoaster year.

A long-awaited F1 debut

Rossi's chance to drive in F1 finally came in the latter part of 2015. Having missed out on several opportunities the previous season, the American was finally given the opportunity by Manor at five of the last seven races, starting under the lights at Singapore's Marina Bay street circuit. His run included the race in Austin, Texas, where Manor ran a star-spangled banner on its rear wing, as Rossi missed out on points by just two places.

On paper, his results -- 14th, 18th, 12th, 15th, 18th -- are unremarkable, but he was driving for a backmarker team, which had only returned to the grid on the eve of the 2015 season thanks to a last-minute rescue package. Rossi had done the only thing he could do: outpace his teammate. In the five races he partnered Will Stevens, he beat him in four (one of which saw Stevens retire in Austin, but he had been out-qualified by Rossi the day before).

After his run in the cockpit, Rossi felt confident he had done enough to secure a place on the 2016 grid with Manor. Reflecting on his mindset after the race at Interlagos in November, he tells ESPN: "I got out of the car in Brazil and felt like we had accomplished what we needed to. I had good feelings about how things were progressing into the off-season and felt very confident I was a front-runner to get a seat in 2016.

"I was always hoping it wouldn't get drawn out but I have been around the sport a lot and done deals in February before, so I knew it was very much a possibility and I was prepared for that."

It was just as well Rossi knew what to expect, because a long wait was exactly what followed.

A lifeline from Andretti

Rossi's nationality had seemingly made him a natural candidate for Haas, the American team that joined the grid in 2016. But Gene Haas had opted for experience over nationality by employing French driver Romain Grosjean, and honoured its technical tie-up with Ferrari by signing Mexican Esteban Gutierrez, who had spent a year at Maranello as test and reserve driver. Manor was the only remaining choice for Rossi.

But Manor, boosted by the acquisition of the class-leading Mercedes engine for 2016, delayed on making an announcement until February, just when the pre-season tests were due to commence in Barcelona. Though he was yet to hear, Rossi fully expected to be one of the two drivers unveiling the team's new car in Spain.

"Really, I thought I had a shot. Well, more than a shot, I thought I had a seat all the way through to the second week of February. It was always the battle to try and find backing and supporters and everything to try and get the deal done -- in the end it was just not enough. It was something I was really mentally focused for and preparing for all the way until February."

But that engine deal had an unexpected drawback for Rossi: the signing of Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein, meaning there was now just one seat up for grabs. Enter Rio Haryanto, the well-backed Indonesian driver, confirmed to a seat just days before the first test. Rossi's plans had collapsed around him.

"The situation got challenging when they announced Pascal because then the last seat was going to be a battle, if you will," he admits. "The great thing about Manor and the management is that they were always keeping us in the loop about things that are going on. So there was nothing found out through the internet, I always found out one or two days prior and we had time to react to that and try to deal with it.

"But yeah, they called and said that Rio had come with quite a good package and situation and for the long-term future of the team that was the direction they needed to go. However they very much wanted to keep me in the fold and part of the team and hopefully find me something for the future."

For Rossi, being kept in the fold meant being offered a reserve driver role, something he kept throughout 2016, meaning he would be the man to step in if either Wehrlein or Haryanto were unable to compete. For someone who had been preparing for his first full season of F1, his life's ambition, it was a bitter pill to swallow.

"I was pretty upset to go from thinking I had a race seat to a reserve seat, to be honest. It wasn't something I was initially super excited about! But then my Andretti deal came just over a week after that so I knew I would be in a position to be racing in 2016 and knew that part was covered, then the reserve role was more attractive."

The Andretti Autosport deal actually came out of a tentative phone call around the same time Manor made a decision. Michael Andretti, team owner and son of 1978 world champion Mario, had called when Rossi was, he thought, on the verge of being announced at Manor. Though he had not made a concrete contingency plan, it turned out to be the perfect lifeline.

"Michael Andretti reached out at the beginning of February. Our initially reaction was, you know, 'that's wonderful, we're honoured you're thinking of us but we're quite far down the line with Manor, but we're going to reach a decision point from them in the next couple of days.... Is it something we can wait a couple of days to let you know?'

"And he was willing to do that, which was obviously a huge thing for us that he didn't just go to the next guy on his list, type of thing. As soon as we found out the option with Manor wasn't going to happen we immediately got on the phone to Michael and started trying to put a deal together."

The discussions were swift -- Rossi was announced at the team on February 23 in the No. 98 car alongside Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz. The news was confirmed as the F1 community was at the Circuit de Catalunya, in between tests -- suddenly Rossi was on the verge of a rookie season in IndyCar.

"I was apprehensive at first, for sure. But IndyCar was something I considered at the start of 2015 and it was something I'd opened my mind to at that time.

"So I had already gone through the mental process of thinking about ovals and thinking about moving back to America, so it wasn't as big a deal as it may have seemed because I had thought about it 12 months prior."

A 'pitiful' IndyCar debut

After just one day of testing his new car, at Sebring in Florida, it was the opening weekend of the season at St Petersburg. The baptism by fire would continue with a stark realisation about the circuits he was expecting to be his strong point.

When asked if a street circuit like St Petersburg made the perfect place to debut given his background, Rossi laughs, recalling his first laps of that opening weekend.

"You would think, and I went into it thinking those would be my strongest tracks ... they were not. A lot of that was down to the fact our car was the worst on street tracks, just with some of the issues we had throughout the season with ride control and bumps -- our car wasn't very good over those sorts of tracks and in that area.

"The street circuits I'm used to are very well maintained and manicured... pretty much road courses, with walls. These are legit street tracks where the car is in the air a couple times a lap because it's so bumpy. I remember the first time I went out I came on the radio and said 'I think something is broken because I'm hitting so hard, like, I think I'm doing damage'. I came in, they looked and said 'no, everything's fine, that's just the way it is'. So I was a bit like... wow, OK!"

Rossi admitted nothing in his junior career in Europe could have prepared him for the bumpiness and rough characteristics of IndyCar's street venues.

"The street circuits were actually the hardest thing for me to adapt to this year just because in some of the corners, some of the braking zones, the car is literally in the air and you have to coax around that and have confidence in that, and deal with that."

Rossi drove to 12th, but the race was about experience rather than the end result as he continued to tread water in the series.

"It was kind of an extended test session for us because I had no idea what I needed from the car to go quick. We were really struggling for pace and I think I was virtually one of the last car on the lead lap.... No, actually, I was the first car to go a lap down."

"It was pretty pitiful from a performance stand point," Rossi concludes, chuckling.

From there, things would only get more challenging, as Rossi moved onto his first-ever oval race at the Phoenix International Raceway.

A weekend of terror in Phoenix

There is no easy way to start an oval circuit. On his own switch to IndyCar in 1993, Nigel Mansell complained the circuits made him sick and dizzy in the cockpit. The flat-out races are not for the feint hearted -- there's no such thing as a run-off area on an oval, just banked tarmac and a concrete wall.

For Rossi, the Phoenix race was his first experience of an oval track -- a 250-mile race spanning nearly two hours, under floodlights, with an average speed of 139.822 mp/h.

"Phoenix was a bit like 'oh my god, what's this going to be like?' I had no idea where to begin.

"Phoenix was literally just a weekend of being terrified for two days, really... but then once I got through it I thought it wasn't too bad and actually started enjoying it a bit. But I never really maximised everything - it was a decent result for us but I never felt like I was getting the most out of the car."

After finishing 14th at the Arizona race, progress for Rossi continued to be slow -- he finished 20th at Long Beach (a lap down, and second to last), before recording a 14th-place finish in Alabama, behind all three of his teammates. Heading into May and to the state of Indiana, Rossi was looking for a change in fortunes.

The month of May

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, held on a modified layout of the configuration used in F1 during the 2000s, was the turning point in Rossi's season. Having previously struggled with the pace of his car, Rossi claimed the fastest lap during a solid drive to tenth. The result, which saw him finish ahead of Munoz and Andretti, was just what Rossi had been waiting for.

"Indy GP was the first time I was stronger than all my teammates throughout a weekend. I think that was the moment I really made a step forward in terms of my overall pace. There were other weekends where, post-Indy GP, we were 16th, say, but it was the most we could get from the car because my teammates were 18th and 19th, type of thing.

"Prior to that I was kind of just following along and trying to find my feet so I think Indy GP was a turning point just from the perspective of feeling like a valuable member of Andretti Autosport."

The confidence boost came a couple of weeks before the Indy 500 -- a significant time period, as it gave Rossi, whose previous oval experience was just that terrifying weekend at Phoenix, ample time to get acquainted with the most famous oval circuit in the world.

"[After Phoenix] I was fortunate because the next oval was Indianapolis but you get two weeks of practice leading in to it. So it was in those two weeks where I really got comfortable with the concept of ovals and trying to know what the car needs to go quick.

"I think that really set me up for the rest of the year in terms of the other oval tracks we went to just because I got so much time driving on an oval consecutively without distractions, I could focus solely on improving myself as an oval driver."

The practice clearly paid dividends, as Rossi qualified 11th -- the next closest rookie was fellow F1 castaway Max Chilton in 22nd. But Rossi wasn't just adapting to the circuit, he was also taking in the sheer scale of an event -- its much-hyped 100th running -- he admits he had never truly appreciated until his debut.

Commenting on the weekend, Rossi says: "It was mindblowing. I had no idea what to expect. Every single thing and every part of the month of May was new to me, all the activities that surround the 500. I remember specifically waking up Sunday morning at 6am when the cannon goes off to open the gates. You step off the bus and you just see people already... that part was amazing to me. To wake up that early in the morning and see over 100,000 people already there and that it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger, to the point where you can't even walk around.

"The driver introductions which you do on the start-finish straight before you go to your cars was just mindblowing. To be able to stand out in front of 320,000 people and hear that and feel that excitement is something I remember almost as much as winning the race -- I'd never been to a 500 before so I didn't know what it was all about. So that bit really sticks with me as much as the end result did."

Though stunned by the magnitude of the race, Rossi admits he would only truly appreciate the scale of the Indy 500 afterwards.

"I was super naive about the event. I was going into it as another race -- yeah there's a lot of people, but it's another race. I didn't understand the significance of it at the time. If I were to return, yes, there would be a huge amount of pride and honour to be on the grid to be representing the States at a flagship event like that."

It is a calm and professional mindset that would pay dividends for Rossi midway through the 500-mile race.

Winning on fumes

Dwelling on his most famous result, Rossi recalls: "The memories of the early stages were positive... and then super negative! I started 11th and on the first lap I moved up to seventh or eighth and I was not stressed at all about where I was. I was in touch with the leaders and three of the cars in front of me were my teammates, so I knew the car was good. It was just about finding my feet and finding what it was like racing on a super speedway -- despite practicing for two weeks, you're never on track with 32 other cars.

"So you don't understand the magnitude of that there, because even if you're not behind a lot of cars you've still got the wake of the 32 cars, even if most of them are behind you. So the car doesn't feel right for the whole 500 miles, it doesn't feel like the car you've been driving for the previous two weeks, so the first stint was just about figuring that out.

"Then it just all went downhill from there. All three of the next pit stops were subsequently worse than the prior, and the third one dropped us all the way down to last, at which point I was pretty dejected with things because I went from easily in the top ten to literally the last car. From there I was just frustrated and didn't know what else to do. Fortunately, this all happened under yellow, so I had five minutes to get my s--- together, basically!"

At that point a plan was formed. Save fuel at all costs, in order to avoid the last stop of the race and jump the cars ahead -- effectively going five laps longer than everyone else. It was a ballsy strategy, and one which needed an incredible effort from driver and pit wall to even come close to succeeding.

"The team came up with the strategy, which was crazy at the time, but we committed to it with about 100 laps to go. We just decided that we were going to make it work. As you know, it probably shouldn't have worked and it was very, very close to not working, but we just pulled it off.

"I can't explain how hard it was for [the Andretti Autosport pit wall] to calculate... you have telemetry, you have the fuel that's in the car but you also have what's called a fuel meter error, and that changes with what mixtures you're running. So when you're running richer or running leaner, that meter error is constantly fluctuating, so you're having to calculate the fuel you have on a corner by corner basis. "So the fact that they were able to get it so accurate that I literally ran out on the last corner of the last lap was a huge effort on their part and probably harder than the job I had to do."

Rossi's all-or-nothing strategy went largely unnoticed on the outside, as Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden and Munoz seemingly diced for the race win, before all three dived into the pits with five laps remaining for a splash of fuel. Rossi stayed out and inherited the lead. When he took the white flag, signifying the final lap of the race, Rossi, now driving around 40 mph slower than the chasing pack, held a 13 second lead over Munoz. Fuel was critical. His car drank the last drop of fuel as he came through the final corner but had enough pace in hand to coast across the line with Munoz now just four seconds behind. Rossi had to be towed to Victory Road after he came to a stop on his celebratory lap.

Rossi -- who joked after the race he was upset to have cried on television -- admits most of those final laps and the celebrations afterwards are a blur. But one moment sticks out -- seeing his father Pieter, his former manager and the man who was pivotal in the move to Europe when Rossi was 19 and his subsequent success in junior categories.

Asked what his most vivid memory was as he was towed into Victory Road, he says: "I think it was just my dad being there. Pulling in he was just to my left and I could see the excitement and the joy on his face, that was pretty special to me.

"He and I really committed so much time and effort to Europe and Formula One and he was able to accomplish amazing things for me over there as my manager. Coming from zero racing background, for us to come down this new journey and path of IndyCar racing which we both knew nothing about... to see his face there knowing a lot of the work and trials and tribulations we'd gone through, it mattered at that moment. That was pretty special."

With two races at Detroit the weekend after the Indy 500, Rossi barely had time to register what he had just achieved. When asked how long it took for the achievement to sink in, he laughs: "Three weeks, probably! To realise we'd won, probably a minute afterwards, 30 seconds afterwards, but I was in shock for a couple of days after. I knew we'd won and that it was a big deal but I didn't necessarily know how we had won, or why, there were lots of different things going on in my head. It took a couple of weeks until the magnitude of it sunk in."

Back to reality

New England Patriots boss Bill Belichick once famously declared "We're on to Cincinnati" after a tough loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014, something which became the team's rallying cry in their Super Bowl-winning season. For Patriots fan Rossi, after the biggest win of his career at the 100th running of America's most famous race, it was just on to the next race on the calendar at Detroit.

"I didn't even celebrate Sunday night, because I knew there was a race the next weekend. I went to bed at 10.30. To me, that's always been the main priority, the next focus is always on the next race and the championship.

"Much to the critique of a lot of fans and a lot of media, I really was just focused on Detroit by the Monday. I did a New York media tour Tuesday, Wednesday, flew to Detroit on Thursday. Through that, sure, I was still talking about the Indy 500 and the IndyCar series but a lot of the comments I was making were about the whole season and how I just wanted to get to Detroit and get into the season. And I meant it."

After finishing 10th in Detroit and then sixth two races later at Iowa, the next couple of races brought Rossi back down to earth with a bang.

"Iowa was good, we finished sixth and that was the best result of the season outside of Indy. Then it just went downhill after that for a while. Road America [15th] we just had a lot of issues with pace, Toronto [16th] was a disaster, just horrible, out of our own way. I just wanted to go home on Sunday morning before the race in Toronto, it was that bad. Pocono [20th] I thought we had a shot to win. We were leading when we had an entanglement in the pit-lane, let's call it... "

Opportunity knocks... again

There was another potential twist in Rossi's 2016 season on the horizon as F1 reached its August summer break. The Manor seat Rossi had been overlooked for was the subject of much attention as Haryanto, signed for the first 13 races of the year, had now run out of funds and could not foot the bill for the second half of the season.

Manor immediately turned to their reserve driver. By now Rossi was in the latter part of his rookie IndyCar season, with just four races left to run. It may have been another baptism by fire against the talented Wehrlein in a car he had never driven before, but it would have been a foot back in the door he had spent the last three years trying to prize open.

However, feeling a debt of gratitude to Michael Andretti and his team for considering him when the original Manor deal fell through in February, Rossi admits it was an easy decision to say no.

"Honestly, it really didn't even go that far into depth. I felt like I owed a lot to Andretti Autosport and Honda for the support they'd given me and it didn't feel right to walk away from that situation, regardless of where Manor was in in terms of competitiveness.

"I made a commitment to them and it didn't feel right to do anything but fulfil that commitment, so it was a pretty easy decision for me."

Texas

Lingering over August and the final stint of races was the Firestone 600 at Texas, which originally ran on June 12, only to be suspended after 71 laps. Over two months later, at the end of August, the race resumed, though it took a long time for IndyCar to agree on whether it would resume from lap 71 or start over.

"There was a lot of opinions. Some guys thought we should start it over, some guys thought we should start the whole weekend over from qualifying stage. I was in the boat of starting it from zero, so keep qualifying but start the race from lap one. But there were rules written about those sort of situations so IndyCar was in a tough position, because from their side from a fan enjoyment perspective they would have liked to see it start from zero."

In the end, it resumed from 71 laps, and it was another case of being thrown in at the deep end.

"Texas was crazy for all of us. They gave us a five-minute practice going into the race, they were like 'here's five minutes with a completely new track conditions and weather conditions -- have fun going into Turn 1 at 120 mph!' We all had our apprehensions, I guess, going into it, but once you're in there it's just another race and you settle in.

"But for us, settling in was starting to lose the rear of the car seven laps into a tyre stint. That's a pretty unnerving thing to try and deal with. It was one of those races where it was just about surviving. The end result was going to be what it was going to be, you just didn't want to crash."

Rossi would finish 11th ahead of Andretti and Hunter-Reay, before a strong drive to eighth at the penultimate round at Watkins Glen.

A heartbreaking finish

Going into his home race at Sonoma -- almost exactly one year since his F1 debut at Marina Bay -- Rossi had a clear goal in mind: cap a remarkable season by finishing as the top Honda and Andretti Autosport driver. He came agonisingly close to achieving the latter. Though his drive to fifth was the strongest race of his season away from the Indy 500, it had a painful -- and ironic -- twist on the final corner of the final lap.

"We had had pace in the test so I went into it super optimistic and was doing everything I could to pull that off. Through the whole race, the guy I needed to beat was Graham Rahal and he had a huge amount of pace, so it was pretty clear right from the beginning we weren't going to be the top Honda.

"However up until the final corner on the last lap I was going to be the top Andretti driver and the second-best Honda, and finish eighth in the championship, instead I ran out of fuel on the last corner of the last lap - which was apparently my M.O of 2016!

"That dropped me from fourth to fifth, which meant I fell from eighth to 11th in the championship, which was heartbreaking. But at the same time I won the biggest race in the world doing the same thing so it's funny how the world works."

Rossi has since signed up for a second season with Andretti Autosport. Another year of IndyCar makes a future return to F1 look less likely -- a shame considering the sport's long wait for a young and competitive American driver. For Rossi, his years of waiting and working for an opportunity in F1 led to overdue success and recognition in another series.

Reflecting on his rookie campaign as a whole, though there are clearly regrets, Rossi is finally letting himself dwell on those remarkable three hours at the Brickyard.

"I think we can walk away being content with it. Me being a competitive person, I'll never be completely happy walking away 11th in the championship but it was all that we could do a lot of the time. But at the same time, it's pretty difficult to be mad about any of 2016 when I think about the 500 and the month of May..."