It takes commitment to reach Formula 1, with endless hours of training, learning languages, chasing sponsors and travelling around the world fundamental to budding young drivers aspiring to reach the top. For American F1 hopefuls, add to that list living on another continent on the other side of the world, far away from home.
Understandably, for some it becomes all too much. Take Danica Patrick for example. The world's most famous female racer has attained phenomenal success back home in the United States, but this came only after a tenuous period in 2000 spent living alone in England. Patrick's case is not an isolated one: so many young Americans have tried unsuccessfully to make it in Europe that the American F1 hopeful is now a rare breed. Indeed, most young American racing drivers look no further than USAC, NASCAR or the Indianapolis 500, the 'Greatest Spectacle in Racing.' And who can blame them? Success has eluded the best America has had to offer on the global stage for a generation – America's last Formula 1 champion was Mario Andretti in 1978 – while in the meantime NASCAR's popularity has boomed, making the likes of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. into national icons, adored by millions. What's more, there is no shortage of opportunities for youngsters to make it big in US motorsport. For proof of that, see the fairytale story of Trevor Bayne, who won the jewel in the NASCAR crown – the Daytona 500 – on his 20th birthday last year and became a superstar overnight.
However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel, as the age-old problem of America's indifference to Formula 1 is starting to show signs of changing. Whilst the USF1 project failed to get off the ground in 2010, the USAhas been granted a race for the first time since 2007 to be held in Austin, Texas, and several American hopefuls have landed on the junior single-seater ladder. Alexander Rossi is being groomed for stardom by Caterham F1 owner Tony Fernandes, while second-generation star Conor Daly – whom The Checkered Flag interviewed in May, has since performed straight-line testing duties for Force India.
The last of note is Californian Michael Lewis, who finished as top rookie and second overall in last years Italian F3 championship, driving for Prema Powerteam. As a result, Lewis won the chance to test the 2009 specification Ferrari F60, thus becoming the first American since Mario Andretti himself, back in 1982, to drive a Ferrari Formula 1 car in anger.
“It's definitely cool, I mean you have that picture in your room forever and everyone says 'hey what's that?'” Lewis says. “The F1 car is crazy to drive. It's not like I was paying to do it as well, because I won the opportunity. Especially with the little prancing horse on the red car, it's pretty intense! It was really special to start the engine and go out because it's not just an F1 car: it's also a Ferrari.”
“It was really nice because Ferrari was very open towards me and shared a lot of their data and their experience from previous tests, as well as with the other driver Sergio Campana. They really welcomed me, so I must thank Ferrari for that.”
Along with his good friend and driver coach, the vastly underrated Italian Giacomo Ricci, Lewis tours Europe on the DTM circuit, where he competes in the F3 Euroseries. The 21 year old's decision to remain with Prema squad for a second year has paid dividends: already with a prior knowledge of the team and the engineers, and able to share data with hugely experienced teammate Daniel Juncadella, the American has swiftly got to grips with the new Dallara chassis and thus far scored four podiums, peaking with a second in Austria and two thirds at Brands Hatch. Learning Italian has also proved invaluable to Lewis's smooth transition to European racing, far removed from the world he grew up in.
“I can speak Italian really well,” Lewis says. “Other basic languages, say French, I understand the basic lower level stuff. You've got to be really adaptive.”
The son of Steve Lewis, the founder of Nine Racing – ten-times USAC National Midget champions – and the man behind the Performance Racing Industry magazine, Michael Lewis started down the F1 path at a young age, and never looked back.
“So basically, I was go-karting in the US and got better and better,” Lewis explains. “Out of interest, my family and I would always travel to Italy in the summer. My dad asked me if I wanted to do a race over here and I thought 'that's cool,' so we just did a Rotax race over here. I did really well and from there I kept progressing, making contacts all the time.
“I finished karting in 2008 and then raced 1 year of Formula BMW in the USA in 2009 with an Italian team based in Europe, Eurointernational. I won the Rookie championship, and the USA championship closed at the same time, so the only option was to move to Europe. So really I just started this trend out of curiosity.”
Lewis improved gradually in his first full year in Europein Formula BMW, facing stiff opposition from the likes of Robin Frijns, and current F3 rivals Jack Harvey, Hannes van Asseldonk and Carlos Sainz Jr. and finished the year on a high with a fifth place at Monza. When BMW ended their involvement at the end of the year, Lewis made the switch to the Italian Formula 3 championship. 2011 turned into a great success, as Mercedes-contracted Californian scored three wins, poles at Spa and Monza, and numerous fastest laps to boot, eventually outscoring Ferrari junior drivers Raffaele Marciello and Brandon MaÃ¯sano to end the year as runner-up.
While Marciello has stepped up another level this year and taken the fight to Juncadella for the Euroseries title, Lewis has been accepted into the FIA Institute, under the tutelage of those who have been there and done it all before: double LM24 winner and ex-F1 driver Alex Wurz, and the 2001 WRC winning co-driver Robert Reid, whose job it is to “develop us as drivers and keep us aware of our safety.”
“Alex Wurz, Robert Reid and some other people from the FIA held these shootouts before you get inside. I was chosen out of many American drivers – whose names I don't know because they didn't tell me – to go to the bigger pool,” Lewis says proudly. “China has theirs, the USA and Italy too, and they all put the drivers they chose in. The FIA approve that, and from there the drivers go to Austria to do the shootout. They test you on your natural abilities in the car, media skills: a really broad stretch of things to test you out.”
As luck would have it, the Shootout coincided with his once in a lifetime Ferrari test in Vallelunga, Spain, necessitating a transcontinental dash to Austria.
“I actually missed one day of the three day shootout because I was testing the F1 car,” Lewis laughs. “I literally hopped out of the F1 car, had to say goodbye really quickly and thank everyone and flew over to Austria to do that.
“I went into the Shootout open minded because I was already a day behind, but I thought 'what the heck' and pushed really hard on the driving activities, like the skid pad and other really intense things. I really must thank them for the opportunity.”
Succeeding Alex Rossi as the American representative in the 'FIA Institute Young Driver Excellence Academy' – to give the program its full title – alongside British F1 hopefuls Lewis Williamson and Alex Lynn gives Lewis' push for Formula 1 an added legitimacy. And after his own taste of F1 action last winter, Lewis is as excited as anyone about the US Grand Prix in November, which will – for one weekend at least – focus the attentions of the nation on its young charges trying to fill the void.
“Yeah totally,” Lewis says when asked if it will put the spotlight on his efforts. “It's bringing F1 – one of the biggest forms of racing – back to the USA and generating interest. And don't forget there's New Jersey as well [in 2013]. It's just great. The fact that Austin is a permanent circuit as well will create more interest.”
However, Lewis is under no illusions about the rocky path to F1, which has a notorious tempestuous streak and often blocks the paths of those most deserving. Just ask Giorgio Pantano, Adam Carroll or Luca Filippi.
“For me, there is no real clear path to F1,” Lewis shrewdly notes. “For me, if you are really fast in what you do and there is the opportunity then you can progress, but you have keep going in the direction that seems the best way. Whether that's DTM, Indycar or rally, it doesn't matter, just keep going and you'll find the opportunity.”
Yet that's not all there is to Michael Lewis. Somehow, he also finds the time to work towards a business degree alongside racing.
“It's insane I know,” Lewis smiles. “I'm doing an economics major at California State University Fullerton and I was a full time student from 2009 to 2010. When I started racing in Europe I had to back my units down and miss classes. Always I'm just picking off courses one at a time. Maybe I can fly back for a month or two and finish it off. I train my body all day and after training I do homework. It's pretty intense, but you've gotta do it.”
Now that is commitment.