A key thing I think Formula 1 needs to attract more American fans is an American driver. Without having a hometown hero, someone to really connect with, it can be hard for fans to get interested. 22-year-old Michael Lewis is fighting hard to become the next American Formula 1 driver and is already a Mercedes-Benz team driver in Formula 3's Euro Series for the Prema Powerteam.
I had a chance to talk to Michael via Skype from his home in Italy as he prepared to leave for Germany for the first F3 race of the 2012 season at Hockenheim:
How did you get into racing?
I was lucky. My family has been really involved in oval racing. My father owns a midget car racing team, which is like a sprint car. I was always at the races when I was a little kid, eight, nine, ten years old. Running around the pit lane. I was always watching these oval midget and sprint car drivers. NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne was a guy who was always around. As a kid I would see these drivers do their job, I was right there and it was inspiring.
To actually become a race car driver, I never even thought about that. I never thought as a kid, "I want to become a race car driver," it kind of happened in this really natural progression. And eventually I did think that, but after a bunch of experiences.
Did you have a choice as to which form of racing you pursued, what made you get into the Formula 1 track as opposed to NASCAR or IndyCar or Rally Car?
The first thing I drove were quarter midgets which is like a scaled-down sprint car or midget car racing on ovals. My father and I chose this division because we were familiar with oval racing. I felt comfortable with oval stuff. From there I did two seasons in quarter midget and was really fast, won two championships.
During my seasons in quarter midgets, as a family we would go to Italy as a family vacation every summer. During these vacations we would go mess around with go karts and saw many kart races in Europe. We got into road racing and started to make contacts in that world. After quarter midgets, we kind of made the decision to push in a direction we didn't know as well, which was road racing. My father had the mentality, and I agreed, the ways that feel uncomfortable are the best ways to go because they force you to push higher than you would have done. So we got into kart racing and things went from there.
How tall are you, you're tall for a driver, right?
I am 6' 1". But I weight 145 pounds, I'm strong, but I'm not huge, I'm really, really lean. You don't want to be any taller than me. Jenson Button is very tall and the F1 car is even smaller than the F3 car I drive. The cockpit is smaller.
6' 1" is probably the limit, any taller, your knees are touching the top of the car. You sit in like a bathtub and your back is against the back of the bathtub. And where your knees are, the top of the car is resting, so it's pretty hard, it's not soft.
You've done some Formula 1 tests, what's it like to drive an F1 car?It's really fast. The engine is extremely powerful, it has 800 horsepower. The amount of speed you can carry into any given corner is incredible. The top speed is something insane, but when you approach a corner, the speed you can carry into a corner is really insane. A normal person in an average car on the street, they feel the grip in the corner. A Formula 1 car is like a spaceship because of how fast you can go around a corner. You think you have to brake, but no, it's flat. It means you can turn into a corner before you start to brake. Formula 3 cars can do this, but the theory is something strange because you have so much grip, it can stop on a dime. There is no lag. It's something really, really intense to drive. But when you drive it, you get the confidence in this kind of car it adds to your skill-set.
The F1 car runs like a big computer, it's amazing. Everything you do is an input into a computer. The way you steer the car, the application of throttle, each button, everything is a request for the car to do. Nothing is mechanical, everything goes through a black box, everything. For example, you can go full out on a straightaway and click the reverse button any time you want. At that speed, the computer senses you're going 300 miles per hour on a straight and won't do anything, you can press the button all you want, it's not going to do anything. It's really interesting and it was an amazing experience to test the F1 car. Trying to get back into one of those things!
How can you get to be a Formula 1 driver?
I'm in Formula 3, in the highest prestige category, the Formula 3 Euro Series. The Formula 3 Euro series is supported by factory teams. I'm now a Mercedes-Benz driver and I drive my F3 car with Mercedes engines. The next step to F1 is very close. The only other kind of cars I would really need experience in beside Formula 3 before F1 would be something like a GP 2 car or World Series by Renault car. Which is the same concept as Formula 1, Formula 3, open wheel car with wings, but more horsepower, bigger car and longer distance races.
I could have the opportunity to go to F1 directly, but it's not likely. We'll see what happens next year and if I am still with Mercedes and if I am, what they want me to do. I'm really close and I'm pushing hard for F1 or whatever is available. Maybe all the doors are closed at that moment, you have to be open with your career.
Is being American an advantage as many fans feel Formula 1 needs an American driver?I see that and I'm trying to use that as best as I can to press my racing career. You want as a fan to root for something that's close to you or associated to you. If you're an American fan, seeing an American race car driver makes sense. If I fit that dimension, I'm an American and I race cars, heck yeah, I'll take that and try to use it as best I can. For example with Mercedes, that's maybe one reason they were looking at me, because I'm a fast driver from the U.S. and they don't have any other Americans in their program right now.
Would you consider IndyCar?I would totally consider IndyCar. It has to be whatever is on the table, I'm gonna grab everything I can. Whether it's IndyCar or ALMS (American Le Mans Series). Absolutely IndyCar would be something to look at. The road course aspects, I feel I could perform very well, oval racing of IndyCars, I don't know how that could go. The oval thing for IndyCars might be something I have to deeply look at, for safety reasons. I want to race cars professionally and whatever the opportunity is, I will do it.
What do you think of the Formula 3 blocking rules and how do they work with your natural driving instincts?
Basically in Europe, you do whatever you want, as long as you make only one movement to protect your line. You can only make one, and I say one with quotation marks, one major move. It's pretty open, you can't make two moves, you can't zig-zag.
A lifetime auto racing fan, Freddy Sherman collects vintage muscle cars and attends races and rally events in the U.S. and around the world. You can follow him on Twitter -@thefredshermanMore from this contributor: Formula 1's Only Female CEO - Sauber's Monisha Kaltenborn Narang: Fan's View
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