Europe has generally been a difficult port of call for US-bred talent since the days of the Andretti’s and Eddie Cheever, with only Scott Speed breaking into Formula 1 in recent years.
From Alexander Rossi to Conor Daly to Josef Newgarden, there has been a small rise in the number of American drivers who have competed on the Formula 1 ladder since Speed’s exit in the middle of the last decade.
Now California’s Michael Lewis is busy ensuring his name features high on that list of emerging talent.
On the back of a successful year in the Italian Formula 3 Championship (he finished 2nd overall and was the highest rookie), Lewis will spend 2012 competing in the Formula 3 Euro Series with Prema Powerteam. His teammates will be recent Macau Grand Prix winner Daniel Juncadella and Formula 3 rookie Sven Müller.
With testing due to start next month, I decided to check in to find out more about the chap.
The Motorsport Archive: It’s very unlikely that many drivers on the European ladder scene can say they started in 1/4 Midgets in California. Could you describe those early days?
Michael Lewis: It has been a great progression thus far. From the little oval tracks in Southern California to driving for Scuderia Ferrari F1 car in Southern Italy, it definitely has been a pretty good ride. Basically, I have always been around the sport of racing, as my father publishes a racing magazine and owns a racing team that races on ovals in the US.
I never really thought about driving until one day a friend of my father, Mike Reed, asked me to try a 1/4 midget. To prepare for this “major” test, my father and I took an old go-kart out in a parking lot near my house in Southern California and began testing for my 1/4 midget debut. From that day in 2002, I wanted to be a racing driver.
Since then, it has been a progression into road racing. After winning and proving myself in 1/4 Midgets (2003-2005) I then jumped into go-karting. My father felt that go-karting was the best tool to really learn how to race. In the decision making process I was fine with that, as I just wanted to race.
Looking back, it was a good decision. Even though road racing was out of our initial scope of things, the mentality to accept and try new things and push to expand our knowledge was a theme that still is very much a part of my lifestyle.
I then raced from the middle of 2005 through 2008 in go-karts. I raced domestically in the US, mainly on the west coast, and internationally in Italian Open Masters, WSK, the European championships, ROK, and Rotax events.
From Kimball Williams who helped get me started in Karting, to Mike Manning who provided winning chassis/engine tuning (together we won the IKF TAG Region 7 championship & the $2,000 to win TAG Pro Race at California Speedway among other events), and to Dino Chiesa & everyone at Chiesa Corse who taught me not only about driving, but all the mentality that revolves around driving (when I was competing in Europe); everything happened for a reason.
TMA: From that period in ¼ Midgets and Karts, could you describe how you adapted to the European single-seater racing you compete in now.
ML: From the end of 2008 until the current date, I began my career in cars. I was quite fast in go-karts and could have returned to Europe to contest another season and improve on all that I had learnt from the past three years of karting. Instead we decided to test in Formula BMW cars and in USAC Ford Focus Midget cars.
Ovals and Road racing were both involved. I focussed heavily on the Formula BMW Americas championship in 2009 (driving for Antonio Ferrari’s Eurointernational team), and whenever I wasn’t racing in FBMW (Formula BMW), I was driving the Ford Focus midgets (for Kevin Gerhardt’s Western Speed Racing team).
In my first year of FBMW Americas, I was crowned Rookie champion (P4 overall) and highlights included a 2nd classified finish at Miller Motorsports park and a 2nd classified FBMW Asia event at the Singapore F1 Grand Prix. I also won numerous main events, heat races, trophy dashes, and pole positions in the Ford Focus midgets.
For 2010, I drove in Formula BMW Europe (again with Antonio Ferrari’s Eurointernational team) because I had earned a scholarship from my Rookie Championship title in 2009 from BMW. We chose the European championship over the Asian FBMW championship because of my long history of racing go-karts in Europe. For me, 2010 was a pivotal year in my racing career, and it largely set up my success in 2011.
2010 started off great, as I drove many races in Formula BMW Asia in preparation for the European championship. I scored three 2nd classified finishes and one 3rd classified finish. Also the first couple of events went pretty well in Europe.
TMA: The past couple of seasons have been important to your career. What happened?
ML: Then I started performing quite horribly. At the time, I could not find the reason for my driving problems. This string of bad racing turned around immediately once I met Giacomo Ricci, who is now a great friend, in a random/chance encounter. Giacomo is an Italian Racing Driver who has competed in GP2 for many seasons.
Basically, once we started working together, he gave me even more mentality tools and driving tips than I already had in my repertoire. This boost in information revamped my driving, and I was able to finish off the final two races (Spa & Monza) of the 2010 FMBW Europe season really well. I qualified P3 in the rain at Spa, and was P1 in practice at Monza.
Then I jumped to Italian Formula 3 for 2011, as I knew many of the tracks in that championship from racing/testing in Formula BMW Europe. Also, because I have had a long history of racing karts and FBMW with Italian teams.
From the end of 2010 until now, I have had a new mentality on my racing and my life in general. The collaboration with Giacomo Ricci and my new team (Angelo & René Rosin’s Prema Powerteam), we have produced an incredible result in my first year of Formula 3.
TMA: Your 2011 season was something of a breakthrough year in the Italian F3 Championship, with three wins and the runner-up spot in the series. How would you assess your performance during the season?
ML: Three “race one” victories, two pole positions, two fastest laps, six total podiums, a Rookie championship title, P2 in the overall title, and an official test drive in the Scuderia Ferrari Formula One F60 Chassis; it was an awesome year.
I was just focussed on my driving, nothing else mattered. And I enjoyed my driving. While in qually, practice, or in the race, I was extremely focussed, but I was having fun. Always. Enjoying what you do is vital for a successful result. A big “thank you” to Angelo and René Rosin at Prema Powerteam for providing great equipment and support all season long.
TMA: Finishing as the top-rookie in the Italian F3 series earned you a test in the Ferrari F60 last November. That must have been a truly special occasion. What are your memories of that day?
ML: The Rookie Championship title and F1 test were truly special and I feel extremely proud of those results. However, I did not enjoy those two things until much after the Italian F3 season ended.
The reason being the following: I was P2 in the overall championship going into the last race weekend at my home track Monza, Italy. To win the overall drivers championship, I had to do the “Perfect weekend” (Pole Position, Race 1 fastest lap, Race 1 victory, Race 2 fastest lap, and Race 2 victory). Fresh off my Race 1 victory in Mugello, I was up for the challenge. I did all of those “Perfect weekend” things, except the Race 2 victory. I even secured the Rookie title, Ferrari F1 test, and P2 overall after I won Race 1 on Saturday.
Honestly, I really didn’t care about those things because I wanted to bring home the overall drivers championship for Prema Powerteam. After starting P8 in Race 2 (invert top 8 grid from qually) I passed everyone and I was P1 with two laps remaining. On the penultimate lap, in the La Roggia chicane, I received heavy damage to my rear-right suspension from a kerb causing me to eventually fly off in Lesmo 2. Basically, this mistake caused myself and Prema Powerteam to lose the overall championship after more than a year’s worth of work.
My team really supported me after that extremely tough loss and I had thought of all of the possibilities of how I could have avoided taking damage to my rear-right suspension (my braking style at that moment in the race, mentality of pushing with the provided margin over P2, etc.).
Basically, until the day I had my official seat fitting with Scuderia Ferrari F1 and drove their F1 car, I was not as proud as I am currently. What made me change my mentality was to look at the 99% of good in my Italian F3 season against the 1% bad. Prema Powerteam and I truly accomplished something incredible, with most wins of any driver, etc.
TMA: In November, you were also selected to be part of the FIA Institute Young Drive Academy – what has been your experience of the programme so far?
ML: It was very nice to be selected, as the only participant from the United States of America. The FIA Institute Young Driver Excellence Academy has been a great experience. They organize workshops, about one week in length, to teach & make us apply mental and physical programs all with the goal of increasing awareness about safety in motorsport.
The staff, which includes Alex Wurz, Robert Reid and many others, really provide a great atmosphere to learn and develop ourselves into elite racing athletes. Also, at the end of the season I will be an accredited road safety instructor, so I can further instil safety in the minds of everyone (racing or non racing).
TMA: Looking now to this year, you’re moving from Italian F3 to the F3 Euro Series, although staying with Prema Powerteam. What stand-out challenges do you foresee at this point in time?
ML: This year it will be harder to win races, set pole positions, etc. The competition is extremely high in F3 Euro Series, and I am training quite hard physically and mentally to drive to the best of my ability.
There are a few personal mentality aspects to my driving on which I must work, and also I must tweak my driving style a bit.
TMA: Have you had an opportunity yet to test the new Dallara F312 chassis, either on track or in a simulator?
ML: I have not driven the F312 yet, in the flesh nor on a simulator. A shakedown of the car is soon arriving. I have sat in the car and my general feel on the car is quite positive.
TMA: With Prema Powerteam, you are part of a very strong squad, with a pair of capable teammates in Daniel Juncadella and Sven Müller. How confident are you that you can deliver results that may not only bring you the Euro Series title, but also help Prema Powerteam retain the Teams’ Championship?
ML: I feel strong that I can deliver results. I will push hard to obtain the highest result in the drivers’ championship for Prema Powerteam and also the Teams’ championship.
My teammates are quite fast and this is a good thing. We can then push each other to keep getting faster and faster as a team. The mentality is that we are all working together, not just random individual work.
And most of all, to enjoy racing and have fun.
The opening round of the 2012 Formula 3 Euro Series takes place at the Hockenheimring in Germany over the course of April 27th and 29th. All nine rounds of the series will be running as support to the DTM Championship.