Romain Grosjean's great escape

When Romain Grosjean walked away from a Formula 1 horror crash in Bahrain in 2020, the motor racing world breathed a collective sigh of relief. That was his final F1 appearance and since then his career has seen a revival in the US – and even become fun. Damien Smith speaks to IndyCar’s rising talent about a fresh start and how he’s grown to accept his battle scars

Romain Grosjean is helped away after 2020 Bahrain fireball crash

Grosjean walking free from his Haas at Sakhir

Dan Istitene/F1 via Getty Images

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Romain Grosjean is a happy man.

He’s alive for a start. A year on from that terrifying crash in Bahrain – if the barrier-splitting impact didn’t kill him, the inferno that followed could have – he’s sitting in the lobby of a plush country hotel in Cheshire looking relaxed and at peace. He’s over the accident, but that was never a problem for a mentally rock-solid racing driver, as those that live at the pinnacle have to be. Rather, his happiness is born from a number of great things that have taken place since, plus what he now has to look forward to.

The stress and grind of life as a Formula 1 backmarker with Haas is an increasingly distant memory. His passion for racing has been re-born in the US, via a reviving first dip into IndyCar; and now he has a freshly minted new contract with one of the major teams, Andretti Autosport, to go back for a full season. He, his wife and three children will move to Miami to begin building their new life – and Romain, still only 35, is raring to feel the buzz of winning motor races again, perhaps even have a tilt at the title.

Romain Grosjean Portrait

Given the circumstances of Romain Grosjean’s crash at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, his injuries are light

Rick Dole/Getty Images

But what’s he doing in Cheshire on a Thursday night in November? Grosjean has flown in from his current home in Switzerland to be guest of honour at an end-of-season bash at Praga Cars, the quirky Czech manufacturer that recently opened a new UK headquarters in rural Antrobus. It’s not an obvious association, but the Frenchman has been a Praga ambassador for the past few years and enjoys promoting not only the firm’s faster-than-a-GT3 R1 single-seat sports racer but also its rich involvement in karting. “Basically I met the owner Petr Ptáček,” says Romain. “His son had started racing in go-karts and wanted to make the move into single-seaters. We had a good connection and he said, ‘Look, I’d like you to be an ambassador for the brand, and maybe give some advice for Petr Jr.’”

It’s a facet of Grosjean’s life that should break any perception he’s a stereotypical one-dimensional (ex) F1 driver. His esports team R8G is another string to the bow of a man who is far more interesting than the calamitous caricature portrayed on the Netflix Formula 1: Drive to Survive TV show. Still, hearing him talk enthusiastically about UK club series Britcar and Praga’s new one-make series has novelty value.

Romain Grosjean looks into Praga car cockpit

The smile is back

Side view of Romain Grosjean in Dale Coyne Racing IndyCar

Grosjean’s switch to IndyCar with Dale Coyne has brought podiums not seen since 2015

Grosjean is far from unique in finding a new lease of life after jettisoning out of a constricting F1 existence. He made 179 grand prix starts between 2009 and 2020, scoring 10 podiums for Lotus-badged Renault, before the early promise of Haas dwindled into makeweight survival. Then during recovery from the Bahrain crash that looks set to define his F1 career, he struck a deal with Honda-powered IndyCar perennial Dale Coyne to race a mauve Dallara. His summary of 2021 as “fun” is something of an understatement.

Smiling Romain Grosjean“I was surprised how quickly I adapted because initially the car felt really different from anything I’d driven before,” he said. “Obviously there’s no power steering, then with the aeroscreen” – IndyCar’s bulky alternative to F1’s cockpit ‘halo’ – “the car aerodynamically is not very developed. You rely more on mechanical grip, so at high speed you have to get ready for it and adapt to it. But when we got to race one at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama I already felt like we were on to something pretty good. Race two was a bit more difficult, then race three we had pole position and a podium.”

Grosjean led a large chunk of his third IndyCar race on the Indianapolis road course, only for a better tyre strategy to hand the advantage to rising Dutch ace Rinus VeeKay. But his second place was followed by two further podiums, on IndyCar’s summer return to the Indy road course and late in the season at Laguna Seca. In between, he showed consistent speed and can consider himself unlucky not to have landed a win in a series riding a new wave of competitiveness. And he was always learning.

Romain Grosjean on the IndyCar podium at Laguna Seca in 2021

A third place at Laguna Seca last season with Colton Herta the winner – Grosjean’s team-mate at Andretti for 2022 – and Alex Palou

IndyCar

“There is so little practice,” he says. “The soft tyres you run most of the time in the race, you only do four or five laps on them at the end of free practice two and that’s it. We never do long runs and [learn about] degradation. It’s all performance, which is fun. But over the weekend the track evolves with the temperature and so on, so experience is key.”

His sense of release was felt far beyond the race track. “Someone asked me how many F1 podiums I scored. I said nine in two years [2012 and ’13] and then one more eventually [in 2015] and that was it. The beginning was good, but if you don’t have the car there’s nothing you can do. IndyCar is refreshing, easy-going, very professional and super-competitive but without taking itself too seriously. We finish the day, we share a BBQ between the drivers and teams. At one race
I had a nice meal with Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson [of Arrow McLaren SP], just sharing ideas, thoughts and the love for racing. We weren’t even talking about a seat for me. We just had some meatballs! It’s just like F1 from the 1980s.”

Burnt-left-hand-of-Romain-Grosjean

The buzz has been sparked by a new generation of twentysomethings shaking up the established order: Chip Ganassi’s sensational new champion Alex Palou, 24; Arrow McLaren’s exciting Mexican Pato O’Ward, 22; and Grosjean’s new Andretti team-mate Colton Herta, 21. Coming direct from F1, Romain is perfectly placed to judge: just how strong is the standard?

“From Europe I don’t know why we look at it like it isn’t good,” he says. “Really it’s very high. The teams are great, the drives are good and I’m looking forward to being team-mate to Colton Herta. He’s an interesting young guy. Then there’s Pato O’Ward. People judge because Pato came to Europe for F2 and it didn’t go well, but it’s not surprising. He’d been driving on Firestone or Cooper tyres on which you can slide and push and do whatever you want all the time. Then you come to Europe where you’ve got Pirelli tyres that are so specific that you just can’t adapt in a weekend. But there is also the opposite: some drivers come from Europe to IndyCar and struggle. Young drivers who find F1 blocked to them look at IndyCar. There are more cars, you can earn a good salary and make a nice, professional life from it.”

It begs the question, could the likes of Palou, Herta and O’Ward hack it in F1? As Dario Franchitti says elsewhere in this issue, with enough time to adapt there’s no reason why not. But you have to wonder why they’d want to give up top seats in IndyCar to likely drive in the midfield, at best, in F1. “No, I still think they want it,” says Grosjean. “Obviously there was the rumour of Andretti coming to F1 [to run the Alfa Romeo Sauber team, before the deal fell through] and I was talking to Colton. He was ready to make the move, even though I told him, ‘You are going to F1, awesome, I fully understand. But brace yourself. It’s not going to be a smooth ride. And forget about winning races or being on the podium.’ I guess he could see he could always come back to IndyCar. It would have been a nice experience.”

Romain Grosjean racing on an oval at Gateway

Grosjean made his oval debut at Gateway

Romain Grosjean laughs with Jimmie Johnson and Dario Franchitti

With Dario Franchitti, left, and Jimmie Johnson, right, at the Rookie Orientation Program

Joining Andretti is a step up and as a sophomore expectations will soar. Initially last season, Romain chose not to race on the ovals and missed the double-header at the fearsome Texas Motor Speedway and most prominently the Indianapolis 500. But once he’d become part of the scene, he was tempted out on the Gateway oval and enjoyed the experience. So how strange was it to watch his team head off to Texas and Indy while he stayed behind?

Marion Grosjean and sons“I didn’t like it!” he says with a grin. “It was a team decision with my wife and my kids, pictured right, after Bahrain. I told them I wanted to go back to racing, and you can imagine the fan club for that was much smaller than the one for stopping! But I’m not done with racing. They understood, but it was a question of ‘What do we accept and what don’t we accept?’ Basically they said, ‘We don’t want you to do the ovals,’ so we went like this. Then surprisingly it was one of my kids who wanted me to do the ovals first: ‘Daddy, when are you going to do the one that goes round and round?’ I guess they realised I was so happy in the States. They probably haven’t seen me like this. My first was born when I was scoring F1 podiums, the second was born around when I scored my last – so they were very small and have no memories of that. The only thing they remember was those last years at Haas fighting at the back.”

There are bound to be some nerves in the family as Daddy makes his Indy 500 debut – but naturally, Grosjean is excited about racing at the Big One. “I passed my rookie orientation day with Jimmie Johnson,” he says. “A 10-years Formula 1 guy and a seven-time NASCAR champion learning to do ovals! Jimmie, you might not have much you need to learn, but I do… It felt pretty straightforward.”

To us ‘civilians’, the resilience of racing drivers following a big accident can be hard to relate to. Stand back for a moment: it’s remarkable Grosjean wanted to get back in a racing car at all after what he went through in Bahrain. But it’s just not an issue for him, as he reveals when we ask whether his new book Facing Death, written in partnership with his wife Marion, was a cathartic exercise. “It wasn’t so much for me, it was for my wife,” he says. “I’ve been working with a psychologist for nine years now, I’ve done my job around the crash and I don’t mind talking about it. My wife, this was good for her. It was like a psychologist’s treatment to do the book, and also it’s good there are two views. It’s not only my life. It’s been 14 years together, so she sees it all.”

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The off-season has been an opportunity for some medical attention to his left hand, burnt in the Bahrain fire. It’s not at all awkward when we ask him about it and he shows us how it’s looking. “I had a skin graft last week and they removed all the burnt parts. They’ve done a really good job, but now I need some rehab because I can’t bend more than that.” He makes a C shape. “It’s not good-looking yet, but it will be. All the fingers will heal. That big part we haven’t touched yet, but there is a possibility to do another skin graft, more for the look. But it’s part of life’s experience. The scars are part of my story.”

It’s great to see him looking happy and well. The resilience, he just shakes off as natural for top sports people: “Am I more than others? I don’t know. That’s just the way I am.”

This IndyCar adventure is a Grosjean family project, moving three young children to another continent far from home. They are all in it together – and yet Romain knows his choices are dictating their way of life, even if his new path is less stressful than his old one. “Selfishly I do it for myself now,” he says of racing. “I’ve made my career. I went to IndyCar to have fun. I just don’t want to be dictated to, on what I need to do and how I need to behave. That’s something I’ve found in IndyCar. I’m very impressed with my new team. Now I can’t wait to get started.