Romain Grosjean: perception vs reality


One of the real feel-good aspects of the 2015 season would be if the recently unveiled Lotus E23 turns out to be good car. With Mercedes ’15 power having replaced that of Renault ’14 it’s already got a head start on the woeful twin tusk E22, a car that took the team from the regular podiums and occasional victories of 2012-13 to struggling to get out of Q1 in ’14. In the process it denied the world from seeing the continued development of one of the sport’s most exciting performers in Romain Grosjean.

By the second half of 2013 the Franco-Swiss had put to bed the impetuosity that had got him a race ban in 2012. There had been times when the team despaired of him ever putting the all the pieces together to complete the jigsaw – but they persevered because the picture that jigsaw promised was of an aggressively fast driver, even by the standards at the top of F1. By the latter half of 2013 as he took the Lotus and repeatedly hounded the much superior Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel without error or weakness anywhere in his game, that fabulous driver had finally emerged fully formed.

“Some of the things we saw from him in testing,” says a senior Pirelli man who sees all the data from all the teams, “were just amazing. In the entry speeds and momentum through fast corners in particular, the loads he could generate and maintain, the level of instability he could live with to keep the momentum up beyond the level that looked feasible for the car, the inputs he’d make that kept the car on that edge, I’d say he’s the fastest guy out there. We’d see this consistently from him.” It was this that allowed him to come within a sniff of victory at the Nürburgring and Suzuka in 2013, stretching Red Bull to its very limits in a car that was definitely not as quick.

I first met him at Singapore 2009, after he crashed into the very same wall that Nelson Piquet Jr had deliberately hit the year before. Turn 18 is a fairly innocuous 90-degree second-third gear left-hander with a slow approach speed. Slower than the approach speed Romain tried on that lap. On the low grip bumpy surface, the rear looped around and the car hit the wall rear end first. It was, in fact, the shunt that Piquet had been trying to have. Nelson had not gone in there particularly fast but spun as a result of spinning up the wheels on exit and deliberately not lifting his right foot. But because he was going relatively slowly, the car looped around without the rear wheels touching the outside wall as intended. Instead it continued looping around until it hit the inside wall side-on – a much more serious angle and impact than Piquet had meant to have. There was briefly panic on the Renault pitwall at the possibility that he may have hurt himself. In Piquet’s defence, it’s difficult to crash deliberately because every instinct needs to be over-ridden.

But after Piquet continued to under-perform – his average qualifying deficit to Fernando Alonso was around 0.7sec – he was sacked part-way through 2009 and replaced by GP2 driver Grosjean. Piquet responded to the situation by spilling the beans about the deliberate crash and ‘Singapore-gate’ was in full ‘shit-storm’ mode as we arrived at the same place one year on. Just days earlier, Flavio Briatore had been ‘banned for life’ and Pat Symonds for a few years by the FIA. So tech director Bob Bell had found himself thrust into the team principal role for the remainder of the season and he sat on the pitlane, head in hands, as the big screen beamed images of the crashed blue and yellow car, the same livery and at the same corner as the infamous Piquet shunt of a year earlier.

I was standing trackside there as Grosjean had his Friday practice mishap and at first was having difficulty believing what my eyes were telling me. It was as if real life was doing an action replay. Romain jumped out, vaulted the barrier and removed his helmet. This was a disaster for him, the horrible co-incidence just amplifying the profile of his error. He could well do without it, as he was already struggling to hang on to the seat. With the recently introduced testing ban, he’d had no prior time in the car so was learning all about F1 without the benefit of prior seat time – out there on a grand prix weekend with its limited running and maximum scrutiny, and being measured against Fernando Alonso. But here was the interesting thing: despite such trying circumstances he was invariably only a couple of tenths shy of Alonso. The 2009 Renault was a mediocre car on the cusp of Q2 and Q3 and so that 0.2sec difference would typically result in Alonso going through to the run-off and Grosjean being mired in the midfield. So the small actual pace difference was not being widely noticed. The perception was he was little improvement upon Piquet but the reality was very different.

Consider, for example, how the rookie Lewis Hamilton compared against Alonso when they first tested for McLaren together. By the time the season began and they’d each done thousands of miles on the control Bridgestone tyres, Hamilton was every bit as quick as the double champion. But to get an equivalent comparison for the Alonso/Grosjean situation, you’d need to look at Hamilton’s early tests with very little F1 experience and against Alonso on the Michelins with which Fernando was familiar. In that situation the rookie Hamilton was regularly between 0.5-0.6sec adrift. The late 2009 reality was Grosjean was doing a great job in the circumstances – but he really needed to be changing perceptions. This high profile crash was not helpful.

He looked hassled and disoriented as he removed his balaclava and tried to get his bearings. “How do I get back to the pits?” he asked me. Normally there’d be a motorcycle rider for just such a situation but on this occasion there was none. I reassured him he wasn’t too far away, that it was only a five minute walk and that I’d show him the way. That’s how we first met.

He didn’t get to hang onto that drive and it looked like F1 might have been all over for him before it had barely started. But the second chance came in 2012, this time with a fast car and plenty of preparation. He was instantly super-fast but a string of incidents made it valid to question whether this was a permanent trait or just a difficult gestation. Yet again, he was hanging onto F1 by his fingernails yet remained a sunny, smiling presence in the paddock, natural and gracious. The nadir was at Monaco in 2013 when he was scintillatingly fast but repeatedly hitting solid objects. It seemed like he was never going to be able to rein it in. But almost since that weekend, he became the great driver he’d always threatened to be.

Into the second half of the season, and the switch to the tougher Pirelli constructions, he consistently out-paced team mate Kimi Rӓikkӧnen, often not by small margins. He was the nearest thing Vettel had to a rival in the latter half of the year and his pass on Felipe Massa around the outside of Hungary’s turn four was heart-in-the-mouth magnificent – even if it did earn him a penalty for straying marginally beyond the white painted lines.

That driver was wasted on the Lotus E22 of last year. He out-qualified the quick-but-wild Pastor Maldonado 15 times to four but the car was hopeless, with an inbuilt aerodynamic stall of the floor leaving its drivers guessing how much downforce they might have as they arrived at each corner. So again Grosjean went relatively unnoticed. His current stock is nowhere near the reality and had I been Ferrari last year I would not have been looking any further than this in sourcing an Alonso replacement. Hopefully the E23 will be at least good enough to bring him back on F1’s radar as the great driver he truly is.


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