Most good stories have a baddie

by Paul Fearnley on 11th October 2012

A good story needs a baddie – or two: a black hat, a blackguard, preferably driving a black car.

They come in all shapes and guises, from Edward G Robinson’s Little Caesar and the metal-toothed Bond henchman Jaws to Formula 1’s Bonnie and Clyde: Romain ‘Grosmisconduct’ and Pastor ‘Malfeasance’.

The latter matches the clichéd descriptions. A swarthy tough guy from ‘deepest, darkest’ Venezuela, he gives the impression that a few rounds sparring with Manny Pacquiao wouldn’t be too big a deal, or that if he were a Shark and you were a Jet, you’d have to be on your guard. Call him a nutcase and he might just stick the nut in.

He can handle himself is what I’m trying to say. So be it if expanding and protecting his F1 patch means treading on others’ winglets or slicing their sidewalls. He will, of course, have to draw a line under this attitude at some point, settle down and rack up the results his speed and employers demand, but right now his pen is sheathed while his sword is waved. He is, in common parlance, not bovvered.

Grosjean, however, clearly is bovvered, and clearly doesn’t know how to handle himself. The under-fire Frenchman doesn’t fit the usual photofit, with his hint of posh-boy high colour, bum-fluff beard and Hugh Grant hair. He’s probably got a glass jaw too. His previous job was as a Swiss banker – no, that’s not rhyming slang – and he looks the type better suited to counting money rather than demanding it with menaces. If he were a Jet, the Sharks would be circling. (And they are.) Call him a nutcase and he’d likely crack.

That’s almost what happened at Suzuka when Mark Webber, with his Desperate Dan beard and Kirk Douglas chin, provided soundbites his compatriot Alan Jones would have been proud of. He had every right to be angry – Grosjean’s punting of him at Turn 2 was clodhoppingly inept – but I hope he joins me in forgiving him one last time.

When a glistening tear welled in Romain’s eye as he chokingly tried to explain his eighth – sigh – incident of the season before asking for outside help, I must admit to melting. His critics reckon him an automaton without imagination from the PlayStation generation, but I reckon he’s more Old School than that. Unlike Maldonado, he craves acceptance rather than demands respect. The former, though, has been the harder to achieve since Ayrton Senna rewrote the rules of engagement. Niceties are weaknesses – especially on opening laps – and you can be sure the pack will happily bully its shunting runt.

This is a shame all around, because Grosjean, I believe, is special. In a good way. With his Kimi-like speed, he has everything a top F1 driver needs except the street smarts. That’s why, even when he was trying so hard to be so good at Suzuka, he ended up being the baddie. Again. It didn’t help that Maldonado, his partner in crime, finished this time.

Not even Webber was more upset than Grosjean at his actions. The lad clearly needed a cuddle. But where was/is he going to locate one in the paddock? His team has since rightly said the remedy lies with him, while the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association is hardly a self-help group.

The latter was proved when a Formula 1 Safety Committee consisting of James Hunt, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jody Scheckter and Niki Lauda turned on Riccardo Patrese, another shy sophomore, albeit with a spikier defence mechanism, and got him banned from the 1978 US GP at Watkins Glen. This decision, it said, was taken before his ‘part’ in Ronnie Peterson’s fatal accident at Monza, which in truth was the result of a premature start that concertina-ed a pack soon to be funnelled by a quirky track layout.

The Italian, a charming man with, as it turned out, a passion for model trains, survived the long-running witch-Hunt to become a wise elder statesman of the paddock: accepted, respected and a six-time GP winner.

Grosjean has the potential to become as accepted and respected as Patrese, and perhaps even more successful than him. When given the chance, by himself first and then by others, he is quick, intelligent and eloquent. A deep fish, he admitted that he was handed his first F1 opportunity too early and that he had a lot to learn. Much to his credit, he returned to a junior formula and GTs and earned his second chance. He has proved he deserved it – three podium finishes already this season – but knows he is in danger of blowing it because of a synaptic short circuit. No wonder he’s twitchy.

Hell, everybody’s twitchy as the title race hots up. It’s not just Grosjean who needs to take a chill pill. The others must view him for what he is: one of those drivers who struggles harder than others to find their limits, one whom right now you wouldn’t choose to be next to on the grid or in the pack – and no more.

Grosjean’s dilemma is not new to the sport, nor is it the worst, the most ingrained, of its kind. Belle Epoch racer Camille Jenatzy wasn’t called ‘the Red Devil’ just because he had a ginger beard. Inaugural world champion Giuseppe Farina’s gunslinger’s eye and sensibilities gave a formative Stirling Moss the willies. And ‘Master James’ wasn’t nicknamed ‘the Shunt’ just because it rhymed with Hunt.

Grosjean has been boneheaded, but he’s not bad to the bone. Cut him (a tiny bit) more slack, give him (a tiny bit) more room, and he will probably come good and be an asset.

I say probably because cuddles and street smarts are not obvious bedfellows and thus he must strike – one more and he’s out – a difficult balance if he is to survive. But as he and, in a very different way, Lewis Hamilton are still discovering, some aspects of Formula 1 are never easy no matter how fundamentally talented you are.

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