One year ago, there were many doubts about Romain Grosjean, and whether or not be belonged in Formula 1. Now a year on, those doubts are gone, and the Frenchman is regarded as one of the best talents on the grid. So what changed, and can he build on his excellent end-of-season run into 2014?
I think we have to look first at his 2012 season. While showing flashes of speed, he was sometimes a liability on track. He was blamed for the first corner crash in Spa-Francorchamps that eliminated many of the front-runners, and took responsibility after being given a one-race ban for the incident.
“When you love racing this is very hard,” said Grosjean after the incident. “I accept my mistake.”
“We know that La Source is a very tough corner. It was a bit of a crazy start as well with [Pastor] Maldonado leaving [the grid early] and the Sauber [Kobayashi] smoking a lot,” said Grosjean.
“I did a mistake and I misjudged the gap with Lewis. I was sure I was in front of him. So a small mistake made a big incident.”
Grosjean was angry with himself more than the penalty, but was sure the individual incidents were not all caused by over aggression but by misjudgements in space management.
“I did too many,” he said. “If there is more than one then that is too many, I agree. But as I say it is not always the same. It’s not over-aggressive by braking 200 metres too late, it’s just most of the time misjudgement of the space I have in front or the space I have on the side.”
The Spa crash was his seventh early-race skirmish of the 2012 season, but it would not be his last. In Suzuka, Grosjean punted Red Bull driver Mark Webber into a spin at the second corner, and the Australian driver was furious with the Frenchman over the incident, even suggesting that it would be appropriate for him to sit out another race.
“I haven’t obviously seen what happened at the start but the guys confirmed that it was the first-lap nutcase again Grosjean,” said Webber in Japan.
“The rest of us are trying to fight for some decent results each weekend but he is trying to get to the third corner as fast as he can at every race.
“It makes it frustrating because a few big guys probably suffered from that and maybe he needs another holiday.”
So how did Grosjean move from ‘first lap nutcase’ to being praised by the same driver exactly a year later in Japan?
“It’s very clear that Romain has a very different mental approach to the job this year,” said Webber.
“He’s driven some quite strong races, putting together the whole weekend, which is a sign of a driver starting to get a bit more relaxed and confident. A lot less mistakes, not just in races but in practice too.”
So what brought about the change? Grosjean knew that he had to raise his game and remove the mistakes from his driving to progress. He was worried about losing his seat after the mistakes of 2012.
I was worried,” said Grosjean. “It hasn’t been the easiest part of the season, to get to December when all of the races are done and you are waiting for an answer.
“I had good discussions with the team owners and we tried to analyse the situation, understand it and see if we could keep the speed at where we wanted to and to score a lot of points.”
Then Lotus team principal Eric Boullier admitted the team sat down with their driver at the end of the 2012 season to work out whether Grosjean was the right driver for the seat for 2013. It was a positive meeting, and the Frenchman knew he had to change his approach.
“He clearly showed us, with some feedback from the engineers in the teams, that everything he was taught – and everything he learned – was applied in his understanding of what is a complex matter,” said Boullier.
“He definitely proved to us that he wanted to do well and it was really clear.”
It was not long after that meeting that Grosjean was announced for a second season at Lotus alongside 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen.
“I learnt a lot in my first full season in Formula 1 and my aim is to put these lessons into practice with stronger and more consistent performance on track next year,” said Grosjean.
“I think when there are stats that show you have one fastest lap, three podiums and 96 points and stuff like that, and if you told me one year ago at Race Of Champions – I would not believe it.
“So it was a good year in that respect. We had some fantastic results, a little bit too [many] mistakes as well – which is the shadow of the year.
“But they helped me to improve myself in the winter – to try to analyse it, keep the speed we show and go for the results we deserve. We now need to score points for the team, for myself and for all the championship.”
He began quietly in Australian and Malaysia, but sprung into life with a great display in Bahrain, fighting through to a podium finish and passing Paul di Resta’s Force India for third near the end of the race. He was also heading for a strong result the following race in Spain before suspension failure curtailed his day.
Monaco 2013 however was the low point of the season for Grosjean, with the Frenchman crashing in virtually every session, including the race when he misjudged his braking and hit the back of Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso, eliminating both. Grosjean was given a post-race grid-drop penalty for the following Canadian Grand Prix.
“We want him to keep the pace and make sure that he is back in control like he was at the beginning of the season,” said Boullier.
“We need to sit with him and go through the weekend. He had the pace and we saw all weekend he could do it.
“And it is even more frustrating because of that.”
However, his season would improve once and for all at the German grand prix at the Nurburgring, and after that he would not look back. Gone were the mistakes, and the results were coming. He took the fight to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull at the Nurburgring and grabbed his second podium of the season. At the Hungaroring, he was the recipient of a penalty for apparently overtaking Ferrari driver Felipe Massa whilst all four wheels of his car were off the track. Even Massa said the penalty was unjustified.
“If he took the penalty because of what he did with me, that’s completely wrong,” said Massa.
“He didn’t go four wheels outside, he went with two wheels. Two wheels is possible.”
Nether-the-less, he was given a drive-penalty and finished on the road in sixth. He was later given a second penalty for a pass on Jenson Button that went slightly awry, but remained sixth.
At Singapore, Grosjean was running a very strong race and was heading for another podium before an air leak in the engine pneumatic system forced him out.
“We’ve never been so annoyed to get a podium,” said Alan Permane, Lotus F1’s trackside operations director. It was Grosjean’s misfortune that enabled team-mate Raikkonen to take a podium finish.
“Romain had a perfect day yesterday pretty much. He didn’t have a great first lap, but I defy anyone to keep Fernando [Alonso] behind them on the first lap. He was just doing his first lap and would have been third without a doubt.”
In the following race in Korea, he was on the podium. He was the only driver to keep Vettel in sight throughout the race, but lost out to Kimi Raikkonen after a safety car period closed up the drivers. A slight mistake at turn 15 enabled his team-mate to pass going into the first turn.
Unfortunately for me and good for Kimi, the safety car came,” said Grosjean. “I made a small mistake, my fault, and Kimi passed me and then there were yellow flags so I couldn’t use DRS.
I was quicker today. It is a track where it is almost impossible to overtake.
“I should have avoided the AstroTurf in Turn 15 and that would be the end of the conversation.”
Then we came to Japan, a year after being dubbed a first lap nutcase. One of the best starts of the season saw him propel himself from fourth to the lead, a lead that he would hold through two pit stops before being overtaken by both Red Bull drivers.
“I thought today was going to be the day that my first victory was coming,” he said after finishing third.
“We were quick on the medium tyres, but unfortunately the car was less good on the hards.
“In our strategy meeting, though, we never thought we could beat the Red Bulls today and we are where we expected to be.”
But the two Red Bull drivers were full of praise for the only driver to give them a race – Fernando Alonso was 45 seconds adrift in fourth place in his Ferrari. Sebastian Vettel even said he was becoming a match for team-mate Raikkonen.
“I thought it was a great day for Romain; he drove a fantastic race,” Vettel said. “I think Romain did a great job all weekend.
“We know Kimi is a strong driver. Last year I think Romain made some mistakes but the most important thing is that we learn from these mistakes as drivers. He learned a lot of things and gradually he’s improving, so big respect for that.”
In India, he finished on the podium again, but in a very different way. He attempted to get through the first part of qualifying just on hard tyres, but missed out and started a lowly 17th. However he fought back magnificently, and passed Raikkonen towards the end to grab third.
“Starting 17th I had no big hopes,” he said. “The best strategy on the computer gave me P4.
“I would not have bet a peanut on being third. The car came back to how it was on Friday.
“The race pace was great and we did a very brave strategy – as we did yesterday,” he said.
“It was not the time to go safe. It paid off, we’re back on the podium.”
A fourth in Abu Dhabi was followed by a superb race in the United States saw him finish second, and held off Webber’s Red Bull for the majority of the race, even with the use of the Drag Reduction System (DRS).
“We’ve always known Romain is super fast, actually maybe too fast, and sometimes too fast for his car,” said Boullier after Austin. “Having some completeness with his family [he became a father earlier this year] has helped him reach another level of confidence, and then you see the results on track.
“He is starting to be a damned good driver. I think you can rate him in the top three or four today.
“He started to perform well from Germany onwards. There was still a bit fine tuning needed on his side, but he has had a very fine second half of the season.”
So after starting the year as a driver with a questionable reputation, he ended 2013 as one of the hot properties of Formula 1. When doubts were raised about whether Lotus would make it onto the grid due to the financial situation it found itself in, people were saying it would be a travesty if Grosjean were not on the grid in 2014.
Thankfully Lotus have made it, and Grosjean will be on the grid. If Lotus can give him the car, and perhaps more importantly if Renault can give him the power-unit, the Frenchman’s aims for 2014 should be high. He has made himself into a very good driver, and a win now would seal his rise up.
The speed of Romain Grosjean has always been there, it is just pleasing to see that the consistency required to be a Formula 1 driver has materialised too. France has only ever had one world champion driver in Alain Prost, but in Grosjean, they quite possibly could have the best possibility of adding a second.
I know that to many that is a sensational statement, but I’ve seen his career develop and I like what I see. And I still believe he can get better.
Sources: Autosport, The Sydney Morning Herald.