Some doubted whether Romain Grosjean had the mental fortitude to come back from a season in which first he was cast as the bad boy and then over-compensated and lost some of his pace. Yet in 2013, he looked like the ace who had promised so much in his junior formula years. He reflects with Adam Cooper on a year of redemption.
If Formula 1 had an award for “Most Improved Driver,” there’s little doubt who would have won it in 2013. From the depths of despair last season, Romain Grosjean had by the end of this year bounced back in remarkable style, marking himself as the man most likely to join the elite group of grand prix winners.
Sebastian Vettel’s domination meant that a first victory remained out of reach, but the Frenchman did more than enough to secure his place at Lotus, having regularly outpaced teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the latter half of the year.
“It’s been one of the highlights of the season, to have Romain recover from last year and actually blossom completely,” says Lotus boss Eric Boullier. “It’s good to have in our hands one of the next superstars.”
It would be an understatement to say that Grosjean has enjoyed something of a rollercoaster career. Fast-tracked from GP2 into an F1 seat at Renault in the middle of 2009, he appeared to have a golden opportunity. But with limited preparation, an uncompetitive car, and the team in turmoil due to “Crashgate,” he failed to make much of an impression although in hindsight, he actually didn’t fare too badly against Renault teammate Fernando Alonso in terms of lap times.
Dropped at season’s end, he used GT racing and a winning campaign in GP2 as a springboard to his second shot with the renamed Lotus team in 2012. There were flashes of great speed, but his year was totally overshadowed by that early string of race incidents. A ban from the Italian GP, following the first-corner carnage at Spa (BELOW), was the low point.
His subsequent survival at Lotus was certainly helped by the presence of sponsor Total, and the fact that he shares his nationality with engine supplier Renault. The other key factor is that, like Lotus, his management company, Gravity, is part of the Genii Group. As a member of the “family” he was given more leeway than a third party might have received.
But he repaid that support in full, finishing the 2013 championship with six podiums to his name. And that’s despite his Singapore GP performance, which could have been his best race of the season, being thwarted by engine problems.
It really was a remarkable turnaround. Few drivers get a second chance in F1, but Grosjean has now been fortunate enough to enjoy a third. The important thing is that he’s taken advantage of it, and the result is that a talent that might otherwise have slipped through the net has the chance to flourish, assuming that Lotus overcomes its current financial problems. It’s a good lesson both to struggling drivers not to give up, and also to teams, who rarely show the sort of long-term faith that the Lotus management has.
“It’s certainly easier than what it was one year ago!” says Romain. “I feel good in the team, and obviously we have been doing a good job, finishing on the podium regularly. I like this feeling, I like to be here, and I love what I’m doing. I have a fantastic wife and son at home. It’s not something that changed my life. At the track I’m a racing driver, that’s what I’m focusing on; but when I’m home, it’s a different story.”
He admits that becoming a father in 2013 helped him prioritize his life, and calmed him down a little. It’s also no secret that following last year’s problems he sought an unusual form of outside help to try to establish why he’d had so many first-lap incidents.
“It’s now more than one year since I worked with a sports psychologist and, honestly, I think it made a big difference to me,” he muses. “Sometimes you just have to wait for a good result and then confidence goes up, but it’s not very stable. I think today with everything I’ve been through, and now the good results, confidence is there. But hopefully it’s quite solid, and it helps me to feel even better.”
It was important that 2013 got off to a good start. However, while he successfully avoided controversy, he was initially outperformed by Raikkonen, and the results didn’t come. A third place in round four in Bahrain was the first clear sign of an upturn in fortunes.
“I wish we could have done some better races early on, but we had a very slow start. Staying out of trouble was clearly one of the objectives. We had a KERS map that wasn’t suiting me, and I couldn’t get any feeling with the car, and when you don’t get the feeling, F1 is fairly hard! Then things started to be a little bit better. We sorted out the engine map issue in the car, and in Bahrain came back on the podium.”
In the middle of the season Raikkonen continued to pile up the points as Grosjean endured a run of misfortune. In Monaco he appeared to have taken a step back. He was quick in practice, in between crashes, and then had a controversial collision in the race.
“Yes, Monaco was the biggest disappointment,” he concedes. “The car was good and we were back to a super-quick level. It was a good weekend, but at the end of the story I crashed in the race and got a 10-place-penalty for the next one, and it wasn’t a good memory. I wanted to go too quick, dancing quicker than the music, so I learned from that. Just do things step by step…”Things improved with a third place at the Nurburgring, and as the season went on, he generated some momentum.
“In Germany it came together, and that was a good race. We missed with our low-downforce package [for Spa and Monza], for some reason, and we need to understand that. But the general car we had since Singapore was working very well, very consistent, and at every single track we went to, it was there. Qualifying was getting better, and races getting better as well. I think we had good compromise. We had a very good baseline setup which allowed us to get more time and try new things when we wanted to, and when it didn’t work, we just put them on the side. It was pretty good.
“We had a run of podiums at the end of the season. I made a small mistake in Korea, when Kimi got past, and I worked from there what happened, what did I do wrong? And that’s what keeps me moving forward. Japan was a very good race, and India was a good one as well.”
In Suzuka, Grosjean actually led for a while, although inevitably Vettel was in front by the end.
“Because of our different qualifying strategy, in the second stint we had hard tires, but they were already five laps old,” Grosjean recalls. “Maybe with new tires we could have just about opened a gap. You never know: you need to get everything perfect to win races, and that’s what we are trying to achieve. It didn’t work very well in qualifying in India, because we wanted to keep as many sets of options for Q3 as we could, but sometimes you need to take risks to get to the next level.”
Like everyone else in the field, Grosjean had to accept in the latter races that second place was as good as it was likely to get. However, he never gave up hope, and at Circuit of The Americas he split the Red Bulls, and still had Vettel in his sights at the end. Commendable…but not enough for Grosjean.
“If I was here thinking the best result possible on Sunday was second, I wouldn’t come!” he declares. “I’m here to win the race on Sunday. I’ll do my best and give my best and see what it’s possible to achieve. If you don’t try anything, you’ll never know. If you told me after qualifying in India I would be on the podium, I would have said you’re crazy, so everything is possible. The most we can do is do our best job and push them, open and create opportunities, and take them when they come.”
You can only ever been truly compared to your teammate, and Grosjean has not had an easy ride, given that he’s been alongside Alonso and Raikkonen. He sees positives in having such benchmarks.
“It’s certainly not the easiest way when you get to F1 having a world champion as a teammate,” he says. “They have the attention because they have the experience, they have the results, and so on. The best you can do is try to get as much as you can from them, like a sponge, and see what they are doingand then prove that you’re faster! And that gives you a good image. With Kimi, I tried to take as much as I could, to learn what he was doing right and wrong, and the same things for me. It worked pretty well.”
The big plus for Grosjean in 2014 is continuity, and he’s sure that Lotus will be a force once more, despite the uncertainty behind the scenes. He has a new teammate in Pastor Maldonado, and the balance of power is very different.
“Now with the team we are working hard and well, we know each other, they know what I need, I know what they want, and we can get to the next step fairly easily on a race day. When you start with a new team you have to learn everything, and with the rules change continuity will be important.
“Technically it’s a very, very strong team we just have to sort the little money issue, which is not great for everyone. But once that’s done I think we have everything it takes to be world champions again.”
What nobody yet knows is how the three engine manufacturers will stack up in 2014. Committing to a seat has been a roll of the dice for all drivers, but Grosjean remains confident in Renault.
“Yeah, there is a kind of luck involved, but there always is in motorsports. In Singapore, we didn’t finish when we were heading for the podium. Luck is part of racing, and you have to assess the decision, see the upside and downside, and take yours and believe you are doing the right thing.
“Renault is doing a good job, they have won with every single engine, they know the turbo from a very long time ago. They are going to do a good job, and I’m happy to work with them. I promised them that the first time I win a race I will go to the factory and celebrate with champagne. Hopefully, it will come soon…”