The road that ends with a Swiss driver who uses a French license spearheading a brand-new American F1 team is predictably long and winding.
When Haas F1 takes to the track next year, Romain Grosjean will shoulder most of its early hopes, and will be responsible for leading its development. For the team, he’s a coup: eye-catchingly fast, technically strong, lots of experience – and he has something to prove.
Grosjean is F1’s poster boy for the rollercoaster career. He was fighting Nico Hulkenberg for the 2009 GP2 title (BELOW) when he received a mid-season promotion to Formula 1 as a replacement for Nelson Piquet Jr, only to be cut adrift in favor of former GP2 team-mate Vitaly Petrov for 2010. Two years of testing, sportscars, and more GP2 kept him occupied until a rare second F1 opportunity presented itself for 2012. Since there, there have been podiums, crashes, a ban, and all of the mid-pack frustrations that come with taking a knife to a gunfight. In his time with Lotus, the team has never finished higher than fourth in the constructors’ championship.
With a background like that, a move to a start-up team might seem like an incongruous one for a driver who is a few months away from turning 30 and still harbors grand ambitions.
“This move gives me the chance to do that – in the near future, hopefully,” he tells RACER. “Time will tell. I want to be a world champion, and I think going to Haas will give me the best chance to achieve that goal one day.”
The F1 paddock is a world of doublespeak; a place where the truth is usually hiding somewhere between the lines. And this is might be of those situations. A move to Haas could indeed help to put Grosjean into a stronger position to fight for a championship – but not necessarily with Haas itself. Haas F1 will be a Ferrari customer team, and driving there in 2016 would place Grosjean at the front of the queue to fill any Kimi Raikkonen-shaped hole that might appear at Maranello the following year.
If that’s Grosjean’s real motivation, then he’s not letting on. But even if that is the case, he’s still an asset to Haas because he needs to prove himself as Ferrari-worthy. Newly-announced teammate Esteban Gutierrez already has existing ties with the Prancing Horse, having signed as its test and reserve driver this year. But what the Mexican doesn’t have – at least, at this point in his career – is a CV that includes more than 80 GP starts and 10 podiums. Ferrari, like Team Penske, looks for the finished product.
So it’s very much an opportunity for Grosjean to showcase himself, and to do so in an environment completely detached from Renault, his spiritual home for the past decade. (While the current iteration of Lotus F1 no longer carries any Renault branding, there’s lots of the old team’s DNA running beneath the surface). For Grosjean, a move to Haas is not just a switch to a new team; it’s also about leaving the nest. He’s acutely aware of the significance.
“How do I feel about it? I’ll ‘feel about’ it later,” he says. “Right now we’ve got good results to achieve. Renault is obviously a big part of my life: 10 years. That’s a third of my life. I had my first time in a Formula 1 car with them, my first podium, the first time I’ve led a race …
“And there have been bad times as well. It’s a family, and it’s going to be hard to leave. But right now I just want to try to get another podium before we finish, and then we’ll see.”
Hard as uprooting himself from his ‘home’ environment will be, there’s a strong sense that he’s drawing a distinction between sentimentality and regret; that this is a move that he’s ready for, and that he’s making on his own terms. And he’s under no illusions about the scale of the challenge ahead. There are still myriad obstacles to be cleared before he even has a seat fitting for his new employer, never mind actually driving the car. And as Haas’s senior driver, he’s one of the guys charged with helping to create a team culture from nothing.
“I’ve had a taste of that here [at Lotus],” he says. “When Kimi left [at the end of 2013] I had to do it, and then 2014 was a disaster. I was trying to lead the team and also help make the next year’s car better.
“But that’s what we’ve done – from the disaster of 2014 we’ve been onto the podium in 2015 (at Spa, RIGHT), we’ve been in the points a lot of times, we’re fighting for fifth place in the constructors’ championship. So I’ve got that feeling already that next year is going to be a lot of work. Actually that was the first thing that Gene [Haas] told me: ‘You’re going to work hard’. That’s fine, I’m happy with that. It’s part of my life. I’m a perfectionist so I always want to push things forward.
“With Haas, with have to build everything up. The goal next year is not to win a race – that would be completely crazy. But if we can be inside the top 10 and score points, that would be a big, big thing for the team, for America, and for myself. But first we need to build up the team and the car. The team is almost there; Gene knows what he’s doing, he’s been very successful in NASCAR, and other areas of his life; we have that partnership with Ferrari, which is very important. So it’s a great way to come to Formula 1 because it allows you to avoid a lot of the normal problems that you’ve have with a new team.
“We have to get the car up and running, the team up and running, move forward, and in the second year maybe we’ll get better. But winning is not part of the plan right now.”
Grosjean’s transformation from rough diamond to team leader is all the more remarkable when viewed in the context of his entire career, right back to the junior formulae. This writer first encountered him at an F3 Euro Series round at Brands Hatch in 2007 – which he won (RIGHT), beating a field that also included Hulkenberg, Sebastien Buemi, Kamui Kobayashi and James Jakes – and then interacted with him a lot more regularly as he transitioned first into GP2, and then F1.
Back then he was never anything other than cooperative and polite, but he was also extraordinarily guarded. At the time he was the shining star of what was a pretty robust junior development program at Renault, and any pressure he may have felt was further complicated by what seemed to be a constant stream of chatter from various advisors charting the course for his career. Where Hulkenberg remained relatively easy-going as his prospects brightened – a legacy, perhaps, of the work on the factory floor at Williams that he was tasked with as his day job – Grosjean protected himself with an invisible wall. So was his transformation into the guy who’s now grinning from across the table in the Lotus motorhome a simple process of maturity, or did he actively work to remove distractions?
“I have kids so I’ve had to learn patience!” he jokes. “No, I think I grew up. The fact that I was aggressive was one of my strengths in the junior categories. But you get to Formula 1 where the level goes up so much more, and just being fast isn’t enough; you need to add more skills. Maybe you’ll be really aggressive for one qualifying lap, or one overtaking maneuver, but the rest of the time you control yourself. And yeah, I grew up. I’m going to be 30 next year, and … it’s just life in general. You learn. You try to save energy when you can so that you can use it when you need it. I’ve changed a lot … well, I’m still the same person … I’ve matured a lot since then. “
He has also matured as a driver. His mid-year promotion to F1 back in 2009 came as Renault was grappling with the fall-out from Piquet’s infamous crash at Singapore the previous year, and other than a rushed straightline test on a runway, he hadn’t driven Renault’s R29 before he headed out to practice for the European GP on the Valencia street circuit (MAIN IMAGE).
Inexperience and the R29’s varied shortcomings conspired to prevent him from finishing any higher than 13th that year, and when team principal Flavio Briatore – who also served as Grosjean’s manager – was banned from the sport for his part in the Singapore scandal, Grosjean’s fledgling F1 career became collateral damage. (Briatore’s ban was lifted in 2013). Asked whether he made his F1 debut too early, Grosjean doesn’t even wait for the end of the question.
“Yes. It was too soon,” he says. “Unfortunately the whole thing wasn’t well done. I had no testing, but that wasn’t the biggest problem. I got the drive, they told me I had seven races to get used to it and then next year I’d be in the car [full-time], then the Flavio thing happened …
“I don’t think I did that badly. The car was … I remember in the last race, Fernando [Alonzo] and I were [knocked] out in Q1. I was about 0.2s slower than Fernando, and that really wasn’t bad.
“But I used to be managed by Flavio, everything was washed out, and I was part of the big wave. It was just bad timing. But when someone offers you that chance, you’re not going to say no. It was probably too soon for me, but it taught me a lot. But I came back. Harder, stronger, and here I am.”
Not all of those lessons were learned during that first F1 stint. In 2012, the first year of Grosjean’s comeback, he became the first driver since Michael Schumacher in 1994 to serve a race ban after he triggered a pile-up at the start of the Belgian GP (LEFT). That crash was his seventh opening-lap accident in just 12 starts, and response from then-team boss Eric Boullier was telling.
“Part of the problem is that [Grosjean] wants to do well,” Boullier said. “He is somebody who is a perfectionist. He needs to understand he will deliver more if he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself at the start of the race.”
If drama has been a regular bedfellow during much of Grosjean’s career, it’s his response to these kinds of challenges that have equipped him with the tools that he needs to face the challenges that await over the coming months.
“I think what’s ahead is the best move of my career; going to Haas,” Grosjean says. “I’m really looking forward to it. There’s already a lot of support behind the scenes, they know what they are doing … it’s going to be a great challenge. Very exciting.
“And there are a lot of things I’ve learned that will help next year. I’ve learned how to get my guys around me, I’ve learned what I need to go quick, I’ve learned how to get a good result on Sunday; I’ve learned how to manage a race weekend and a season. There’s a lot I can take away. Maybe I’ll also discover a new way of doing things. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a great experience.”
Reduced to words on a page, Grosjean’s sentiments are exactly the sort of spruiking you expect from a driver talking about his new employer. But the accompanying grin and locked-on eye contact suggest he’s absolutely sincere. Haas F1 is going to be new. It’s going to be hard. But it just might be the move that finally allows Grosjean to deliver upon his potential. America’s F1 team is counting on it.