It seems to be the week for comebacks, and pretty spectacular ones too. This latest example is not quite on the same level as Juan Manuel Correa’s journey, but Romain Grosjean’s return to racing this year is definitely worthy of attention.
Starting with the obvious, we’re lucky that Grosjean is even alive right now. The crash in Bahrain at the end of last year was horrific, and no matter how many times you watch it back and look at the aftermath, it emains so hard to compute that he found a way out of the cockpit.
How was he even conscious? Let alone able to free himself from the wreckage of his car and spot the exit amidst the flames? As he sat against the FIA Medical Car, it almost looked as if he was unharmed, but the burns to his hands were pretty severe, and are still far from fully healed.
But just the next day Grosjean was talking about trying to race in Abu Dhabi and cap off his Haas career with one last start in Formula 1. It was never likely to happen, but that was a glimpse of the mindset that should probably have told us it wouldn’t be long until we saw him racing something again.
Once ruled out of the season finale, Grosjean headed home to his family and started doing more media regarding his crash and the lessons that can be learned from it. He admitted that he wanted to be an F1 world champion, but that it would be a far more important impact he would have had on the sport if his experience could help make it safer and save more lives in future.
At that point he could quite easily have let that be his entire legacy — a career defined by some excellent drives for Lotus and during the early part of his spell at Haas, but one that had been fading somewhat before the final act that will forever make him a hero for emerging from the flames. That his new deal with Dale Coyne Racing ensures that there are more chapters in his story to be written deserves a lot of respect.
Make no mistake, Grosjean is taking a big risk heading to IndyCar. This is a driver who can be utterly sublime when things are working well and he’s on it, and he knows how to hustle a difficult car, too. But when it isn’t doing what he wants, he’s pretty vocal about it, and that was in a Formula 1 world he knew well.
The Frenchman is well aware of the differences between the IndyCar and Formula 1 paddocks, but he’s never shied away from getting back to something a bit more pure. He’s taken part in the Andros Trophy — ice racing — as well as GT racing either alongside or between F1 stints, and was talking about a move to the U.S. long before his accident.
But it’s not unfair to say that most people identified Kevin Magnussen as the Haas driver more suited to IndyCar. His driving style and approach just seemed to fit a little bit better, and Grosjean’s now out to prove that wrong.
Spending so much time in the States is a big move for the 34-year-old, who has been cherishing time with his children over the winter. But that just shows the competitive desire in him to not be remembered for the Bahrain crash or his latter years at Haas. He has a point to prove.
Grosjean will be looking to recapture the sort of form that had him matching Kimi Raikkonen as teammates at Lotus in 2012 and 2013, coming so close to F1 wins and racking up nine podiums across those two seasons. And it would be foolish to bet against him doing so.
One of the things that was so impressive about that spell of form from Grosjean was the mental strength he had shown to get back into such a position. Rising through the junior categories in Europe, Grosjean was a clear talent but then was promoted to Renault in place of Nelson Piquet Jr. too early, and found himself being asked to go up against Fernando Alonso midway through the 2009 season.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t go well and Grosjean was dropped at the end of the year after just seven races. But his response to that setback was significant. Racing GTs suggested that he was already leaving the F1 scene, but some GP2 appearances allied with an AutoGP title (using the old A1 Grand Prix chassis) showed he wasn’t going quietly.
Back in GP2 the following year, he made it impossible to ignore his potential with a dominant championship victory in a season also featuring future F1 drivers Jules Bianchi, Esteban Gutierrez, Marcus Ericsson, Brendon Hartley, Jolyon Palmer, Max Chilton, Charles Pic, and Giedo van der Garde.
So when he got his second chance with Lotus alongside a revitalized Raikkonen, Grosjean was unfazed, and he made a swift impression. And it’s that sort of recovery that he will need to call upon as he embarks on his IndyCar career.
It won’t be an easy task, but it should be a big enough challenge and change of scene for Grosjean to know he can’t fall back on past achievements. And given all of the above, Coyne will know the potential that is there if the chemistry is right.
But even if it’s not, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Grosjean could have taken a very different path after the events at the end of last year, but opted to take himself out of his comfort zone instead.