Romain Grosjean will be a liability in IndyCar, even if he is avoiding the superspeedways. He’s a failed F1 driver whose only impact in a decade of grand prix was with the walls. It’s a waste of a seat that could go to a more deserving driver, and he’s not good enough to race a top-level open-wheeler.
You can find many such comments on social media in response to the announcement of Grosjean’s deal to contest most of the 2021 IndyCar season with Dale Coyne Racing. And they are flat-out wrong. Any IndyCar fan who gets sucked in by comments like that should prepare to be surprised by what Grosjean is capable of. At his best, he is one of the fastest racing drivers in the world. Really.
That’s not to say that he isn’t flawed. Consistency has been a problem, and there have been too many mistakes, but there have also been plenty of outstanding results along the way. You don’t finish on the podium 10 times in F1 and lead on merit, as he did the first half of the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix, without being a seriously good driver. If – and that is a big question – he can adapt his capabilities to the challenges of IndyCar, then there’s no doubt he will show that pace.
After all, that speed is still there. Even with struggling Haas in F1 last season, he turned in some strong performances. At Silverstone for the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix he produced a beautiful qualifying lap, albeit only 14th fastest. At the Nurburgring he was seriously quick, only to lose his best Q1 time to the most marginal of track limits violations, then came through to finish ninth, while at Mugello he brought home a car that was in the wall on the first lap after being caught up in the first-lap collision out of Turn 1 despite it being heavily damaged.
That Mugello performance showcases an often-overlooked quality, and also one that seems at odds with Grosjean’s main limitation. While he’s not the most adaptable driver, requiring a car that he can brake late with before turning in positively and getting on the power – what he calls the ‘ART’ school of driving in deference to the leading junior single-seater team – when the machinery is compromised by other factors, he can turn in superb performances. He finished eighth at Suzuka, of all places, in 2018 with significant play in his right-left wheel after the track-rod overheated and debonded during an early-race safety car period.
Whether his driving style will adapt well to the Dallara is the big question. The downforce levels are lower, the car more on a knife-edge, so you might think that it won’t give Grosjean what he needs. But given expectations of what is possible appear to be so significant to him getting in tune with the car, and he has thrived in a wide variety of machinery during his career, he could capable of adapting to it well. After all, he was quick in a Ford GT during his brief stint in sportscars. So if he can balance up the desire to produce the perfect lap, which has sometimes led to him overstepping in F1 and making errors, with leaving the margins needed on some of the unforgiving tracks IndyCar visits, then he will be a serious proposition.
He also appears to be revitalized by the fresh challenge. Marcus Ericsson has talked about how his move to IndyCar re-motivated him after spending seasons in Formula 1 driving, at best, midfield machinery. Prior to his graduation to F1 in 2014 with the backmarker Caterham team, he had won races at Formula BMW, Formula 3 and GP2 levels and faced the challenge so many grand prix graduates do of having to readjust to life in the pack. While he hasn’t won in two seasons of IndyCar, he goes into each weekend with a shot at a top result.
Discounting his victory in the 2012 Race of Champions in Bangkok, a competitive event but far from orthodox circuit racing, Grosjean’s last race win was in GP2 way back in July 2011. The last time he could genuinely aspire to race wins in F1 was with Lotus in 2012-2013, when he claimed all but one of his F1 podiums and was unlucky not to take that breakthrough victory.
While Dale Coyne Racing doesn’t operate at the level of some of the other teams on the grid, the fact it has taken six wins in the past dozen seasons at least gives more hope of good results. And he’s not approaching it lightly, like some drivers who have attempted to make the switch. From the moment he started to evaluate IndyCar, he got in touch with Simon Pagenaud and Ericsson for their guidance, and recognizes the steep learning curve.
“I’ve done not far from 200 grands prix in Formula 1, but I will be a rookie in IndyCar,” says Grosjean. “The last time I drove a car which is probably similar is GP2 in 2011 with no power steering. There’s a lot to learn, the circuits, the tires, the refueling, the rolling starts, the way they operate. I’m not expecting to win from race one and I’m ready to take the challenge and learn. I can’t wait to try the car on February 22, that’s when I’m going to learn a little more about it.”
We also cannot overlook the fallout from his Bahrain crash. It has already had an impact on his IndyCar program, as it led to him dropping the oval races. His reason for this is a combination of safety concerns and not wanting to put his family through the stress of him competing on them, although he hasn’t ruled out changing that stance in the future. He’s also left the door open to racing at Gateway this season, although it’s a hard no on Indianapolis and Texas.
But it has also transformed the perception of Grosjean. He’s always been a very likable character, but that has been drowned out by the derision on social media. Granted, he had a part in it with his mishaps in F1 – crashing under the safety car in Baku, shunting on the formation lap at Interlagos, causing a number of first-lap accidents during his career – but the reaction is completely out of proportion. The drama of his accident and recovery has allowed more of the world to see Grosjean in a more positive light and celebrate a driver whose competitive spirit is making him carry on racing when he could easily have stopped. After all, while never the highest-paid driver in F1, he should be well-set financially, so he is doing this for the right reasons. That’s worthy of respect in itself.
Grosjean is heading to IndyCar because he wants to win again. He spoke with former Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen recently and couldn’t fail to notice how much the Dane enjoyed being back in a position to fight for victory in the Daytona 24 Hours after spending the last seven years in F1. At 34, he’s still got plenty of life in him and with F1 now a closed chapter – unless a team with a genuinely competitive car shows interest, given that he’s ruled out any thoughts of returning to race in the lower reaches of the grid – he has not chosen the easy path for his future. IndyCar is a fearsomely competitive championship packed with high-quality drivers and he will need to be at his best to thrive.
It could prove to be a one-season dalliance with IndyCar, either because he doesn’t take to it or because his less positive sides as a driver assert themselves. But he could also lay the foundations for an extended stint and show the speed that made him one of the fastest drivers in F1 – on his day. The key question is, how often will those days come? In F1, his high point was the second half of 2013 when he was the only driver who could hold a candle to the all-conquering Sebastian Vettel and had the legs of teammate Kimi Raikkonen. Getting into that window and then staying there long-term proved to be the real challenge.
Whether Grosjean will succeed is impossible to predict. He is one of motorsport’s great enigmas, but do not doubt that he’s capable of great things. First on the agenda will be winning over the doubters who are anticipating an incident-prone, uncompetitive driver who failed in F1. If he does that, he will be a fascinating driver to follow, just as he was in F1 for those who took the trouble to look beyond the caricature.
Whatever happens, it’s not going to be boring. Grosjean’s presence in IndyCar in 2021 will be to its benefit both on and off track, and a loss to F1.