The last time Romain Grosjean strapped into an open-wheel car, the story met an end that left the Frenchman with burns and scars. Tuesday morning, the better part of 7500 miles away from where his Formula 1 season concluded in Bahrain, Grosjean opened a new chapter in his career, free of worries and baggage, at the winding road course in Leeds, Alabama.
The No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing Honda, dressed in bare carbon fiber, gave Grosjean a chance to push through whatever mental restraints might have lingered. As he and 11 other NTT IndyCar Series drivers took part in a private test day, it became clear the newest member of the community has plenty of admirers.
“It’s been beautiful,” he told RACER. “I’ve been sharing my thoughts and feeling going into this new opportunity, and everyone’s been very supportive and really behind me. I got a text from Marcus Ericsson last night telling saying to ask for anything I needed, and I got that from a lot of guys.
“It’s been super cool. They’re looking for me to do well. I spent time talking with Takuma Sato and Sebastien Bourdais. I saw Simon Pagenaud and waved at him; he waved back. Josef Newgarden and Will Power and a lot of guys were really nice and welcoming.”
It was a morning and afternoon of firsts for the 34-year-old. First time in a Dallara DW12 chassis; first time using Honda’s 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6 engine; first time on Firestone tires; first laps with an aeroscreen; first outings without the assistance of power steering; first appearance at the Barber circuit, which exacts a heavy toll for those who make mistakes, and first time sharing a track with brand-new rivals.
Having turned a fastest lap that was 1.1 seconds shy of the best on his 14th tour of Barber, Grosjean was fortunate to emerge unscathed when he spun in Turn 1 at the start of his 15th lap. After an hour or so of cleaning rocks and debris from the No. 51 and readying it for more action, the DCR crew got Grosjean out to learn more about the car before the track broke for lunch.
In the afternoon, where most teams used a combination of new tires and push-to-pass to set their fastest laps, Grosjean ended up 12th, 0.96s off Rinus VeeKay’s leading time. Clearly disappointed, Grosjean could take solace in his first-day pace relative to teammate Ed Jones, an IndyCar veteran with nearly 50 starts, who was 0.09s faster in the sister DCR entry.
“The time sheet didn’t do us any favors,” he said. “We were better in the afternoon, but we made some changes that didn’t really help with the last set of tires and we were off the pace. When I saw the lap times and we were last, I wasn’t happy. But I want to look at data and find where I can improve. I know if we were testing tomorrow, I’d be much more competitive.”
Amid the myriad of firsts, there were many absences for Grosjean at Barber. All the big and little things he didn’t have: the lack of a hybrid powerplant; the need to harvest energy under braking; the maze of electronics and cutting-edge technology found in the average F1 car that requires constant management from the cockpit.
His No. 51 Honda is by no means a sharper tool when compared to the best F1 cars he’s piloted, but with the simplicity the car offers, Grosjean appears to have found some of the purity he was missing.
“It felt like home,” he said. “The driving position is different, and the aeroscreen is blocking the air from hitting you, but that’s not big differences. It’s got less downforce, so when you brake, there’s less deceleration, and in the high-speed corners, it’s a bit more loose, but the mechanical grip is very good compared to what I used to run. It’s fun to push the tires and not worry about the temperatures all the time; overheating or underheating, or worrying about it starting to slide. It was fun.”
Sebastien Bourdais was happy to see his friend come away from his first IndyCar outing in a positive place.
“I think he’s just really happy to be in a more racing-focused environment,” he said. “Romain is no joke. He needs to adjust a little bit because the driving style is different, but if he had time to do a second day, for sure he’d be faster. Don’t mistake his lap times from today like that’s all there is. That’s just stupid if anything thinks that. He’s going to have a fine time, and with Olivier Boisson as his engineer, who I know quite well from working with him, they have a lot of potential.”