The reception awaiting Romain Grosjean after his storming drive to third place on Sunday in Monterey told a perfect little story on its own.
The Swiss-born Frenchman tore through the field to close the final Firestone Grand Prix stint on the company’s fastest tires, brought a somewhat boring race for the win to life, and set off in pursuit of championship leader Alex Palou and race leader Colton Herta.
Pitting for the last time on lap 73 of the 95-lap contest, Grosjean took a new set of alternate tires while Herta and Palou stopped for the slower primary rubber roughly 10 laps earlier, and with the mismatch in grip and freshness, the man who dubbed himself ‘the Phoenix’ after escaping a fiery crash at last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix began scything through the top 10.
Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud was the first to fall as Grosjean relieved him of sixth place on lap 79. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson was next in Grosjean’s sights; the Swede was demoted to fifth the following lap. Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward also felt Grosjean’s sting on lap 80 with a ballsy pass around the outside of Turn 2. Graham Rahal did his best to hold onto third, but there was no stopping the DCRwRWR driver at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Rahal held on with the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda until lap 84, and with a podium secured, Grosjean lit the afterburners and began hunting Palou. With traffic impacting the CGR driver up ahead, Grosjean made the most of the opportunity; lap 82 was a perfect encapsulation of their diverging fortunes as an unencumbered Grosjean lapped the circuit in 1m14.3s to Palou’s 1m15.5s, and there were plenty of laps to come that were more than one second faster than what the Spaniard was able to produce.
The only thing that slowed Grosjean’s march was a clash with CGR’s Jimmie Johnson atop the Corkscrew on lap 89, which caused some minor bodywork damage to the No. 51 Honda, and more importantly, produced enough of a delay to put Palou out of reach over the six laps that remained.
But Grosjean didn’t give up, and continued to carve into the gap until it was drawn down to 1.7s at the checkered flag. If earning his third podium of the season wasn’t enough of a gift, Grosjean was cheered on by hundreds of fans like he’d just won his first NTT IndyCar Series race.
That reception nearly brought Grosjean to tears.
“It’s just been incredible,” he said. “When I got the ovation, I almost cried, and I don’t cry very often. It’s been more than anything I could imagine. Without the fans, we wouldn’t be racing. Without the fans, there wouldn’t be any TV viewership. If there’s no viewership, there’s no sponsor. If there’s no sponsor, there’s no job. They are a very important part of what we do. But what they give me back is just incredible. So I wanted to share with them the podium.”
— Marshall Pruett (@marshallpruett) September 20, 2021
In a drive that some older fans said was reminiscent of Alex Zanardi’s multiple passing sprees in Monterey, Grosjean credited the independence given by the Dallara DW12 chassis and IndyCar’s formula where the drivers and teams, rather than technological differences, create opportunities to shine.
“It’s the freedom of driving the car the way you like to drive it,” he said, drawing a comparison to the F1 cars he drove for a decade. “You don’t need to look after charging mode, push mode, tire temperature, tire window, so on and so on. You just go in the car, leave the pit lane, then you push every single lap. You play a bit with your bars. But as I said, you push, push, push, come in, pit, new tires.”
In IndyCar, as a 35-year-old rookie, the man’s found the best and happiest version of himself.
“The ability to enjoy every single lap that we do, enjoy the fact that you can be competitive in any team, makes it that with the atmosphere in the paddock, obviously with the support of the fans, been just the whole package that I’ve enjoyed a lot,” he said.