RACE DEBRIEF

    Romain Grosjean claimed 10 podiums during a career that included some electric highs but also some terrifying lows. In our latest edition of Lights to Flag, the ever-candid Frenchman opens up about his time in Formula 1 with Renault, Lotus, and Haas, his Bahrain crash – and his re-energising move to IndyCar.

    Thrown in at the deep end

    Grosjean’s grandfather was a vice-world champion in skiing, and his father passionate about cars. A visit to Dijon-Prenois as a child sparked young Romain’s interest in racing, initially as a hobby, before he began climbing the ranks.

    PODCAST: Romain Grosjean on criticism, psychology and his racing future

    “I was just doing it for fun – I had no idea if I would make it,” says Grosjean. “When I started winning in GP2, [then] I was thinking there’s a chance I can make it.”

    Renault junior Grosjean won the 2007 Formula 3 title, the 2008 GP2 Asia title, and was a front-runner in the main GP2 Series in 2009 when the Renault F1 team rang.

    “I got a phone call post German GP: ‘you’re in the car for Budapest,’ which was the week after,” he says. “Then the next day I got a call, ‘we're giving Nelson [Piquet Jr] the last chance.’ So you're like, ‘yeah, I'm going to get in, ah, I'm not going to get in.’ Then I got the call that I'm going to be in the car in Valencia. We had no simulator, I had never sat in the car, I didn't even do an aero test on that car. And I'm thrown straight into a city racetrack to start Formula 1!”

    Grosjean had Fernando Alonso as his teammate, the R29 was towards the rear of the mid-pack, and off-track Renault were facing a crisis over the Crashgate scandal.

    Renault's French driver Romain Grosjean drives at the Yas Marina Circuit on October 30, 2009 in Abu
    Grosjean made his F1 debut with Renault in 2009...

    “I made a couple of mistakes, but I don't think I did too badly,” Grosjean reflects now, some 14 years on. “And the deal was like seven races to prepare 2010. Sadly I was part of the furniture that the new owner kind of removed when they bought the house!”

    Exile, podiums and prangs

    Renault sold a majority stake in the team to Genii Capital and Grosjean was replaced by Vitaly Petrov. It looked like Grosjean’s F1 career was over before it had even really got going – and he pondered a big career change away from racing altogether.

    “It was January 31, 2010,” Grosjean says in a flash. “I took my backpack from my apartment in Geneva, jumped on the train, went to Paris where my girlfriend, now wife, lived, and never went back to the apartment! I went to do an open house for a cooking school. I wanted to do something else. I tried [to stay in F1], but there was no real room and there was no real opportunity.”

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    Grosjean was hired by GT1 World Championship team Matech, then mid-2010 returned to GP2 with DAMS, before being re-hired by Genii Capital, through its Gravity Sport Management scheme. He then returned to Renault as a test driver.

    “I went back on the radar at that point,” Grosjean says. “And they were like, you have to win [GP2]. There’s no other option. And we did that.” On December 8, Grosjean’s phone was buzzing.

    “I had two phone calls,” he says. “Andreas Seidl from BMW [was one], for DTM. I had a test with them in Spain, and the test went amazingly well, and he wanted to hire me. And the same day I got the phone call – actually at the airport in the south of Spain – from [Lotus boss] Eric [Boullier] saying, okay, you got the seat.”

    2011 GP2/GP3 Series Prize Giving Ceremony. Monza, Monza, Italy. 11th September. Romain Grosjean
    ... before stepping back down into GP2 – and winning the title in 2011

    Lotus delivered a quick car in 2012 and Grosjean was rapid from the outset, qualifying third in Australia, before scoring a maiden podium in Bahrain. “People forgot by then I'm a rookie,” he says. “We go to Spain, I have the fastest lap and P4, then we go to Monaco, I was very fast, but met Michael [Schumacher] at the start. Then we go to Canada, we finished second, then Valencia.”

    Grosjean was in contention for victory in Valencia but the alternator failed.

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    “It was almost too fast,” says Grosjean of his results. “Then from Valencia, I didn't win. Then things went south because I tried to win so much instead of sometimes accepting that fourth, fifth, second, third was good enough. I just wanted to win. That's why I think Spa happened.”

    Grosjean was banned for one round after causing a spectacular first-turn accident at the Belgian Grand Prix. Upon his return he didn’t take another top six finish, and had another nightmarish moment at Suzuka, tipping Mark Webber into a spin. Webber called Grosjean a ‘first-lap nutcase.’

    “Spa was a mistake, I accept the penalty, but I think the penalty was far too harsh,” Grosjean says. “I'm not proud of it, but it's part of it. I remember texting Fernando, ‘Sorry, I'm glad you're okay.’ His answer was: ‘The penalty is too harsh, you will bounce back.’ Then on the other hand, it was not nice to have Mark coming in, I mean, we all make mistakes and he's done some. Yeah, that was tough.

    SPA, BELGIUM - SEPTEMBER 02:  In this sequence of ten frames Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus is
    Grosjean is catapulted into the air as he crashes at the first corner at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix – an incident that earned him a one-race ban

    “Then you go into that bad spiral where you have to perform, but you have so much pressure to perform and you're not allowed to make a mistake. You're on the radar. You get into a situation which is almost impossible to get out of. It's just like being in a wave or washing machine and trying to get out of it. And every time you try to get out, it's pushing you back in. And it's just hard.”

    Coming close to wins

    Lotus retained faith in Grosjean for 2013 but the season started badly. “We had a KERS mapping issue for the first few races, just on my car,” says Grosjean. “Kimi [Räikkönen] is winning and I'm barely finishing 10th in Australia and China, really suffering, like miles away. We go to Bahrain, we change the KERS map, eventually compare the two cars and realise that, yeah, it's bad! Then I'm on the podium!”

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    Grosjean endured a crash-strewn Monaco but it proved the springboard for the remainder of the season.

    “I had my confidence back,” he says. “I crashed many times, yes, but every time I jumped on track, I went fast. I crashed with [Daniel] Ricciardo in the race. But I remember thinking, ‘I've got it back. Yeah, I know what to do now.’”

    Grosjean scored five podiums in a 10-race spell and was unfortunate that his strong run coincided with Sebastian Vettel’s victory streak.

    Second place finisher Lotus Renault GP driver Romain Grosjean of France celebrates on the podium
    There were three podium finishes for Grosjean in 2012

    “Third in Japan, second in Austin, third in Korea, third in India,” Grosjean reflects. “I never won a race. I should have won three: Valencia 2012, Nurburgring 2013, when the Safety Car came for Jules [Bianchi’s] car, and in Japan, if we had not copied Red Bull’s strategy, where we panicked a little, we probably would have won that race. But there's a lot of drivers like this and I never had a Red Bull failing in front of me. That's the way it is.”

    Lotus demise and exit

    Formula 1’s new-for-2014 regulations stymied Lotus, as its novel but flawed twin-tusked E22 was hamstrung by Renault’s dire power unit.

    “I went to Bahrain, testing Lap 1, ‘I've got a puncture,’” says Grosjean.

    READ MORE: Grosjean should have won races in F1, says former boss Boullier

    Grosjean was limited to just two eighth-place finishes while off-track Lotus was struggling, and Boullier’s departure to McLaren created a leadership vacuum.

    “I found myself in a really weird spot,” says Grosjean. “I didn't really know who I needed to support and I didn't properly do it the right way. The English engineers were blaming the engine, the French engineers were blaming the chassis. I found myself a bit in the middle of that fight.”

    Ditching Renault for Mercedes power lifted Lotus in 2015, with Grosjean even scoring a podium in Belgium, but off-track the woes continued.

    (GERMANY OUT) Romain Grosjean, Lotus, F1 Team, formula 1 GP, Belgien in Spa, 23.08.2015 (Photo by
    Third place in the 2015 Belgian Grand Prix was to be Grosjean's last F1 podium finish

    “The car was made out of tape,” and owing to the reduced resources available, mechanics “had to find out which were the safer, less used parts to put on the car. It was down to: what do we have, which floor have we got left? Which one is the less [used]? In Japan, we didn't have hospitality, because we didn't pay, so I did my media call in the rain!

    “But we never complained about it. We just stuck together. Every time we went racing it was good, but I also felt that every update we were bringing, where we could, was not going in the right direction. And, I didn't know if Renault was going to buy the team, but even if they were, they wouldn’t have time [to improve].”

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    Taking the Haas plunge

    By late 2015 Grosjean’s future was sorted, as he signed for Gene Haas’ eponymous new team for 2016.

    “I don't think I was the number one choice,” Grosjean reflects now. “I think they wanted [Nico] Hulkenberg, but he said no. They came to me, I called them, had a long chat with Guenther [Steiner]. He explained what it was all about and the contract negotiations went super-fast. I really liked the idea, and the start of 2016 proved me right.”

    Grosjean scored sixth on Haas’ debut in Australia despite a dash failure leaving him driving without fuel numbers. That was a somewhat fortuitous result, aided by a race stoppage, but in Bahrain Haas shocked again with Grosjean fifth on merit.

    MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 19: Romain Grosjean of France drives the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari
    A switch to Haas started well with a points finish on debut in Melbourne

    “I think that was a crazy one,” Grosjean says. “We finished fifth, past the Red Bull, just like flying and not really knowing why, but it was just outstanding!”

    Haas slipped back into an occasional points-scoring role through 2016 and 2017, before delivering a strong 2018 car – but one which Grosjean found tricky.

    “I think in 2018, Kevin [Magnussen] really started well, he loved the car,” Grosjean says. “I was struggling a little bit with the car and he got the upper hand and I messed up a bit my head and I had to put it back together. Barcelona, I think I was crying, that was a tough one.”

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    After crashing behind the Safety Car in Azerbaijan, Grosjean eliminated two other cars on the first lap in Spain, during a run of eight races without points.

    But he “put myself together” and scored Haas’ best Formula 1 result in Austria, taking fourth, and regularly scored points. Haas finished fifth in the standings, providing hope for 2019 – but instead the team regressed.

    Haas-ta luego

    Haas’ VF-19 had strong one-lap pace but that wasn’t translated into race speed, and an early upgrade package proved lacklustre.

    Haas French driver Romain Grosjean (L) and Haas Danish driver Kevin Magnussen pose after unveiling
    There were some spicy moments between Grosjean and his Haas team mate Kevin Magnussen in 2019

    “They put me in a new spec in Barcelona, and I [repeatedly] said it doesn't work. We go to Silverstone and finally I get back to the Melbourne spec and I remember the aerodynamicists saying the number eight car is dead for us, so they wouldn't even care about it. And I out-qualified Kevin with the bad car. Guenther was the one that said, ‘yeah, listen to Romain’.”

    That race is remembered for Haas’ first-lap clash, a furious Steiner, and one door “fok-smashed” by Magnussen.

    READ MORE: Grosjean and Magnussen’s driving 'not acceptable' says furious Steiner

    “With Kev we had a very different view of racing team mates,” Grosjean explains. “I'm always going to leave more room than [racing] another guy and when I talked with Kevin, he told me, I don't see it that way, team mates are racing like everyone else. When we had a chat after that it was all well, everything was cleared, and we became much closer.”

    Seventh in Germany was Grosjean’s only 2019 top 10 finish thereafter, and Haas put few resources into 2020, ahead of Formula 1’s new 2021 rules. Those were delayed until 2022 after the onset of the pandemic, and 2020 proved a season of struggle for Haas – with Grosjean making an early call on his future.

    British GP: Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen collide on opening lap
    British GP: Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen collide on opening lap

    “I took my decision in race one of 2020 that I wasn't going to carry on,” he says. “The pandemic hit, we go back home, we go to Austria, FP1, I go out, have a brake failure on Lap 1, and in the race I got a brake failure. I told my wife, listen, it’s a lot of risk, a lot of pressure, and I don't think we can make it.

    “I love Formula 1, but I don't just want to be one of the names on the grid. I want to be a guy that fights for podiums and wins. We tried our best, but our best meant I was once ninth in Nürburgring, Kevin was once tenth in Budapest. And those were extraordinary performances, but no one really sees them as such.”

    Grosjean headed to the final trio of races, to bid farewell to Haas, and to Formula 1. Only it didn’t quite play out as planned.

    READ MORE: Grosjean surprised that both he and Magnussen were dropped by Haas

    The Phoenix rises

    November 29, 2020, is a date etched in Grosjean’s mind. On Lap 1 of the Bahrain Grand Prix, exiting Turn 3, Grosjean flicked right, avoiding slowing cars ahead, but clipped Daniil Kvyat’s AlphaTauri. Grosjean’s Haas hit the barriers at 192 km/h, with an estimated force of 67g, and split in two. The car ignited upon impact and the front half, including Grosjean, came to a stop in the mangled barriers.

    “I mean, every time you see the footage, the pictures, it's amazing,” says Grosjean. “If you take anything in that instance, like, slightly differently, I may be dead.”

    Grosjean extricated himself from the burning wreckage and, after 28 seconds, leapt clear of the scene.

    2020 Bahrain Grand Prix: Grosjean escapes huge crash and fire at race start
    2020 Bahrain Grand Prix: Grosjean escapes huge crash and fire at race start

    “To me, there was no fire in the car,” he says. “There was fire all around, but there was no fire in the cockpit. Obviously, there was a lot of fire in the cockpit! But I didn't realise that. When I jumped, I remember jumping the barrier, thinking I went off the track and I ended up being on track. And I was like, why am I on track?! Obviously it's a night race, and there was a lot going on, so I had no idea where I was, but it didn't really matter where I was. What matters is like, how do I jump out?!”

    Grosjean leapt into the arms of the attending medical team and hobbled to the ambulance, where he was transported to hospital. He was treated for burns to both hands and his ankle, while a couple of weeks later a knee fracture was also diagnosed. On Monday, Grosjean re-watched the crash.

    GROSJEAN SPEAKS: On how he escaped fiery crash, his secret injury – and more

    “I was like, ‘Holy moly,’ I was shocked, because I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal,” he says. “They didn't want to show me, and I was the one asking. They’re like ‘are you sure?’ Yeah, yeah, please, show me. And then I saw it. That's when I realised how big and impressive it was!” Grosjean was discharged and had his mind set on competing in the Abu Dhabi finale.

    “I knew it was going to be my last race and I didn't want my last race to be the burning one,” he says. “So I tried everything I could. I pushed the doctors like crazy. I was saying ‘what about putting cream and then maybe a latex glove and then the racing gloves? How can we do it?’ And it got to a point where [they said] ‘yeah, you can do it, but if there's any infection, we may have to cut your hand.’ I was like… maybe it's not worth it. We would have been last. Kevin and Pietro [Fittipaldi] finished last.”

    BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - DECEMBER 03: Romain Grosjean of France and Haas F1 talks with FIA Medical Car
    Back in the paddock and speaking with FIA Medical Car driver Alan van der Merwe and FIA doctor Dr Ian Roberts after his crash in Bahrain

    Recovery and reset

    Grosjean flew back home to Switzerland, to begin his recovery. “I flew back on Thursday night,” he says. “That was a f***ing horrible flight. I was on a commercial flight and my knee was so painful and my hands were so painful. It was just f***ing horrendous.”

    Unfortunately for Grosjean he had been booked on a flight via Frankfurt.

    WATCH: ‘Thank you for saving my life’ – Emotional Grosjean meets his Bahrain GP crash rescuers

    “It was freezing cold,” he says. “The cold was like putting a knife in my hands. Luckily my business partner found me a jet to Geneva, so we didn't have to wait six hours! He said I didn’t have to pay for it, and it was very kind of him, and we got to Geneva. Then it was a month and a half of pain, and not fun.”

    Prior to his accident Grosjean had been eyeing a move to IndyCar and inked a deal to compete for Dale Coyne Racing.

    “The good thing is that I had the deadline for the test in IndyCar,” he says. “It was supposed to be February 14th and I think we moved it to late February, which was good, because I wasn't going to be ready! When the physio told me to move my hand three times a day, for five minutes, I would do it, and I would wake up at night just to do it. So the recovery went a lot faster, but when I got out the car, first time, there was blood everywhere.

    Romain Grosjean returns to F1 with special one-off Mercedes test
    Romain Grosjean returns to F1 with special one-off Mercedes test

    "Normally in Formula 1, every time I came back to the garage, I used to remove my gloves until the next session. I did it after the first run, saw my hand, put the gloves back on and didn't remove it for the whole day! So I didn't know what was going on.”

    Fortunately for Grosjean returning to competition for the first time since his accident felt normal.

    “It's not like I could jump back on the horse the next day, I had to wait three months, and thinking about it,” he says. “There was still a doubt and I told everyone that if there's a doubt on lap one of the race I will just pit and that'll be it, that's it, sorry, I just can't do it.

    READ MORE > BUXTON: Grosjean’s ordeal ensures he’ll leave the paddock feeling the love – and that’s what he deserves

    “The only time I felt something was on the grid, at Barber, in ’21, I'm seventh. First start since Bahrain. And I remember sitting like 10 minutes before the start and thinking of all the journey from Bahrain to here. I almost started crying and then thinking it’s maybe not a good time to cry, we should focus! Then starting and there's a big wreck in front of me in the race and I go through them. Holy s**t.”

    Grosjean scored a top 10 finish, despite a throttle issue, to begin life Stateside.

    IndyCar ups and downs, the future

    Grosjean has scored three pole positions and six podiums in IndyCar, spending 2022/23 at Andretti, and will move to Juncos Hollinger Racing for 2024.

    LEEDS, AL - APRIL 18: #51: Romain Grosjean, Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing Honda during
    2021 brought a switch to IndyCar in America

    “Obviously with Andretti, we thought we were going to win races and championships and we didn't manage to do that,” he rues. “There’s a bit of disappointment in not achieving it.”

    Nonetheless, IndyCar provided Grosjean with a platform to rejuvenate his career.

    “I forgot how good it felt to be competitive again,” he says. “Yes, IndyCar doesn't have the exposure of Formula 1, it’s not the star, but it doesn’t really matter because what I found when I started racing go-karts, I found it back, like just the pure joy of going out there and having a chance to drive.

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    “I love the fans. The fans really love me there, which is nice. I think I've got everything it takes to be good on ovals, street courses and road courses and just want to go again, try again and see what the future is like.” Grosjean has also signed for Lamborghini’s LMDh project that will include IMSA endurance races – and an assault on the Le Mans 24 Hours.

    “It's now more just having fun,” says Grosjean with a smile.

    He relocated to Miami in 2021, and “can go to the beach every day – the kids love it,” and realised a dream by becoming a pilot and buying a plane, flying himself to races.

    Grosjean also operates an esports team, which has Max Verstappen’s squad as a rival, and there are other ambitions such as “maybe cycling around the world one day, though I need my kids to be older, because it takes about two or three years, so maybe I’ll just go across the USA to start!”

    But Grosjean, now 37, is keen just to take things as they come. “I was watching an interview with Max, and he was just like, ‘I started karting to have fun and I'm having fun today,’” says Grosjean. “It doesn't matter what's written at the end of it, if you're happy with yourself.

    “I'm not perfect and thank God I'm not because it would be boring as hell if everyone is perfect! Am I hard to manage? Yeah. Yeah, maybe. But I'm a racing horse. And a racing horse is someone that you need to help kind of direct him. And you can always slow down a racing horse. You can never make a donkey faster!”

    Top 10: Moments of Romain Grosjean Brilliance
    Top 10: Moments of Romain Grosjean Brilliance

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