He was the last one out. Dressed not in race overalls but team kit, Romain Grosjean faced the press after the Japanese Grand Prix, another race in which he’d been involved in controversy and a first lap crash. The questions came at him thick and fast, and the Frenchman tried his best to maintain a level of calm, to look unflustered, unaffected. But as he stepped from camera to camera, the illusion dropped. His eyes moistened, the speed of his blinking increased, his voice wavered, as all the while he tried to bottle up the emotions trying to scream their way out. By the time he got to the Sky Sports crew, many fans reported that his interview was difficult to watch.
Romain Grosjean has been branded a “first lap nutcase” by Mark Webber. Sticks and stones, you may say, but accusations like that stick and they hurt. Especially when the person being labelled as such has just returned from the first F1 ban for dangerous driving in almost two decades.
I don’t believe Romain is a danger. I don’t believe he is a nutcase. I don’t believe he deserves half of the grief he is getting right now. And come 3pm Korean time this afternoon, when he is thrown to the lions in the FIA Press Conference, I don’t believe he will deserve the standard of questioning nor the levels of vitriol which I fear will be levelled at him.
Romain Grosjean is a multiple champion. He has a better CV in the run up to his F1 career than almost any other driver on the current F1 grid. He amassed a total of six titles in his junior career in Formula Renault, Formula 3, Auto GP, GP2 Asia and the GP2 Series. He marked a name out for himself as a bold driver, blessed with phenomenal speed and natural ability.
I’ll be honest, there were times in his junior career when I questioned his overall awareness. I believed for sometime that he could win from the front, lead from pole, but that when it came to fighting his way through the field he involved himself in unnecessary and silly accidents.
But that was the old Romain. The V2 which was developed after his brief initial foray into F1 was far more complete a racer. The Romain Grosjean who turned up and demolished the GP2 Asia and GP2 Main Series championships in 2011 was a completely different beast. He could lead from the front, but he could pass majestically. He was, by all accounts, ready for the next step.
And, on balance, I think he has handled himself well this season. He sits eighth in the world championship with three podiums to his name. But while the world heaps plaudits on Sergio Perez, who has also achieved three unexpected podiums this season and sits two places further down the championship than Grosjean, the Frenchman is lambasted.
He is decried for his first lap incidents this season. But how many have been of his making? Let’s run through them.
Melbourne: Grosjean and Maldonado run side by side through Turn 13. Grosjean, to my mind, takes as much evasive action as he can. Coming through the right hander side by side, with Maldonado on the inside, he takes to the rumble strips to avoid Maldonado who keeps on coming, using all the track and even taking the rumble strip as well. His rear left hits Grosjean’s front right, breaking the suspension. In that case, I don’t see how Grosjean could have done any more to have kept out of the Venezuelan’s path. He heeded position and even ran off track so as to avoid contact.
Malaysia: In the pouring rain and spray, Grosjean and Schumacher make contact. It’s a close run thing, as again they are side by side, and although Grosjean initially insisted t was Schumacher that was at fault, the more times you watch the replay, the more it is clear that it is the position of Grosjean’s Lotus that tags the rear right of Schumacher and spins the German.
Barcelona: Sergio Perez runs side by side with Grosjean through Turns 1 and 2 on the first lap. Perez gets a good run through T2, but as the duo exit, there is contact between the Mexican and Grosjean. In this instance, I believe it is Romain who is on the racing line. Perez executes a nice move around the outside and gets a good drive out of the corner, but moves back onto the racing line just a shade too early, knocking Grosjean’s front wing and picking up a puncture. In this case, a racing incident.
Monaco: Grosjean makes a poor start and finds himself with Fernando Alonso on his right hand side. This moves Grosjean to the left. The run down to St Devote sees the barriers on the left pull in at the end of the straight, and it is well known that you cannot attempt to take anyone around the outside on that run. There is a racing line and an inside line. The outside line simply doesn’t exist. And yet Michael Schumacher finds himself in precisely that position, on the outside of Grosjean. Rather than backing out of the move, Michael keeps his foot in, and his front right connects with Grosjean’s rear left, spinning the Frenchman in front of the field. For me, the fault in that instance lies with Schumacher.
Silverstone: Very similar to Spain, this one. As the cars pull through The Loop, the two Force Indias are on the inside of Grosjean. The Frenchman’s Lotus is on the racing line, and never wavers as they approach Aintree. Di Resta has a better drive out of The Loop and pulls in front of Grosjean just a touch too early, hitting the front wing of the Lotus and damaging his own rear right tyre. As I said, for me it is shades of Perez in Barcelona. A racing incident.
Spa: What can you say? It was silly. So silly. That move alone demanded a race ban, and Grosjean accepted culpability and accepted his punishment.
And so to Japan… and this is one I’ve had to watch back over and over to really get my head around. Grosjean is running side by side with Perez and has his eye set firmly on the Mexican. He makes the move, makes it stick, but then has Webber turning in ahead of him and connects with the Red Bull. Perhaps the fight with Perez had unsighted Grosjean as to Webber’s position. But it has been argued, and not without some merit, that Webber’s position and speed was far from usual at that part of the corner. But Grosjean was the one fighting to make up positions, and the onus is on him to make a clean move. At that moment, when he hits Webber, the responsibility is his even though Webber may have been running a touch slower than expected.
So this first lap “nutcase.” Is he really such a nightmare? Out of all the incidents he has been involved with, I could only say that he holds ultimate responsibility in three of them: Malaysia, Spa and Japan. The others are either simply racing incidents or it is Grosjean who is the victim.
This is only my opinion. But having watched the incidents back countless times, this is what I believe.
The sad thing is, many people simply look at the stats. Seven first lap contacts (Melbourne was actually Lap 2 if we’re being picky) make Romain Grosjean a danger to himself and his fellow drivers.
The reality however is somewhat different.
The problem now is in how he deals with this. He has picked up a reputation which I do not feel he deserves, but it will stick with him. Does Mark Webber really think he is a “nutcase?” I don’t think so. But just as Mark once ripped a young Sebastian Vettel a new one after he took him out in Fuji, so Mark has given this latest hotshoe and few choice words to chew on. We can only hope that Romain uses those words for the same motivation as did the young Mr Vettel.
And let’s not forget that a few seasons ago, that young Mr Vettel was branded “The crash kid” by Martin Whitmarsh. That crash kid went and won the next two world championships.
My fear though is that Romain is a highly emotional soul. He will take those words to heart, just as he took the ban to heart. The historical significance of the ban will not have been lost on him. He will take the words of his fellow drivers to heart in this weekend’s driver briefing. And he will take whatever is thrown at him in today’s press conference to heart, too.
I wonder which Romain will arrive in front of the cameras after the press conference. I hope, beyond hope, that it is not the same Romain we saw after the race in Japan. The Romain with reddened eyes, fearing for his future, trying desperately not to allow himself to cry.
Romain Grosjean has already felt the pain of having his dream taken away from him. It happened at the end of 2009. Since that time he has worked tirelessly to get the second chance that his incredible talent deserves. And today he can only watch as that second chance gets tainted with a reputation that he does not deserve. He can see it all slipping away, and the fear of that feeling of loss that he suffered three years ago can now only cloud everything that he does.
It’s time we had a bit of perspective here and actually look at what he’s done wrong this year, because with the exception of Spa, it’s really not been all that grave. Come 3pm, when he’s thrown to the lions, I hope the people in this media centre will have sight of the bigger picture. I hope people in this paddock will give the kid a break and let him get on with what he does.
Because, my God. That boy can race.