The Rise of the Romain Empire

 

From the word go in Australia a young Frenchman making his return to Formula 1 rose towards the top. Romain Grosjean produced a stunning lap in the final qualifying session to finish 3rd behind the two McLarens in his first qualifying hour for over two years. His 3rd place was even more impressive when you consider his team mate, 2007 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen, finished down in 18th (although this wasn't necessarily down to pace and more issues with him feeling comfortable in the car). Lest we not forget, Raikkonen was also making a return to the sport after a two year hiatus in the WRC. Sadly for Grosjean qualifying was as good as it got in Australia as a poor opening couple of laps ended with a coming together whilst battling for 6th place prematurely finished his race; but the positive signs were there for sure.

A second straight top ten qualifying was sadly again matched with a trip into the gravel trap early on in the Malaysian Grand Prix just one week later. So although Grosjean and the car clearly had the pace, as shown in qualifying, it couldn't be converted into a race finish. Having not got past the third lap in either of the opening two rounds, a small amount of pressure began to rest on the shoulders of Grosjean given the undoubted pace the Lotus had.

At the Bahrain Grand Prix, the fourth round of the season, we really saw how good of a driver Romain Grosjean is. Again there was another impressive qualifying performance, but this time it was more than backed up with fantastic race pace and race craft. A series of good overtakes on some of the most established drivers in the paddock moved Grosjean up to 2nd spot for a long part of the race. He then even began to reel in reigning double champion Sebastian Vettel with a set of consistent and fast laps. At the same time his vastly more experienced team mate was reeling the pair of them and was soon on the back of Grosjean. The period of several laps where Raikkonen was ‘stuck' behind Grosjean probably, in the end, cost Lotus a first race victory since the days of Alonso. Raikkonen finished 2nd with Grosjean not too far behind to end up in a mightily impressive 3rd place and a maiden podium to follow on from his first points haul the race before. Grosjean and Lotus had arrived.

You'd forgive some for forgetting that this was not Grosjean's first season in Formula 1. Many were surprised to see him promoted into the second seat at Renault back in 2009 following the departure of Nelson Piquet Jnr half way through the season. Given, the car was not great and even Alonso was having to drive the wheels off it to get anywhere near the points, but Grosjean certainly didn't give the Formula 1 public much to shout about. It was clear to see that it was too early for Grosjean to be racing in the premier class and was probably doing more harm than good. Although he finished most of the races he started, there were few things to write home about and without scoring a single point, the season ended up as a bit of a damp squib for both Renault and Grosjean.

He wasn't retained for the following season and instead headed off to compete in the FiA GT1 World Championship. After half a season he was brought into the DAMS team in GP2; a series in which he'd spent a year and a half in prior to his Formula 1 debut. In my opinion this is exactly what Grosjean needed, to go back to a familiar racing series that he felt comfortable and one which was travelling with the Formula 1 paddock for the majority of the season.

A highly successful 2011 campaign saw Grosjean achieve ten podiums, including five wins, to take the title. This period of success helped to not only rebuild his confidence, but improve and hone his natural skills and speed. With Lotus agreeing a contract for Raikkonen to return to Formula One in 2012, it left the second seat up for the grabs with Vitaly Petrov seemingly leaving the team. Grosjean appeared to be in many ways the perfect fit. A young, hungry and maybe most importantly French driver driving for what is still a primarily French team was a natural and sensible fit; although some, including me, still had doubts given Grosjean's past performances. I for one was hoping to be proved wrong, and after watching his performances in his title winning GP2 season, it was clear to see that Grosjean had developed hugely in the two years away from the spotlight. Now in his mid 20's, he's developed into a more mature, sensible racer with natural speed and talent.

Another solid race from Lotus in Barcelona saw Raikkonen and Grosjean take 3rd and 4th respectively, again showing the speed of not only the car, but the drivers too. Raikkonen has taken part in well over 100 grand prix, compared to Grosjean's half a season but the gap between does not show this. In large parts he has certainly matched his team mate and at times been quicker but has just lacked consistency early on in the season.

A disappointing Monaco Grand Prix saw Grosjean involved in a typical first corner collision with numerous drivers which forced him to retire from the race. He quickly put this behind him though, and just two weeks later produced what I consider to be one of the great recent drives by anyone in the past few years in Montreal. There is something about the Montreal track which produces great racing and this one was no exception. The big talking point, as often has been this season was tyres. Would it be possible to one stop? Or would it require two to ensure the tyres didn't lose too much performance and grip?

What we saw from Grosjean was a master class in how to control tyre life and performance, whilst still keeping up a highly competitive pace. After Lewis Hamilton pitted for a second time and began to reel in Vettel and Alonso at over a second a lap, it seemed that two stopping would be the best way to go. Hamilton ended up winning the race, but what was arguably more impressive was Grosjean's drive on a one stop strategy. Both Alonso and Vettel struggled tremendously with worn out tyres at the end of the race, with Vettel choosing to pit very late on. Alonso however stayed out, but would slip from 1st to 5th in the last part of the race by attempting to do over 50 laps on the prime tyre. As Alonso's pace dropped dramatically, Grosjean's remained steady. He had pitted just a few laps after Alonso so his tyres had been in use for virtually as long. However Grosjean was able to look after his much better than the double World Champion, and ended up passing the Spaniard to take a remarkable career best 2nd place; just five seconds behind the winner.

Grosjean's skill to not only make the tyres last that long but to also keep up a competitive pace over a 50 lap period showed remarkable maturity that you would only normally expect to see from a more experienced driver, such as Alonso. The Canadian Grand Prix for me really put Grosjean on the map, and having already experienced champagne twice this season you wouldn't put it past him to make a few more returns to the podium. Who knows maybe even on the top step? The car is quick, the driver is quick and the two work well with each other. I certainly wouldn't rule out Grosjean from winning a race this season and think there's only good times ahead for the driver and team. It's great to see young drivers such as Grosjean, Perez and Maldonado proving to the whole world their skills which have been tuned in the feeder series to Formula 1.

He has shown both pace over one lap and a full race distance to achieve some fantastic results, and in some ways has shown more promise than Raikkonen who has had a steady, yet unspectacular return to the sport. It's too early to say what the future holds for Grosjean, but many including myself have been very impressed in the pace and guile shown by a young driver arriving back into the cauldron and intense spotlight of Formula 1.

Top Drivers

 
Driver Points
Hamilton 252
Rosberg 211
Vettel 203
Raikkonen 107
Bottas 101
Massa 97
 

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