12 months ago, Romain Grosjean was under pressure like never before. Huge pressure. His move at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix on Mark Webber was clumsy to the extreme; even a driver working his way through the junior formulae would have been humiliated by such an error. He was the first lap nutcase. The lunatic for whom a first lap was akin to an iceberg for the Titanic. His season ended with a ludicrous attempt at passing Pedro de La Rosa’s HRT in qualifying before he crashed out of the race in slippery conditions.
Fast forwards to the end of 2013 and, with the departure of Kimi Räikkönen to rivals Ferrari, Grosjean is in prime position to lead Lotus into Formula 1’s new era in 2014.
It is true that Räikkönen scored 177 points in his 17 races this season, while Grosjean amassed 131 across all 19. Räikkönen, in 2013, was the more productive of the two Lotus drivers and delivered the goods.
But to directly compare the Lotus duo based on figures is to focus too heavily on statistics and not delve deeper into the root of Grosjean’s improvements. Through being the only driver to hold a candle to Red Bull at Suzuka and Austin, Grosjean has propelled himself into the limelight to show he’s ready to be the big man in 2014.
Grosjean’s 2013 didn’t start off in glorious circumstances; while Räikkönen was winning for Lotus in Australia, Grosjean was tootling around the fringes of the top 10 and blaming a mysterious problem with his E21. He beat Räikkönen in damp conditions in Malaysia, but the car issue returned in China. A podium followed in Bahrain, with this upturn in form continuing in Spain, although he retired when the suspension failed.
But then came Monaco and a worrying return of the Romain of 2012. He crashed three times in practice and then ran into the back of Daniel Ricciardo in the race. He was ferociously fast throughout the weekend, but minor misjudgements had huge ramifications. Fortunately, his 10 place grid penalty made little difference in Canada, a race at which the Lotus E21 was uncooperative in low grip, low downforce conditions. Silverstone was an improvement, but a handling issue forced him out of the race. It was four non-scores in a row, all while Räikkönen was racking up the points.
However, something clicked. The Lotus was quick in both Germany and Hungary but Grosjean utilised the machinery at his disposal and was similarly effective even when the E21 was off the pace at Spa and Monza. Prior to the summer break, Grosjean became a father and there are some at Lotus who attribute this development with Grosjean’s ability to see the wider picture of a race weekend.
But there was still a nagging issue for Grosjean; in the same conditions, with the same equipment and without problems, he couldn’t beat Räikkönen. Singapore was the perfect case in point. Grosjean had been flicking his car between the walls of Marina Bay with beautiful precision but it was Räikkönen – not unjustly so – who received the plaudits. Grosjean was equally as good as his counterpart all weekend (even if Räikkönen was hindered by a bad back) but the results showed that Räikkönen took home a trophy and Grosjean failed to finish after his Lotus developed an air pressure problem.
It was a similar situation in Korea. Grosjean held the upper hand over Räikkönen all weekend but the Finn was higher up on the podium. One mistake was made by Grosjean all weekend but it came at a crucial moment as he erred exiting the final corner and Räikkönen duly pounced; Grosjean was unable to retaliate as an errant jeep appeared on track and the race was neutralised. Hence Grosjean’s desperate attempts to convince Lotus to allow him back ahead and Eric Boullier’s presence on the radio to calm him down.
Finally, at Suzuka, Grosjean took the fight single-handedly to Red Bull and while his attempt was ultimately futile, he was the one who gained the widespread recognition. The recognition that could easily have gone his way in Singapore and Korea.
But there was also how Grosjean would build on his fabulous performance in Suzuka and it didn’t look promising when Lotus erred in qualifying in India, leaving the Frenchman only 17th on the grid. His response wasn’t to get frustrated, blame the team or wipe away any hope of a decent result. He accepted the failings and managed his strategy to perfection, ending up on the podium. A further strong result in Abu Dhabi and another brilliant performance in Austin cemented his reputation as a top contender, earning him the respect of his rivals, something which seemed improbable 12 months previously.
The contrast between the Grosjean of 2012 and 2013 is huge. The speed has always been there, but the mistakes have now been cut out and he knows how to manage a Formula 1 race. It was also justification for Lotus team principal Eric Boullier, who took some flak with his continued support of his younger compatriot. Watching Grosjean transform his season around and flourish was one of the highlights of the second half of the year.