I have a soft spot for Romain Grosjean, in a Formula fan kind of way, since the first time I saw him in action in 2008 when he raced in the GP2 Asia Series at our very own Dubai Autodrome.
In my position as communications manager for the venue I got to chat with him a few times. One evening, he and a team member were stranded at the track after hours and needed a lift back to their hotel in Jumeirah and I obliged. After that whenever we saw one another we would exchange pleasantries.
On track the French youngster was hot property… after all he was the 2007 Formula 3 Euro Series Champion, and he had a particular liking for Dubai Autodrome where he started by topping three of four pre-season GP2 Asia test sessions held at the track in January 2008.
He then went on to win three of the five GP2 Asia races in Dubai during the 2008-09 seasons. You knew the kid was special and his determination to top every session was fascinating as was his unbridled delight in winning. Add the permanent smile of a self-confessed foodie and you had a cool package.
It was shortly after his GP2 Asia success that he was drafted in to replace Nelson Piquet on the Renault team. Good move you could venture, but alas not, as it was at a time when the French team was reeling from the ‘Crash-gate’ scandal which ultimately led to the demise of the Flavio Briatore-led outfit.
It also came late in the season for Grosjean who had absolutely no time to even sit in the car before he got to drive it. Making matters worse was the fact that his team mate was none other than Fernando Alonso. It was a recipe for disaster.
It was a disaster for Grosjean. It was a classic case of a bad decision and even worse timing. He was simply not ready to step into the cauldron of scandal during a team’s very public demise, while expecting to deliver and impress. His tenure with the squad lasted seven races and was utterly forgettable. At the end of the season he was cast out and tossed onto the mountainous heap of F1 rejects.
Thereafter Grosjean dabbled in the FIA GT Championship and kept his single-seater appetite in check contesting the 2010 Auto GP series — a central European offshoot of F3000 and A1GP — which he won convincingly.
At this stage his affairs were being handled by Gravity Sport Management, owned by Genii Capital who also happened to be the new owners (at the time) of the Lotus team which had risen from the ashes of the defunct Renault F1 operation.
The decision was made to send Grosjean back to the ‘minor leagues’ and in 2011 he contested another GP2 Series season, where he went on to win the title. It was time for another shot at the big time. Lotus obliged and partnered him with F1 legend Kimi Raikkonen.
Now if this was a Hollywood story the script would probably go: Young Gun takes on F1 Legend, and after some teething problems Young Gun triumphs and F1 Legend rides off into the sunset with his tail between legs.
Life is not Hollywood. Grosjean was lightening quick, probably the fastest driver on a single lap, his return to the top tier of the sport was initially stellar with three podiums in his first eleven races. But his consistency started to become wayward and it got nasty, as for some reason he appeared desperate and made some costly and high-profile blunders.
First at Monaco he caused a multiple car pile-up with a lunatic start that eliminated several drivers; not long after that, at Spa-Francorchamps he triggered an almighty first corner shunt which had the sporting world breathing a sigh of relief that there was no serious injury in the aftermath where again several cars were wrecked.
Mark Webber, not one to pull punches, dubbed Grosjean a ‘first lap nutcase’ and the Lotus driver was banned for one race. He returned to complete the season, but was subdued. The spotlight was on him for all the wrong reasons and he wilted.
Lotus played the game and made Grosjean sweat before they announced he would drive for them again, alongside Raikkonen, in 2013.
The errant driver vowed to clean up his act and credit to him for staying out of trouble, and even scoring a podium in Bahrain, until a torrid weekend in Monaco.
The weekend alone has content for a book let alone a paragraph. In a nutshell the Grosjean of old re-emerged crashing four times. The final crash, during the race, was pure and simple brain fade coupled with bad judgement, ending with a lot of bent metal — all of his own doing. The punishment: a slap on the perpetrator’s wrist — a ten-place grid penalty for Canada.
Honestly a three-race ban would have sent out the right signal, because Grosjean is clearly not learning from his mistakes. Unfortunately he is a graduate from the GP2 Series warzone — a well meant championship which provided a F1 stepping stone for the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. But since then the series has produced a bunch of ‘kamikaze’ drivers because they are not policing the notorious driving that prevails weekend after weekend.
Currently in F1 we have a rogue’s gallery led by Grosjean and includes a long list of usual suspects: Pastor Maldonado, Sergio Perez and Max Chilton. Ironically all of them were involved in bent metal shenanigans at Monaco.
I want Grosjean to succeed at the top. I even have a soft spot for Maldonado — both very fast drivers, both with huge potential — but they need to be reeled in before there is another tragedy in F1.
After Monaco, former grand prix driver Mika Salo warned ominously, “Grosjean is incredibly fast, but too prone to error for this series. He’s had enough years to practice, but there comes a time that this is not the place to practice anymore. Soon, he will hurt someone else or himself.”
The writer is the head of corporate communications at Dubai Autodrome llc.