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ColumnistsMark ThursfieldMelting pot‘Crashgate seemed like a gift to Romain Grosjean. It was actually a poisoned chalice’

‘Crashgate seemed like a gift to Romain Grosjean. It was actually a poisoned chalice’

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MARK THURSFIELD is a journalist and PR advisor, working across sports from skiing to motorsport. After founding his own sports magazine in the 90s, he worked for Eurosport TV then Sportal.com – the first major sports site of the dot com boom – before setting up on his own in 2001. He also plays a mean bass guitar …

 

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By Mark Thursfield

8 February 2012

In just over four weeks time the Swiss-French racing driver, Romain Grosjean, 25, will begin his first full season as a fully fledged F1 driver. And as he gets behind the wheel of his Lotus E20 in Melbourne, he could be forgiven for taking a moment to cast his mind back over the bumpy-road that has led him to this point. A place that some thought that he would never make.

Spin back to 2009 and Grosjean was the reserve driver for the big-budget Renault F1 team, with Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet Jnr as race drivers. He was considered to be very hot property, a potential top-line driver of the future, who one day may just have the talent to mix it with the likes of Alonso, Hamilton and the emerging Vettel.

The future though caught up with him sooner that he or anyone else had anticipated. Ten races into the 2009 season, Nelson Piquet Jnr having failed to score even a single point was unceremoniously dropped by the team.

Piquet didn’t go quietly though. He made a series of serious allegations which involved team boss Flavio Briatore amongst others, and with the speed of a spreading bush-fire we arrived at what became known as ‘Crashgate‘.

Amid all of the ensuing chaos and recriminations, Grosjean was given the task of replacing Piquet for the seven remaining races of the season. What looked to be a gift of an opportunity was actually a poisoned chalice.

The team were in turmoil and they were charged with conspiracy by the FIA. Renault decided not to contest the charges and Briatore and Director of Engineering Pat Symonds promptly left the team.

After a very impressive first qualifying session, when he was denied progress into Q3 by just 0.323 of second, ironically by his team-mate Alonso, it seemed that everything that could go wrong did. Pictures of him seemed to show lines of anguish etched upon his face, with the full glare of the media illuminating his every move. It was as if he was somehow complicit; perhaps partly by association, as he was managed by Briatore, and the last of his drivers on the grid.

Over the seven races his best finish was 13th, it was a tale of bumps, crashes, brake problems, tyre problems and under-steer. And at the end of the season he was released by Renault. It looked like the end of a dream, as any possible return to F1 seemed to be a million miles away. He needed a change of scenery very badly.

At the beginning of 2010 he was named as a surprise entrant in the new FIA GT1 World Championship (pictured). He had agreed a hastily put together deal with the Swiss based Matech Competition squad, led by the sadly departed Martin Bartek. Matech had acquired the backing of Ford to create a GT1 version of the legendary Ford GT. It was to compete head-to-head with GT1 versions of the Maserati MC12, Aston Martin, DBR9, Lamborghini Murcielago, Corvette C6R and the mighty Nissan GT-R.

The first race was at the futuristic Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi, where Romain had finished 18th in his final appearance for Renault some six months earlier. From the outset Grosjean appeared as if a man transformed. It seemed that the demons had gone and he appeared both professionally engaged and relaxed in his new surroundings.

To back it up, he and team mate Tomas Mutsch stormed to victory in the opening Championship race. It was a jaw-dropping drive from Grosjean who made up an incredible 11 places in his stint in the car. The duo repeated the process in Brno in event three, and topped the standings.

From the first press conference to waiting on the grid for the formation lap, he had a grin on his face and seemingly time for anyone who wanted to chat. He was clearly loving the environment, that was without all of the attendant pressures of F1, particularly with the intensity that the ‘Crashgate’ affair had generated.

When I interviewed him at the time, he spoke about his time in F1. “The experience in F1, in terms of driving was really enjoyable,” he said. “But I think that I was in the wrong car, at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

“The time in the car itself was really good, and my the performance in the car compared to Fernando (Alonso) was good too. I was two or three tenths off of his pace, and he was a world champion. I’m proud of what I did in the car, but outside, it was a little confusing with the team.

“I think that the winter of 2010 was three months off work for everybody else in motor-sport, but for me it was ten years of maturity. It was a tough winter, but when you get out of this time in your life, you get stronger, you can see things with a different approach. And today the fact that I look relaxed to everybody in the paddock is that I’m much more enjoying the life.”

He remained relaxed and grounded throughout his time in the FIA GT1 World Championship, finding time to share the role of star driver with his love of cooking. He often helped prepare the team lunch in the five star motor-home. “When all the stories broke in the winter that I had no seat in F1, I was thinking about stopping everything in motor-sport and going to do a kitchen school, but then I realised that my first passion is driving.”

He eventually quit the series after round five, partly fearing that an elongated spell in sports cars would hamper any chance of a return to F1. He returned almost immediately to single-seater racing in the Auto GP series with the DAMS team at Spa. He dominated practice, took pole position and went on to win the feature race. He then proceeded to lift the title with a minimum of fuss.

In 2011 he won both the GP2 and GP2 Asia titles, also with DAMS.

So at the start of the 2012 season, Romain Grosjean begins his F1 career for a second time. He may not yet be in the best car, but his performance will be noted the length and breadth of the F1 paddock.

Given a fair wind, this extremely likeable, yet amazingly resolute driver, may yet fulfill the enormous potential of his early days and claim his place amongst the elitist of elite drivers in Formula 1.

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