Romain Grosjean's remarkable escape from the flaming wreck of his Haas in Bahrain marked his final act in Formula 1, but his single-seater career is by no means finished. As he told DAVID MALSHER-LOPEZ, IndyCar holds an appeal that F1 could not satisfy
"I heard it's a different atmosphere in IndyCar, and that's going to be great. The fans are made very welcome, the drivers are having barbecues beside their RVs, socialising. It's top-level racing on track but outside of the car, it's back to why we started racing when we were young - because we loved it. That's something you lose a little bit through your professional career, but I think in IndyCar I can get it back. And I'm ready for that..."
So says Romain Grosjean now that his immediate future is settled. He will drive the #51 Dale Coyne Racing with RWR-Honda in 13 of the 2021 IndyCar Series' 17 rounds. Yet as recently as December, he might not have sounded so enthusiastic about the prospect, and before that, even less so.
Although he suspected 2020 might be his last season with Haas - confirmed in late October - and therefore his last in Formula 1, he'd only given IndyCar cursory consideration. And his fiery crash in last November's Bahrain Grand Prix caused Grosjean to vacillate even more over whether he truly wanted to race in IndyCar.
He admits now that this variation in enthusiasm was because of a fundamental misunderstanding in how the series has evolved in recent years, and once that had been cleared up, his interest soared.
"It was looking at the IndyCar calendar that convinced me to do it," he tells Autosport. "I don't know why but I had in mind that IndyCar was 80% ovals and 20% road courses, and when I looked at the schedule I realised it was the opposite. I thought, 'I am an absolute dumbass; why didn't I check earlier?!'
"I have watched the racing, I love it, and I know drivers in the sport like Simon Pagenaud, Sebastien Bourdais and Marcus Ericsson. But in terms of driving - and maybe I'm completely wrong - I was never really attracted much by ovals, although of course they are spectacular to watch. So anyway, then I looked at the calendar, saw Road America, Mid-Ohio, St. Pete, Long Beach, Laguna Seca, Barber, and those tracks are absolutely fantastic. I thought, 'OK, let's go!'"
Despite the accident at Bahrain which, given that his car penetrated the barrier, should be regarded as a miraculous escape even if there had been no fire, Grosjean says that fast open-wheel cars per se hold no intimidation for him. But there is one lingering after-effect.
"There are two tracks that I'm not going to do this year," he says. "That is Texas [a double-header in 2021] and the Indianapolis 500. Much as I would love to win the Indy 500, they present a risk which is significant, and some of the crashes we've seen are massive.
"If I was younger, yes, I would do it all and accept that all motorsport involves risks. But being a dad, I can't put my family through that phase again, and at Indy you can have some big crashes" Romain Grosjean
"I'm not saying the drivers get hurt but still, they are driving cars at 210mph or more right next to each other, so it's a risk. That's the limiting factor compared with how I was before the accident in Bahrain.
"If I was 25 and I didn't have kids I would do the whole season, no question. But I'm a father of three, and for two minutes and 45 seconds in Bahrain, I know they thought they had lost their father. So if I was younger, yes, I would do it all and accept that all motorsport involves risks.
"But being a dad, I can't put my family through that phase again, and at Indy you can have some big crashes. Mainly the drivers get no injuries, but when you see it on TV, for a moment your breath stops. I think my kids have already had a feeling that truly no one ever wants to have, and I can't put them through that again."
Yet turning his back on racing at 200mph was only a fleeting option, he says.
"I asked myself during the winter if I wanted to stop racing, and very quickly I told my wife, 'I'm sorry, this is probably not what you want to hear but I want to go back racing.' And she's been very supportive. Instead of telling me, 'No, you shouldn't do that,' she and my kids have been fully behind me and know that if I want to be happy and be who I am.
"I need to be racing - it has always been part of my life. The thing we've agreed is that I don't do the superspeedways because the risk is a bit too high. And Dale understood that, which is great."
Yet the art of oval racing clearly now intrigues Grosjean enough that he's interested in running the 1.25-mile World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.
"Yes, you noticed I just said superspeedways!" he chuckles. "Depending on how the championship goes, I am thinking about that track. If we are fighting for a good position, and I am confident I have found my marks, I would like to give it a go."
Many European-bred open-wheel drivers, particularly those from France, would put the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the top of their bucket list of extracurricular activities, and would therefore default to sportscar racing once F1 opportunities dissipated. Grosjean's erstwhile Haas F1 team-mate Kevin Magnussen has done that by electing to join the IMSA SportsCar Championship. While Grosjean says he did have sportscar options, he says none could match the appeal of IndyCar.
"Yes, there were other categories, other opportunities, particularly sportscars," he said. "LMDh, the new generation, is coming in 2023 and that's interesting. But there are two years before that and I wanted to go racing in something that I was going to enjoy.
"Obviously I've never driven an IndyCar, but I'm quite confident that I am going to have fun. Everyone I know that I've been speaking with - my engineer at Haas, Simon Pagenaud, Marcus Ericsson - they have all told me, 'You'll love it. It's going to be great'. One thing I realised after my accident in Bahrain and seeing death so closely, is that I wanted to race something that I was going to have fun in."
An intrinsic part of Grosjean's fun will be the ability to challenge for podiums and wins. Last year, he caused mild controversy when he wryly questioned whether Formula 1 should be classified as a sport given the disparity in equipment between the fastest and slowest cars. It was, he said, like forcing Roger Federer to compete in the French Open wielding a ping-pong paddle.
It's no surprise that Grosjean is a fan of the even playing field, for he truly excelled in spec and near-spec junior formulas. Between 2005 and 2011, he accrued championship titles in Formula Renault, Formula 3 Euroseries, GP2 (now Formula 2), GP2 Asia and Auto GP.
"It's the pure racing that I loved for many years as I was coming through, and that I missed for so many years recently. In Formula 1, you don't feel like you are even competing in the same championship as the Mercedes" Romain Grosjean
Perhaps more significantly, Grosjean quelled the doubts surrounding him after he was suddenly dropped into the Renault F1 team for seven races in 2009 after Nelson Piquet Jr.'s midseason firing. Not many drivers, following a mediocre-looking first few F1 outings, get a second chance at the big time more than two years later. Yet by the end of 2011, Grosjean's GP2 performances made him indispensable, and he was signed by the Lotus F1 team.
Over the next four years he scored 10 podiums, flirted with victory a couple of times, and finished in the top 10 in the championship a couple of times. But in the five years that followed at Haas, each successive season produced fewer and fewer flashes of promise, as the team appeared to drift ever further away from the ultimate pace. Grosjean sees IndyCar as the antithesis of this situation and the antidote to his previous frustration.
He says: "While I'm on my exercise bike in front of the TV, I watch the IndyCar channel on YouTube - it's really good, by the way, with 30-minute highlights or full-race replays - from 2020, 2019 and 2018. I've got to say, it's the pure racing that I loved for many years as I was coming through, and that I missed for so many years recently. In Formula 1, you don't feel like you are even competing in the same championship as the Mercedes.
"Knowing that basically everyone has the same car, the same chance, is something I've missed. And then knowing that if you have a tough qualifying or a problem at the beginning of a race, you as a driver can make the difference because the cars are so closely matched or the team can help you make the difference with strategy... it's mega.
"So although Dale Coyne has a smaller team than Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi, the cars are effectively the same. So if we work well together and I use my experience, we can compete. I have a lot to learn, I know - I have never done a rolling start in a single-seater before, I need to learn the tyre behaviour, I need to learn all the details about all the circuits. But if we all work nicely together, I think we can achieve some great stuff."
On a practical note, it's fair to ask Grosjean about his left hand which, six weeks after the accident, still looked viciously purple, with the knuckle on the left index finger cruelly exposed. Without power steering, IndyCars are tough machines to haul around and, given the bumpy nature of the street courses and the need to use kerbs at even the smoothest tracks, gripping the steering-wheel tight enough could feasibly cause him some issues.
"The right hand is 100% OK and the left hand I would say is 50%," he admits. "But it's getting better every day. For our first test at Barber on 22 February, I may have some limitation about using some of the kerbs.
"At the downhill chicane, the drivers use a lot of the left-hand-side kerb and that could still be a bit tricky. But by the time we go back there for the first race of the season in the middle of April, I should be fully back, and ready to go. I can't wait."
Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen, George Russell, Alex Albon, Sergio Perez, Daniil Kvyat - all F1 drivers whose contracts were up at the end of 2020 - were on Dale Coyne's astonishingly long list of potential 2021 drivers last summer. So too was Nico Hulkenberg, some quality GP2 drivers and F1 testers, and probably one or two potential aces from Super Formula in Japan. And he might have soon regretted it.
Several of those drivers, while prodigiously talented, might have spent an IndyCar season at DCR being less than committed to the cause, distracted by their attempts to get back to the European scene. But in the case of the former Haas drivers, Magnussen and Grosjean, it seems as if their moves into US racing are being made without a backward glance.
"Oh, I will definitely miss some of it, like the people that I've been working with," Grosjean muses. "My chief engineer from Haas, Ayao Komatsu is someone I've worked with since 2009! He was with me at Lotus and then came with me when I went to Haas. And there are many other people I've been working with for many years who I will miss too.
"But when I left the Bahrain paddock, I said to myself, 'I hated that paddock as much as I loved it', and it's because what I have missed most over these recent years was the opportunity to win races.
"That is something I want to find with Dale Coyne. He's giving me a great opportunity here."