It would be a slight understatement to say the last few weeks haven’t been the best of Romain Grosjean’s racing career. The Lotus driver has come in for significant criticism from his rivals for his part in a succession of first-lap incidents this season, an issue that has seen him serve Formula One’s first driver ban in 18 years.
Following his latest incident at last Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix, where he rear-ended Mark Webber’s Red Bull at the first corner, figures within the sport were quick to stick the knife in. Webber himself branded the Frenchman a ‘first-lap nutcase’ and suggested that he ‘needed another holiday,’ while Red Bull team boss Christian Horner described Grosjean’s driving as ‘unacceptable.’ Sky Sports pundit and former driver Johnny Herbert even suggested that Lotus sack Grosjean for his repeated indiscretions.
Now, don’t get me wrong, some of Grosjean’s driving on the opening lap of races this season has been reckless, and his ban from the Italian Grand Prix for causing the first corner pile-up at Spa was totally justified. However, when you look more into his starts and his general driving this season, I can’t help but feel that there has been a huge overreaction towards him from all corners of the paddock.
Of the eight first-lap incidents that Grosjean has been involved in this season, only three of those have been his fault. Whilst causing a hat-trick of accidents is hardly a badge of honour, and there is clearly a problem that needs addressing, if you took the views of the paddock as gospel you’d think that Grosjean sets out on a Sunday afternoon with the sole intention of using his car as a dodgem, when that is clearly not the case.
In addition, whenever he does make it through the first couple of laps unscathed, Grosjean has shown himself to be a highly competent and talented racing driver who is regularly in the mix for points and podiums and who, with a bit more luck on his side, could even have won a Grand Prix this year.
He has also fared well in wheel-to-wheel combat, making some great overtaking moves and being uncompromising but fair with his rivals. His charges to the podium in both Bahrain and Canada were hugely impressive, as was his move on the outside of Lewis Hamilton in Valencia and his qualifying performances in both Australia and Hungary. You do not produce these kind of drives without having huge potential. He has outqualified his world champion team-mate Kimi Raikkonen 9-5 this season. Again, you don’t do that if you don’t have serious talent.
You also have to consider that Grosjean is still in his first full season in Formula One. He is to all intents and purposes still a rookie. Rookies make mistakes. Felipe Massa was a walking accident when he started out. Jenson Button crashed out behind the safety car at Monza in his debut season. And how badly have their careers turned out?
In a way it’s unfortunate that Grosjean’s mistakes have come at the start of races. If he had gained a reputation for spinning off the track instead of causing pile-ups he’d be seen as a fast but erratic young driver but one with the potential to become a top class driver in the future, something which I firmly believe he is and should be seen as by the majority of people in the sport.
Grosjean needs support, simple as that. If he could sort the problem he has at the start out he’d be fine. He needs someone to guide and work with him to help him control his nerves at the beginning of races. This criticism cannot be helping him, and if anything it’s making him more tense before the start which in turn increases the chance of him being involved in something at the start. Having someone there to help him in his preparations can only help him improve. Sir Jackie Stewart has offered to mentor him, and Romain would be well advised to take up this offer. After all, what better person to help you than a triple world champion, and also what better endorsement of your ability as a racing driver is there than someone with the pedigree of Sir Jackie wanting to help you?
Lotus would be making a huge mistake if they let him go at the end of the year. At the moment it looks like they will retain him, and it is the right choice. Realistically who is out there that could replace him and do a better job? They need to be helping him. Put him into the simulator and make him work at his starts, publicly back him and make him feel as comfortable and welcome as possible within the team.
I hope Grosjean takes the time over the rest of this season and the winter to reflect on his driving, take the positives away from what, on the whole, has been a good year, stamp out the negatives and come back next year a better driver. No matter what he’s been through, he is still one of the best young drivers on the grid and he fully deserves his place in Formula One. And Formula One should recognise that and help him through his rocky patch, not shun him.