When Lotus unveiled their new driver-line up for the year ahead,
the excitement gravitated around the presence of one man -
enigmatic former world champion Kimi Raikkonen, the extraordinarily
fast Finn who was back for another shot at the sport where once he
had been king. Amidst the frenzy surrounding the eighteen times
race winner, the return of former Renault driver Romain Grosjean
was barely acknowledged.
The likeable Frenchman's first stint in F1 was hardly notable.
He was drafted in for the final seven races of the 2009 campaign to
replace the increasingly erratic Nelson Piquet Jr., who sealed his
fate over the "crash-gate" affair. Driving alongside Fernando
Alonso, Grosjean was always going to come out badly. Whilst the
Spaniard sealed three points finishes and an unlikely podium, in
the same period Romain did not trouble the top ten - his best
result was 13th place at the Brazilian Grand Prix. Despite his
unremarkable debut, the Frenchman hoped the team would keep faith
in him. They didn't.
Grosjean later revealed that he thought about "stopping
everything, stopping racing" in the wake of losing his seat to
fellow GP2 graduate Vitaly Petrov. He could have easily retreated
to the bank in Geneva where he held a steady job. Thankfully for
him, he chose to brush himself off and race anything he could get
his hands on. He began with sports cars, winning a handful of races
in the FIA GT1 series and qualifying impressively at Le Mans before
being sidelined by mechanical problems. But what really put him
back on the radar was his performance in the single-seater Auto GP
series. Despite missing the first two stops of the six round
calendar, he turned up and immediately dominated, winning the
championship by a comfortable margin.
These successes meant that after just six months of F1 exile, he
was given the chance to return to GP2 by the DAMS squad. This was
his golden opportunity - a race drive in a series which not only
fed drivers to the top flight on an annual basis, but in which he
was already an accomplished winner. Seizing it with both hands,
Grosjean made his return halfway through the season. By the end of
it he had visited the podium on two occasions, and convinced the
French team to give him a full time drive for 2011.
DAMS were not the only ones watching with interest. Renault, who
had pointed him to the door just a year earlier, decided that
Grosjean could return to the squad - as one of five test drivers.
This seemed an unlikely window of opportunity, but when Robert
Kubica suffered horrific injuries in a pre-season rally accident,
Romain's name was thrust into contention for the race drive.
Ultimately, his relative inexperience did him no favours and the
job went to journeyman Nick Heidfeld. No matter though - Grosjean
went about his work in GP2, winning five races and taking the title
with a round to spare.
Now a champion in not only GP2 but GP2 Asia, Romain's return to
F1 was assured. With Petrov increasingly unable to justify his
place at the rebadged Lotus team, Grosjean jumped in to reclaim his
spot for 2012. He would race alongside Kimi Raikkonen, the former
Ferrari world champion who had a reputation for producing pace
where none existed. But far from being daunted by the challenge his
much hyped team-mate, the Frenchman saw it as an opportunity. Both
had been out of F1 since the end of 2009, and whilst the Finn had
spent two years in the entirely alien discipline of world rallying,
Grosjean had been competing - and winning - in single seaters.
This showed itself in qualifying for the opening race in
Melbourne. Raikkonen, compromised by a questionable strategy and
slow outlap, put himself eighteenth and out in the very first
session. By contrast Grosjean was able to record the third fastest
time, lining up behind only the dominant McLarens. His appearance
on the front row sent shockwaves through the paddock. Having been
on the verge of quitting just two years earlier, Grosjean now meant
That he retired in both subsequent races is almost irrelevant.
There were clumsy mistakes, as you might expect of a man who had
not raced in any given series for two-and-a-half years. But where
there's pace, results usually follow - and in China, the first
result came in the form of sixth place. One short week after
securing his maiden F1 points finish, Grosjean was standing
alongside his world champion team-mate on the Bahrain podium. This
was no fluke: the man in third had challenged for the lead early
on, and beat the likes of Webber, Button and Alonso on pace and
What had looked to be another promising career gone to waste has
now been resurrected in spectacular fashion. Grosjean's return to
prominence is a great story that's got the whole paddock talking -
with the exception, as ever, of Kimi Raikkonen.