Last season was a dream for Romain Grosjean, who made his maiden voyage in the NTT IndyCar Series. After a decade in F1, the veteran was given a fresh start. A clean slate to find his love for driving once again. With his second chance, Grosjean quickly became a fan favourite in the sport.
Following his scary crash in his final F1 race in Bahrain, Grosjean was adorned by fans for embracing all that IndyCar had to offer him. Not only was it a clean slate, it was a chance to fight at the front of the field again. The end of his F1 career was spent at the bottom of the grid, often his only motivation being to beat his teammate.
The depth, parity, and diversity in IndyCar is something that he noticed from the very start. He was rejuvenated and obsessed with learning and taking it all in as a “rookie” in the series. His ear-to-ear grin and complimentary sessions with the media all but made the fans fall in love with him on the spot.
In a global fan survey conducted by IndyCar before the start of the season, Grosjean was voted IndyCar’s Most Popular Driver. It was a result that shocked many, including the man himself. “It felt amazing,” Grosjean said. “After only one year in IndyCar, to be voted the most popular driver has been quite incredible.”
“I’ve got a story, I come from ten years in F1, the fire and coming back to racing in IndyCar, discovering a championship where I think it was a reverse. I use the ‘Phoenix’ as a nickname not because of the fire, it’s related to a rebirth of myself through IndyCar, having fun and enjoying myself.”
While fans have taken quite the liking to the driver of the No. 28 Andretti Autosport machine, his competitors don’t exactly feel the same. Last weekend it was a late-race encounter with Graham Rahal that triggered some heated discussion inside the paddock. During the final laps of the race at Barber Motorsports Park, Grosjean slammed into the side of Rahal’s No. 15 Honda not once, but twice as they fought for position on the track.
Rahal radioed to his team saying, “This guy’s a punk! He hit me on purpose.” Those sentiments were echoed by the NBC commentary team, made up of former IndyCar drivers.
Townsend Bell shouted, “Whoah! Grosjean hits him twice!” and James Hinchcliffe said “He aimed for him the second time.” Grosjean said on the radio that that Rahal ran into him but Bell and Hinchcliffe quickly dismissed that, with Hinchcliffe saying, “No, that was 100 percent on the 28 (Grosjean) there.”
After the race, Rahal did not hold back in his perception of the former F1 driver. “I knew Romain was going to dive-bomb me. I’d already been warned that’s what he’s doing.” Then Graham continued on. “I’m just frustrated because this isn’t the first time. In St. Petersburg he hit everybody he could hit. We come here and he hit Rossi, hit Herta, hit me. This guy has overstayed his welcome.”
Grosjean referred to their contact as “good, hard racing” but apparently he is alone in those thoughts. According to Rahal, many drivers have backed his comments about the aggressive nature of the Swiss-French racing driver. This isn’t exactly the first instance of Grosjean’s driving style in IndyCar.
One of the more prominent incidents came towards the end of last season when he and seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson came together at Laguna Seca. Both were rookies at the time, and played off the contact despite it clearly being too physical. Behind closed doors, several drivers were voicing their displeasure as Grosjean was ruffling their feathers.
Is Grosjean’s F1 reputation following him to IndyCar?
Grosjean was in Miami this past weekend as a race ambassador for the grand prix. When pressed by the media about his battle with Rahal, he didn’t have too much else to say. “I don’t know, I was on for some good points and I wanted more.” It is easy to understand how that mentality could rub some the wrong way, but conceding a spot or settling for a position on the track doesn’t exactly scream excitement.
To his credit, Grosjean does have ten podium finishes over the course of his F1 career. There have been nearly twice as many crashes in his 179 starts though. A multi-car collision at the Belgian Grand Prix earned Romain a one-race suspension back in 2012. He also had an infamous run-in with Mark Webber at Suzuka that year. The Red Bull driver described Grosjean as a “first-lap nutcase.”
The IndyCar fan base is beginning to see a glimpse of the reputation that Grosjean had in F1. The big question is whether or not the Andretti driver can dial down his aggression as the season continues. That is, if he is even willing to do so. Grosjean sees nothing wrong with the way he drives, and so far IndyCar officials agree with him.
Perhaps if/when Grosjean is penalised for his actions on the track, he might race his competitors cleaner. For now, he will continue to race his way as he continues his pursuit of an IndyCar victory. While other drivers may not appreciate his aggressive nature, it is certainly entertaining for the fans.
Fans have longed for IndyCar’s next villain. The series itself has tried incorporating the “Indy Rivals” theme as a way of generating drama. Many people thought the ideal “bad guy” might be Alexander Rossi, but his teammate is certainly throwing his name into the hat.