02 March, 2013

Romain's Renaissance

In his first lap of testing earlier this week Romain Grosjean’s car went spinning into the gravel in Barcelona, and the cynics of the F1 world let out a chuckle.  Could they expect anything less from the man branded the “First-lap nutcase” by Mark Webber last season?  But maybe that mentality will change in the media this season partially because of Grosjean’s admittance of using a psychologist last season.

Speaking to reporters at the test, the Frenchman revealed that he started seeing a sports psychologist last September in the midst of an F1 season marred by a string of incidents that eventually led to a one-race ban.

It's not a secret that I started work with a psychologist in September last year and it went very well during the winter,” Grosjean said.  “I had a lot of discussion with Genii [the financial and investment firm that sponsors the Lotus Team] to try to help them understand and take the right decision. And when they called me to say, 'Okay we go again for one more year' I was more than happy.”

Grosjean’s openness about seeking help is a welcome change to professional sports in general, although the impact of his reveal may not change the face of racing.  Instead it’s a reminder of the human side of the sport that so many gloss over.

In F1 especially there is a mentality of placing blame quickly and accurately.  If an incident occurs, people want to know who the stewards will punish and how.  If cars careen off the track, whose fault is it?  Have they done it before?  If so, then punish them more!

That’s not to say this mentality is flawed, though.  In a sport where lives are frequently put in danger through dangerous or careless moves, drivers must be made to stay in line and race in a safe way.  But in Grosjean’s case, stewards’ decisions were not the tipping point, whether he admits this or not.

*  *  *

It was relatively cool for Bahrain standards, but the steamy race at the Sakhir circuit in late April of last year looked to be a defining one for Romain Grosjean.  Starting P7, the Frenchman made a brilliant start and began a slow and steady march through the field.

By the fourth lap he had disposed of Mark Webber in the champion Red Bull RB8.  Three laps later he was by Lewis Hamilton.  He needed to keep this up.

Using tyre strategy to his advantage, Grosjean ran P2 in the late stages of the race before his teammate, on better tyres, got by him.  Still, he stayed with the frontrunners in the closing laps and secured the first podium of his short career.

He was ecstatic, becoming the first Frenchman to stand on an F1 podium in 14 years, and he beamed with the promise of a long season ahead after such incredible early returns.  He followed that up with a fourth place finish, then a P2, sprinkling a “Fastest Lap” honor in there as well.  Another second place finish and podium ensued.  Good things were in store for Romain Grosjean.

*  *  *

“We had good results (last season),” Grosjean said at the Lotus car launch a while back.  “Quicker than I was expecting, but maybe I wanted a little too much.”

If there’s anything of which F1 drivers could be accused, it’s certainly not lack of want.  Any driver lacking passion to win would not have made it to Formula 1, and Grosjean is no exception (especially since this is his second go-around in the sport after a disastrous campaign alongside Fernando Alonso at Renault).  So yes, maybe Grosjean was a little overambitious in some of his moves and decisions, but I think his issue is a deeper one.

The picture that the media painted of Grosjean was not a pretty one.  Far from being hateful, everyone began to associate him with crashes.  Internet memes celebrated his failures.  Drivers laughed when being asked about starting a race near him.  If he and Maldonado were in the same sector, look out!

Whether Romain has acknowledged these characterizations of him, I have no idea.  One can be sure that it weighed on him every time he found himself in a tricky situation.  Every decision must now be reconsidered.  ‘If I mess this up, will I be giving everyone more fodder?  I have to stay clean.’

*  *  *

On the second day of September, the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix began at the might Spa-Francorchamps.  Romain Grosjean started P9 on the run to La Source hairpin, but few remember his starting position.  Even fewer remember the clutch slip by Pastor Maldonado that caused the field to splay, or the launch that Grosjean got to position himself on the inside line at the first corner.

In the blink of an eye, it happened.  Hairpins like La Source lend themselves to crashes on race starts, but this one was different.  Grosjean found Hamilton to his inside, and in a split second the two had touched wheels.  Everyone remembers the crash that ensued, seeing Grosjean punt Perez before becoming airborne.  Everyone remembers the scary onboard image from the cockpit of Alonso’s Ferrari, and everyone remembers the runoff littered with carbon fiber and steaming cars.

Grosjean would earn a one race ban for his involvement in the incident, and a short time later he sought the help of a sports psychologist.  His approach to racing and his handling of the pressure that came with his incidents needed rethinking.  Romain Grosjean knew that his career could be significantly shortened, but not because of his driving, but because of the space between his ears.

*  *  *

Regardless of how accurate the depictions of Grosjean’s accident-causing nature have been, his courage to seek help both in the interest of his career and for the safety of those around him is unprecedented in modern Grand Prix racing.  It is a situation in stark contrast with the cutthroat nature of F1 where a driver’s underachieving inevitably means his career will be over as soon as his contract allows.

For Romain to take a step back and try to better his career underlies the notion that drivers are human and are incredibly susceptible to issues of self-confidence and doubt.

As media and fans, we are quick to praise the drivers that find themselves in such beautiful flow in a racecar---a phenomenon that is centered in the mind.  But we are equally as quick to pin everything on the driver when he has a string of bad finishes, accidents or incidents.  We remove the mental aspect of the sport in these situations and just assume that there was a dumb decision, a momentary lapse of judgment.  Put two or three of those incidents near each other on the calendar and people label the driver as a “problem.”

This is the spiral that Grosjean entered.  The ban forced him to rethink his role in the team and his approach to the races.  Even so there were still incidents in the next Grands Prix:  He ran into Webber in the very next race at Suzuka, he was part of a first lap incident in Abu Dhabi, and he hit the HRT of Pedro de la Rosa in Brazil.  The end-of-season break was extremely welcomed by Romain if not only for the fact of getting the bad taste out of his mouth.  He would have work to do in the offseason, though.

*  *  *

Tom Kristensen is a racing legend.  His eight victories in Le Mans and his stellar track record in endurance racing and DTM will attest to this.  How could a maligned, laughing stock of a racer compare to this, much less beat him head-to-head on an international stage?

This was the situation facing Romain Grosjean in Bangkok, Thailand last December.  After a dream finish of second in the Nations Cup of the Race of Champions, Grosjean had improbably worked his way through the Champion of Champions bracket and found himself in the final against Kristensen---a man who has been there before.

The story would be too fantastic to write if the Frenchman won, but what a better way to usher in the new season than by beating one of the best?

Two races and two victories later, though, and Romain Grosjean was the 2012 Champion of Champions.  He had won the honor that has evaded Kristensen to this day, and the media began to see a changed driver.  He was smiling more; he was excited for the future again.  He was thrilled to hoist the trophy that few believed he would ever win.

One day later he received news that he would be driving for the Lotus F1 Team in 2013.

*  *  *

“He’s a different guy now,” Lotus chairman Gerard Lopez said.  “He knows what he has to do.  He doesn’t have that pressure, stress. … We essentially have told him he's got a long-term future with us so now he can literally take it race by race, practice by practice."

And it’s that freedom from pressure that should propel Grosjean to bigger and better things.  Having been a champion in every series in which he’s run, the Frenchman is well aware of what it will take to find success in Formula 1.  He also knows that the key to that success lies not in the engineering of a carbon fiber and titanium, four-wheeled rocket.  It lies within his mind.

On Friday Grosjean ran a successful program for Lotus in testing at Barcelona, and at the end of the day he sat at the top of the timesheets.  Granted, times don’t mean much in testing, but tell that to Romain Grosjean’s confidence.

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