After what he has described as the toughest season of his racing career in 2014, Romain Grosjean enters his fourth full season of racing with a real prospect of returning to the front of the field.
After having the ugliest car in 2014, Lotus has certainly won in the beauty stakes with its sharp-looking, Mercedes-powered E23 Hybrid. The black-and-gold car looks and runs quickly, and if pre-season testing is any indication, it is making serious strides towards recovering from its embarrassing campaign last year.
With stability in its line-up, a much healthier sponsorship income and an ever-expanding team of technical staff, things are looking up for Lotus. It’s an outlook clearly reflected in the expression of Romain Grosjean, whose smile is rivaling that of Formula 1’s serial grinner, Daniel Ricciardo.
We sat down one-on-one with Romain in the Australian Grand Prix paddock, and spoke at length about the upcoming season, what he has learned about himself, the challenges of fatherhood and his dislike for Vegemite…
You’ve had a good pre-season in comparison to last year. Testing has gone well; it has been a considerable turnaround. How are you feeling?
I’ve had a lot of people telling me how much happier I look compared to last year, and it’s true. We had a really tough year, but we’ve learned a lot. The team has done a huge amount of work to understand [the problems] and come back.
The new car has reacted well to everything we’ve been doing and that’s very positive for us. That gives us a platform to start good work from there.
There have been two big changes for you in the off-season: the switch to Mercedes power and a completely new design in the E23 Hybrid chassis. What specific changes within those are giving you ore confidence heading into 2015?
A lot has been made about the fact that we’ve switched engines in the off-season, and of course, the Mercedes power unit is the best in the field and it’s really nice to have it sitting just behind your back.
But in truth the biggest change has been in the feel and responsiveness of the new car itself. It’s lovely to know what will happen when you get to a corner and turn the wheel! It’s consistent, it handles very precisely. You can turn in with confidence and exit each corner the same way you went in!
You have mentioned that the 2014 season was, psychologically, one of the toughest years for you in your career. What did you learn about yourself last year?
I think I’ve learned a lot and I surprised myself on some occasions. I wouldn’t have described myself as being very patient; I was coming from a really good 2013 where I was fighting for wins and finishing on the podium, and really expected we would be doing the same in 2014.
I was going to be the team leader for the first time – as Kimi Räikkönen left for Ferrari – with more experience in the team than Pastor, so on paper, everything was looking good.
Then you realise that nothing is going to go the way you want it to go. You get frustrated and impatient to the point that you’re really boiling inside. So I had to learn to be patient, find my way through these chicanes to get to where I wanted to go.
It was demanding a lot and towards the end of the year it was getting really hard. So you heard the frustration coming through on the pit-to-car radio – Singapore was quite a good example!
Coming through it all and out the other side, it made me much stronger and hungrier. I could have rested in the off-season, but instead I’ve worked really hard with the team and we cannot wait to start.
You’ve also had a change in race engineer, with Ayao Komatsu getting promoted. You’re now working with Julien Simon-Chautemps; how are the two of you gelling?
I was really proud that Ayao was promoted, he’s worked hard and he deserves it.
It’s been a very natural transition to Julien. The fact that we are both French has helped with the foundation of that relationship, and we immediately understand each other. I’ve just got on with working with him. The team knows me pretty well after four seasons together; Julien and I both know each other for a long time so it’s been very straightforward for both of us.
What will success look like for you in 2015?
The first step will be to get into the points, and to do that consistently. Then once that’s ticked off, we should be pushing for top five results, and from there onwards, a top-three result should not be too far away.
It needs to be a step-by-step approach where we do as well as we can.
You’re about to be a father for the second time, with the baby due in May. Is your son Sacha looking forward to being a big brother?
I think he is. He’s just 19 months old, so I don’t know how much he understands. But when I came back from Abu Dhabi, he gave me a hug for five minutes solid and wouldn’t even let me go. So he understood the season was over and I was back home to spend time with him.
When I left to fly to Australia on Sunday, he started to get a bit grumpy two days before because he could see my luggage and so on. I think he understands that there’s a little brother or sister coming soon. We’re very excited.
You’ve updated your helmet scheme as well. A lot has been made about the change to the regulations which have banned drivers from changing their helmet designs in-season. You’re not top of the list as a driver who dabbles in helmet design changes (although your Steve McQueen design for the United States Grand Prix was stunning), but what are your thoughts about this?
It’s come back a little bit to how I had it for the 2013 season; to me it’s the most beautiful helmet design I’ve ever had.
I’ve typically done about six or seven designs per year, although most were just little variations on the original design – there were probably three unique designs in 2014.
To me, the helmet is the driver’s way of expressing himself. I had a few ideas for 2015 that were looking pretty cool, but now they’re not going to happen. It won’t change the world.
The regulations have remained fairly stable from 2014 to 2015, although there have been a few rules introduced, such as the introduction of the Virtual Safety Car and the removal of double points and the cumulative grid penalties. What are your thoughts on the upcoming changes?
The Virtual Safety Car is a great idea, although it’s not yet easy to manage in the car as we would like as you have to concentrate on keeping to the ‘delta time’ in that sector. But we’ll get used to it quickly and it’s going to be fine.
The cars look much nice under the new design rules than they did last year; we’re back to proper-looking racing cars and they go faster, which is always good.
I’m glad that the grid penalties has had some change, although it was still frustrating to be in Abu Dhabi where you could start from the pit lane with a drive-through penalty.
Outside of the recent pre-season testing, how do you prepare for coming to Australia, the challenges of adapting to the timezone and mentally preparing yourself for the start of the racing season?
I had a week at home after testing, but I was quite busy as my son had chickenpox so I looked after him. I did a little bit of training that week as well before flying out on Sunday. It’s a long flight so you have to try and get over the jet lag as quickly as possible. My final flight leg from Doha to Melbourne is twelve-and-a-half hours, and you don’t want to sleep for that otherwise your sleep cycle will be ruined.
One I get to Melbourne, I do like to run a little bit in the afternoon, get some sun, and go out for dinner.
I love being in Australia – even though I don’t like Vegemite – and the atmosphere is great, the weather is fantastic, and it’s always good to come here.
You’ve described Albert Park as one of your favourite circuits. What do you like about the challenge that this circuit sets for you?
It’s not a permanent track so the grip levels change a lot over the course of the weekend. It’s pretty bumpy as well and there are a few tricky corners, plus you also have the challenge of driving and looking into the setting sun at the end of the start/finish straight.
When you arrive at the Turn 1 and you can’t see a thing because the sun is shining directly into your face, it’s a tricky one.
I like the flow of the corners and the way the circuit is designed. When the car is good, it’s really nice to drive around here.
Australia aside, what other circuits would you list down as being your favourites?
My absolute favourite of all is Suzuka. It’s hard to explain exactly why, but the constant flow of mid- and high-corners and the way it is designed in a figure-of-eight is also unique. The banking and camber of some corners is also unique. Put the whole lot together, and you can see why it’s a special circuit.
Hooking up a lap here is fantastic. When you get through Sector 1 and all of the Esses, you think you can have a breather but it’s straight into the Degners, the Hairpin and then the Spoon Curve. You have the smallest breather before 130R and the chicane, and then it’s back around for the another lap. By the end of a qualifying session, you’re like ‘Oh gosh!’
Then get into the race – like in 2013, where I had the two Red Bulls chasing me – where you have 53 laps of this, and you will understand.
This year will see the return of an ‘old school’ track to the calendar when Formula 1 returns to Mexico for the first time since 1992. Do you hold hopes of being able to have a French Grand Prix during your career?
It would be wonderful. You can see how much support Daniel [Ricciardo] has when we come here. It must be special to race in front of your fans on home soil.
I have some ‘home’ races like Monaco, Belgium and Canada where there are a lot of French fans, so I kind of get that feeling, but it’s not the same as a proper race at home. I miss the French Grand Prix, I don’t care whether we race at Paul Ricard, Magny Cours or somewhere else, I just want lots of tricolour in the grandstands!
You’ve taken a fairly active approach with social media – particularly on Instagram – and have shared a lot of events and images away from your life on the track. How do you personally approach fan engagement through social media channels to keep them on the journey with you?
I remember as a child watching Formula 1 and not knowing anything about them outside the cockpit. Nowadays with social media, you have the opportunity to share more than what is shown on the camera, the podiums or behind the wheel.
Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of training and hard work, media commitments and time you have to give up. I understand that fans like to ‘live the dream’ with us, and we can give them a little bit of insight then that’s a good thing. There are boundaries; I won’t share family stuff and you will never see a picture of my son, for example.
But I’m happy to share a lot of other things, so where there’s good news or bad news, then I’m happy to give my perspective and share with my fans. One challenge I had last year was with the David Cup final between France and Switzerland, and I wasn’t sure if I should engage given I am Franco-Swiss!
Images via XPB Images