Interview: Grosjean on living the American F1 dream

Romain Grosjean left what was about to become a Renault manufacturer seat to join Gene Haas’s unique American Formula 1 experiment. It was a risky move, but one Grosjean reckons has already paid off in spades.

Interview: Grosjean on living the American F1 dream
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16 locks up under braking
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team heads back to the pits after he crashed on the way to the grid
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean presents team owner Gene Haas with his commemorative helmet for the United States Grand Prix
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
(L to R): Eric Boullier, McLaren Racing Director with Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
The 2016 United States Grand Prix marked Romain Grosjean's 100th Formula One start
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
(L to R): Guenther Steiner, Haas F1 Team Principal; Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team; Esteban Gutierrez, Haas F1 Team; and Gene Haas, Haas Automotion President at a team photograph
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-16
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team

Many observers were surprised when Romain Grosjean opted to leave his long time home at Enstone just as Renault renewed its commitment to F1, especially as his destination was the unknown quantity of the newly-formed Haas squad.

However, few would deny that the move paid off for the Frenchman, at least in the short term. His early scores – sixth in Australia and fifth in Bahrain – stand as remarkable achievements for what back then was a brand new team.

Subsequently 2016 been somewhat of a roller coaster ride for Grosjean and his Haas colleagues. Now, they are looking forward to a second season together.

Adam Cooper: What was your thought process when you decided to join Haas? A lot of people thought that you were a perfect fit to stay at Renault, but presumably from where you were sitting you could see that things would be tough, and it was a good time to try something new...

Romain Grosjean: Exactly, there were a few things. I was in a team where I knew what we had, I knew what was going on. I didn't know if Renault was going to come or not, but I knew the performance in the next year or so would be difficult.

I had a phone call with [team principal] Gunther Steiner, then I met him and Gene [Haas] at Monza. The first meeting with Gene we shook hands, and it was done. They told me what they were going to do. I liked their politics, no bullshit, straight to the point. It was, 'we want to go racing, we don't want any of those political things, we want to come to F1 and improve'.

That's something that seduced me, and they gave me enough of the biscuits to think that it was going to be something quite interesting! And then we started, and things went like in a dream.

The fact that Gene was successful in business and in NASCAR, did that encourage you to believe this is a man who gets things done?

I knew his background, I knew Gunther's background. He knows racing, and Gene knows racing, at least in NASCAR.

It took him a few years to be successful, so I knew that that it wouldn't be, 'we're coming into F1 with Haas as a sponsor, we need to be at the front'. It was, 'we're coming to F1, let's learn, let's move on, and let's see what we can get'.

Was there also an element of being one step closer to Ferrari, and hoping they'll have all your data and at least you'll have a connection?

Not really. Ferrari is a dream team, and that's no secret.

I thought that if I was coming to Australia with Renault, and I was scoring a point, everyone would say it's normal, it's a factory team, and so on. If I was going to Australia scoring the first point for an American team, it would be a big story.

And in terms of my image, as well as in the USA and so on, it would be something quite big. So I thought image-wise, marketing-wise, and sporting challenge, that's the fit for me, and I want to do it.

Since I joined there's not a single morning that I woke up and think, 'what did I do?' Yes, we've had good times, tough times, times where you just want to throw everything away. But in the end I come back here, and the people I work for, the atmosphere, and the boss... I think this is the perfect fit for me.

What were your expectations heading to Australia at the beginning of this season?

No idea! I woke upon Sunday morning and I saw Gene at breakfast. He asked me, 'are you stressed?' I said, 'no.' He said, 'you are very quiet for a Sunday morning!'

I was starting 20th, and the first thing he asked me was, 'finish the race, and then we'll see.'

We started the race, and I knew from winter testing that the car was good, and we could be not too far from the points. Initially there was a bit of luck, and then we got lucky with the red flag, and we were there, and we made it to the end. It was part of our strategy to stay out, and we trusted our numbers.

That's what we do most of the time, we don't calculate other people's races, we just do the best for ourselves. And that was the case that day.

You obviously thought it wasn't going to be easy to repeat sixth place – but the next race in Bahrain was even better!

The next race was amazing. I don't even know what happened there, from FP1 when I drove the car I thought, 'this is great, everything is going to plan, the car is behaving well'. For which reason? I don't know, and no one knows.

I think that's where we can improve, because since then we lost the mojo a bit. But clearly that weekend everything went easily and smoothly.

After that points were harder to get. Was that in part because other people did more efficient development, and for you it was all new?

Yes, and we focussed very early in 2017 because the idea of the team was to come to F1 and do better in year two, and if you want to do better in year two, you have to opt prepare the car, especially with those rule changes.

So yes, we gave up development of the car early on.

It must have been tough to go from scoring points to being 13th and 14th all the time…

Honda has improved a lot, so McLaren passed us. Baku was points, but we picked up a blue plastic bag in the radiator, so we had to stop to remove it. Before the summer break in Britain we didn't finish the race, in Hungary and Germany we struggled with the balance of the car, and we kind of put the finger on what we could do better.

That was good, and again it was part of the learning process. At Spa we could have scored some big points, we had a power unit problem in the race, which cost us a lot, and I could have finished sixth. In Malaysia we could have scored some big points.

There are a lot of points that we could have had, and we didn't. A bit of luck, a bit of experience, and so on.

The strategy of taking suspension and other systems from Ferrari has only been legalised recently – are you happy with how that has turned out?

That's working pretty well, yes. It's a short cut, it's a lot of hassle we don't have, and it's a lot of parts we don't need to worry about. It takes some time to understand how they work, but once we get there it makes our life much easier.

Are there some compromises involved in working with outside suppliers?

Yes, and in the first year we need to see what was going right, and what was taking more time than it should have.

It's the first year. So using outside suppliers, we need to get them to our standard, we need to get them where we want. And we've learned a lot about that.

Hopefully next year we're a step better, and the year after we are even better.

Some of the mechanical failures must have been worrying…

There are a lot of parts we need to do better.

We've had a lot of problems with the front wings – Canada was another race where I should have scored points and we lost the front wing – there are at least five occasions where I could have scored points, and we did not because of problems.

The season would have been very different if that didn't happen. But again, it's the first year, and it's part of the learning curve.

The brake problem in Malaysia, I don't really accept it, because it was not our fault, it was a supplier, and a supplier that is supposed to have knowledge of F1, and they couldn't give me any explanation.

If it's a problem from Dallara and the load is higher than we thought, fair enough, next time we do better. So far we've moved on every time and improved it.

There was a long build-up to the first season. Are you confident that the team can continue to progress in the second year?

I had faith in Gunther and Gene when I joined the project, and I still have a lot of faith in them. I think the target is to do better in year two than in year one, and they are still quite on it.

My faith is still the same, so I think we can do better next year.

Do the changes to the rules represent and opportunity for you guys, or does it make it harder because you're just getting some data together, and in effect you have to start again?

It would have been very different if we kept the same rules, because we would have developed this year's car, and then we would have moved on. But we had to stop developing this year very early and move on to 2017.

It could be [an opportunity], I think we've got a very good aero department. They're working very hard, and we've recruited a lot of people since I joined the team, some very good people, because now they've seen we are there, we're doing well, everything is paid on time, and it's a serious team.

We have a lot of good people and we could have more coming.

Do you like the concept of the 2017 rules?

I think for F1 it's a great thing. I want the cars to be faster, I want the drivers to be able to push on the tyres, and not have to always manage what's going on. I want to be able to go into a corner, and finish the corner, and think, 'whoa, I did it'.

That's something we're missing a little bit. So I think I'm pretty much looking forward to next year.

Have you enjoyed being part of a project where there's a big focus on you, compared with if you had joined a bigger team?

Probably I'm a big piece of the puzzle, which is great. It's a lot of pressure because I want us to move to the next step and improve, but on the other hand I know that the points are coming from me, and the team is fully behind me.

When I crash the car they don't mind, 'you did your best'.

Have you learned a lot? Presumably you have been involved with areas of the team that you would not have been before.

To be fair I was quite involved at Renault, or Lotus, back in the time, especially after 2014 – how can we make 2015 better? It's been pretty much the same. It's great.

Are you driving better than ever now, with more experience?

Probably in the races. In qualifying I haven't yet got the feeling of the tyres. They've changed a little bit since last year, and that's something that I'm not a huge fan of.

But definitely I've ready when there's an opportunity, or taking a good first lap.

Haas is a great opportunity, but everyone wants to be in the top two or three teams. Are you already looking at around at who has contracts that are ending in 2018 or 2019, trying to position yourself?

I think there's a lot of people doing that!

But potentially you are one of the guys who might get a phone call...

It would be great. I want to be World Champion, that's why I'm racing.

I want to win, everything I do I want to win, but in F1 more than anything. Yes, you need to be in two or three teams to do that. But again, my time will come, or maybe not, who knows?

Right now, I'm very happy where I am. If I could score the first podium for Haas in F1 it would be a big thing. I've already done the first score, first top five, next step is the first podium.

The problem is that new guys are coming along all the time, like Vandoorne, Leclerc, Giovinazzi… are you slightly worried that you will miss the boat?

You can, but I don't think I've missed the boat. There are some teams who want drivers who have been on the podium already a few times before they joined the team.

F1 is complicated, and yes you can be quick in the first year, but it doesn't mean you've got the experience. Yes, there are a lot of young guys coming, but in the end I'm 30, and it's a good time.

Will the rule changes favour the more experienced drivers?

Maybe, maybe not. All I can say is that back in the time it was a challenge going through some corners, now it's not any more.

Next year it may come back to that, and then yes, experience can make a bigger difference.

This interview originally appeared in GP Gazzette.

 

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