Since the first time he stepped into an F1 car Romain Grosjean has been a conundrum. But having managed a stellar drive at the Japanese Grand Prix, finishing behind only the unassailable Red Bulls and being nearly 35 seconds clear of his nearest rival, the question on everybody's lips is once again; just how good is he?
Grosjean has a reputation for flip-floping seemingly at random between being absolutely brilliant, being completely anonymous and being straight up dangerous. He has shown time and again that he can have the pace to match anybody, coming heartbreakingly close to achieving his maiden win in the European Grand Prix 2012, the Bahrain Grand Prix 2012 and last weekend in Japan. At the same time, there are so many races that he just disappears into the pack. Last season, Grosjean's trademark goofy smile was more often a look of despair. He was involved in a grand total of eight first lap incidents, and subsequently became the first driver to receive a race ban since Michael Schumacher in 1994.
However, the Frenchman's form is now no doubt on an upswing after recent strong results and the expectations for him to deliver are higher than ever. With teammate Kimi Raikkonen heading to Ferrari next year to partner old rival Fernando Alonso, the last few races have been crunch time for Grosjean. Lotus are losing a big asset in Raikkonen, and it is now time for Grosjean to really show what he can do. He has to prove to team boss Eric Boullier, a man who has shown nothing but faith in him, that he can lead the team and be a world champion. Although Grosjean's stock may have risen, his history as an inconsistent driver is still hanging over him and raising question marks about his true ability.
Dont look back
It seems that Romain's all-over-the-place results could be attributed to his difficult first steps into Formula 1 back in 2009. Thrown into Renault while the team was embroiled in scandal and placed up against two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, Grosjean didn't exactly have it easy. 2009 was a notoriously difficult season for drivers, with heavily changed regulations that even the older hands struggled to adjust to, yet here was a rookie, pulled straight from GP2, expected to straighten up and deliver. It goes without saying that Grosjean was not given a fair shot, yet he was unceremoniously dropped, no doubt knocking his confidence.
Moving on from his foray into F1, Grosjean appeared to find himself in the lower formula, putting in an incredible series of results, winning the 2010 AutoGP series despite missing three races, and dominated the 2011 GP2 championship. Just like that Romain was back on the F1 radar and soon snapped up by Lotus. However, despite a fantastic showing in his first qualifying session, claiming third on the grid in the Australian Grand Prix, his tumultuous season started as it went on, with a DNF. Grosjean was quickly labelled as a crash kid, being criticised by drivers and pundits alike. The same pressure to perform he must of felt in 2009 was back on.
I believe the Frenchman's disappointing debut two years previous, severely affected his mentality when going into 2011. He had already seen his shot at the big time slip away, so he was too eager to impress too fast, leading to numerous unforced and frankly idiotic driving errors. As his shopping list of mistakes began to mount up, so did the pressure and it inevitably affected his driving leading to more errors and thus confounding the issue. Occasionally his supreme pace shined through, but any praise was marred by the fact he had now been firmly tarred with the brush of a dangerous and unsafe driver.
While Grosjean showed himself to be reckless in 2011, the bigger issue was that he showed himself to be fragile. You often hear pundits banging on about how important it is for drivers to have confidence in the car, but what is more important is to have confidence in yourself. This is something Grosjean severely lacked in 2012, instead of being left to just drive, he was locked in a frenzy of criticism. After his race-ban at the Italian Grand Prix, Grosjean spent the final leg of the season in a slump, driving extremely passively just to keep himself out of trouble. Eric Boullier would have been perfectly reasonable to drop him then and there, but opted to renew his contract, giving him one last shot that many argued he did not deserve.
The next big thing?
But Boullier's decision now seems to be paying dividends as Grosjean appears to be growing stronger week in and week out. While still overshadowed by Raikkonen, Grosjean is displaying himself to be a capable racer and is developing a much more methodical approach in his driving. Mark Webber, who last year called Grosjean a 'first lap nutcase', said in a recent interview with ESPN:
"I think it's very clear that Romain has a very different mental approach to the job at the moment.. He's driven some quite strong races, putting together the whole weekend which is a sign of a driver starting to get a bit more relaxed and confident. A lot less mistakes, not just in races but in practice."
Grosjean has without a doubt improved by leaps and bounds and is finally getting to show the pace that he has had locked within himself all along. With the rumour-mill in full swing and Nico Hulkenburg's name firmly attached to the second seat, next season Lotus could have the most exciting young driver pairing on the grid. Should Hulkenburg join the team, it will be extremely telling were Grosjean stacks up against him and hopefully shed some more light onto the question of just how good the Frenchman really is. While the jury is still out on whether he can take up the mantle of team leader in Kimi's wake, and whether he can one day be a world champion, the flying Frenchman is making moves in the right direction.
After such ups-and-downs over his career, it is good to see that at last Ro-Gro has something to smile about.
Is Grosjean the one to watch? Have your say in the comments section.