Exclusive: Grosjean's IndyCar engineer on their first test - The Race
Formula 1, IndyCar

Exclusive: Grosjean’s IndyCar engineer on their first test

Feb 24 2021
By Jack Benyon

Some teams may have reacted a certain way to an incoming Formula 1 superstar crashing their IndyCar after less than an hour of running in his maiden test. But what Romain Grosjean did next proves he’s the perfect fit for Dale Coyne Racing.

“He went off the track, and he came back and the car was all dirty, so he grabbed a rag and started cleaning the car so the mechanics appreciated that!” says Grosjean’s race engineer Olivier Boisson, speaking exclusively to The Race following the test.

Boisson’s seen this before, having worked with ex-Formula 1 driver Sebastien Bourdais in the past, and he’ll work with Grosjean this year on his Honda-powered machine for the road and street courses.

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Grosjean didn’t get time in an IndyCar-specific simulator for Barber so he had to settle for getting to the track on Monday to do some reconnaissance runs and to get relaxed in the cockpit before Tuesday’s action.

Of course, that ‘action’ meant driving a racing car for the first time since his shocking fiery Bahrain crash last year, but any long-lasting mental effects of that trauma appear to be moot.

“It felt like home, to be fair,” Grosjean said when asked by The Race about those feelings in the first few laps, having already explained his adaptation was quick despite some bicep pain earlier in the day.

“It felt like home, and didn’t have any apprehension whatever.”

The latest crash didn’t appear to shake him either as he was within a second of the fastest time and ended up racking up over 60 laps – taking his total to a near-race distance 80 – after his incident at Turn 1, which he explained afterwards.

Interestingly, it was a high-value crash! As he outlines, he reacted to the car’s behaviour as he would in an F1 machine, but this only served to destabilise the Dallara FW12 instead of resolving his issue. That’s an error he won’t make again.

“Every time you come testing you have to try to find your limit, which I did this morning in Turn 1,” said Grosjean.

“I wasn’t quite happy with it, but it happened, and I actually understood something you could do in Formula 1 you maybe cannot do in IndyCar, so actually that was kind of a good learning experience.”

He later explained in more detail: “I just went too fast in. When I was on the brake I also picked up the throttle, which you do in high-speed [corners], but because it’s a mechanical diff, it does open the diff when you do that, and therefore it makes the car loose [oversteer].

“I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with his personality. I don’t know if it’s because we’re both French but we just got along pretty well!” :: Olivier Boisson

“Whereas in Formula 1 it would actually stabilise the car, so I would say it was a learning experience and then I didn’t do it anymore, and it was better.”

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As well as learning the bounds of the differential and how to react to the car in a different way than he is used to, his picking up the rag to dust the car down after the crash as outlined by Boisson only moved to endear the driver to his new team.

It’s a small outfit with only a handful of personnel on each car, but it can hold its own against the big teams like Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske when it pulls together as a cohesive unit, benefitting from being more fleet of foot than the bigger squads. Grosjean says Coyne is “one of the smaller teams in the championship” but that it’s not “anything bad or to be ashamed of”.

“I think everybody, Romain included, appreciated the way the day went and the way, when things go bad and we have a little off and the car comes back all dirty, everybody tries to clean and help” :: Boisson

Boisson reckons Grosjean has not lived up to the ‘primadonna F1 driver’ tag and that the test only reinforces that.

“I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with his personality,” Boisson tells The Race. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re both French but we just got along pretty well!

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“He’s very nice, very easy guy to get along with and is a very simple guy even in the car. He’s professional but, you know, some guys are like super picky and he’s honestly just happy to be there and driving, very excited.

“I think Romain likes that [a close-knit team]. He told me when he was in GP2 and other series he was always part of a small team. Even if in F1 it’s a big structure, all that he’s been part of before [F1] was for a small team and I think he likes it.

The key elements of that programme were to get Grosjean feeling comfortable in the cockpit

“All the guys in the team like that family kind of feel and everybody’s looking after each other and there’s no finger-pointing or anything and we’re all in it together and we all love racing.

“That’s what we’re doing so we’re all trying to do our best. I think everybody, Romain included, appreciated the way the day went and the way, when things go bad and we have a little off and the car comes back all dirty, everybody tries to clean and help.”

The crash may have dominated the headlines but it barely impacted the running programme for the team, even if it was a condensed schedule organised by Boisson.

The key elements of that programme were to get Grosjean feeling comfortable in the cockpit with the first sets of tyres, initially adapt to driving the car and then to change small components to help him understand what those tweaks do to the car’s behaviour and performance. Working on a rounded set-up and laptime will come at the next test.

“In F1 I don’t know how easy it is to change load centres, dampers, alignments on the car,” says Boisson.

“I know a lot of it is aero-driven and tyre pressure[-driven] from what I can see.

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“For us, we can do a lot of, like, alignment, roll centres, weight distribution, dampers and all those kinds of things. So we tried to read as many items as we could today just to try to see.

“I want him [Grosjean] to feel, ‘this is what the spring change does, this is what an alignment change does’, to see what the dampers can do and see how you react to it, see if you like it or not.

It is tough driving those cars, very much, in a different way than Formula 1. But I don’t mind it. It’s quite cool :: Romain Grosjean

“Try to help him build the toolbox so we can have a conversation in the future and be like ‘yeah, I liked last time when you did that, I didn’t like that last time’. So to know for him and for me, what he likes and what he doesn’t, so that was basically the main goal of the day.”

For Grosjean, the changes are really endless compared to F1 – he said he could spend all day talking about it.

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The new tyres – which you can actually push hard on! – were one, but the weight and aero of the car – more “like a tractor than an F1 car” according to Boisson, not meant in a derogatory way – was the big physical challenge.

“It is tough driving those cars, very much, in a different way than Formula 1 where the only thing you fight in Formula 1 is the G-forces where here you actually fight the heaviness of the car physically,” says Grosjean. “But I don’t mind it. It’s quite cool.”

Grosjean and Boisson admitted – perhaps as expected – that they weren’t watching laptimes

Speaking fondly of it even given his condition reflects how much Grosjean appeared to enjoy the day.

He’s carrying a blister on his left hand as a reminder of his Bahrain crash: “It’s not perfect. There’s a nice big blister on my left thumb which is not pretty, but driving-wise it was okay. It wasn’t painful. I was being a bit careful on some of the kerbs, but generally, it hasn’t been a limitation.”

Grosjean and Boisson admitted – perhaps as expected – that they weren’t watching laptimes. Grosjean emerged last of the 12 cars testing but under a tenth off team-mate Ed Jones and under a second off the best time set by Rinus VeeKay, The Race understands.

That came even after Grosjean said he “didn’t get anything out of” the last set of tyres, which “just didn’t feel great for some reason”.

Still, having team-mate Ed Jones’s data helped even if the data gathering and analysis system used in IndyCar is different to that of Formula 1.

Grosjean has come to the team and to Jones promising peace, saying: “I told him I used to be an asshole as a teammate back in the days, but now I’m 35 and I’d like us to be friendly.

“On track you want to beat them, there’s no doubt, but outside of the track I think if we can be friends it’s mega.”

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So to be a tenth off his team-mate and less than a second off the pace against drivers who have already tested in 2021 is a good start for Grosjean. Especially when you consider Barber is where the first round of the series will take place with three more tests for Grosjean before then.

He’s like ‘if I put the car in the [wall], I clean it, that’s part of the deal’ and the guys appreciate that. So it just makes everything better :: Boisson

“I think when he sleeps on it and if we had to come back tomorrow it would be a different story,” says Boisson.

“It’s so hard having one day like that, and all the other teams have been testing already quite a lot this year and that was the first time out.

“So for us it’s basically, today was just like, let’s learn how to work and learn about each other and what he wants in the car. It was basically day one at the office.”

A strong day one at the office. The social media trolls will focus on the mistake at Turn 1, but those reading here will perhaps realise that some mistakes are only going to accelerate Grosjean’s learning curve towards being a frontrunning IndyCar driver.

Establishing a strong bond with the team on day one is only going to expedite the process of adaptation.

“Today was a good one for the guys, they were happy to see him,” Boisson adds.

“He’s like ‘if I put the car in the [wall], I clean it, that’s part of the deal’ and the guys appreciate that. So it just makes everything better.

“Today I think we start on the right foot, learning how to work with each other and that was great.”

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