No sooner had Romain Grosjean jumped out of his IndyCar following a top 10 on his debut than he was declaring there was “more to come” and straight into speaking about the coming weekend’s St Petersburg race. He’s pumped up.
Grosjean arrived at Barber Motorsports Park for the season-opener as not exactly an unknown but certainly an underdog.
His innate talent was clear from Formula 1, but that alone is not enough to guarantee success in IndyCar, and he’s joined a minnow team in Dale Coyne Racing.
However things started perfectly as Grosjean qualified seventh. It was imperative he nailed that lap, and not just because overtaking is difficult here.
Barber’s late-2019 resurfacing slightly negates his wider experience disadvantage. Having tested at the track, and with none of his rivals having raced there on the new surface, Grosjean was on more even ground than he will be when coming to circuits new-to-him that haven’t changed since the rest of the pack last raced on them.
Weighed against that was the fact that the softer red tyres deployed for qualifying and used in the race aren’t made available for testing, so Grosjean got his first taste of them in the practice session on qualifying morning.
Even before qualifying, Grosjean had gone about practice diligently, finding the limit of the track when results weren’t on the line and building his experience of the red tyres.
He said his first start in IndyCar “wasn’t pretty”, adding: “I got caught a little bit, but I just need to get used to it. It’s not easy. You have to get the right timing, but it was fun.”
Given this was his first race since his shocking Bahrain Grand Prix F1 crash, it’s no wonder Grosjean labelled it “emotional” and may have found it necessary to get a lap or two under his belt before feeling entirely comfortable. Especially having seen a huge crash unfold in his mirror at the start of the race.
Take a look at the #IndyCar first lap drama here ⬇️
— The Race (@wearetherace) April 18, 2021
From there he held station in seventh and he and his team correctly identified that they needed to stay out when leaders Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi pitted on lap 19 of 90.
The long yellow for that early crash for Josef Newgarden – the three-time winner at the track showing just how easy it is to make a mistake here – allowed fuel saving and meant stretching that first stint so the race could become a two-stopper was possible.
It was one of the most difficult scenarios to make your IndyCar debut because with three different strategies playing out across the field, it was even more essential to nail every in-lap, out-lap, pitstop and decision of when to pit perfectly. And even if you did all of that, it didn’t guarantee a strong result.
By the time Grosjean eventually stopped on lap 33 he was up to third, but he emerged in 16th as he was swamped in traffic while trying to heat the black harder compound tyre.
He did work his way back to ninth by his final stop on lap 62, and from there he had to await any opportunities for an alternate strategy to play out.
Grosjean’s run to 10th may not have been full of dramatic overtaking – no one really managed that at Barber – but it was an excellent IndyCar drive when all of the things that make this series so difficult combined into one race.
Besides, passing is tough at Barber and Grosjean also had to fuel-save, like the other drivers on his strategy. Fuel saving can be tricky in IndyCar and it certainly requires a knack to achieve it while racing 23 other similar cars.
Grosjean worked well with engineer Olivier Boisson to get up to speed with this and his strategist – team owner Dale Coyne – helped coach him through in the race.
Race winner Alex Palou is the perfect example of a benchmark for Grosjean here. Despite his fairly commanding victory, Palou’s fastest lap was only the 13th best! Grosjean’s best was 16th as the three-stoppers dominated the fastest lap table.
Last year it took Palou three races in his rookie campaign, coincidentally also with Dale Coyne, to score a top 10 – with a podium at Road America. And across a year where he was deemed good enough to join the championship winning team Chip Ganassi Racing for 2021, he only scored three top 10s.
Grosjean’s bagged one already and even though he fell back from that seventh-place start, it counted as an extremely strong run in a race where strategy was so volatile.
“We can be very happy with that,” said Grosjean via the team’s official post-race release.
“We fought at the front for some time, and we did our best. We learned a lot today, and overall, we can be very proud of our weekend.”
Thanks a lot to all! Much more to come! Merci à tous, à très vite pour de plus belles choses encore! #IndyCar @RickWareRacing @DaleCoyneRacing @Jacob_Companies @SmartSanitizer @MindMazeTech
@fieldpassbrand @TeamNurtecODT@BarberMotorPark @IndyCar @IndyCaronNBC @HondaRacing_HPD pic.twitter.com/6OtYlgVBne
— Romain Grosjean (@RGrosjean) April 19, 2021
Via his Instagram story he offered a more personal touch:
“Obviously as a competitor you always want more, but I think the whole weekend was really good.
“I’m just going to enjoy the last barbecue in Barber and then head down to St Pete and get familiar with the heat.
“[At Barber] From lap one to the last lap you just push all the time, physically super hard, you can follow cars, it’s been a really good experience.
“The team has been mega with me, helping me learn. So a good race and looking forward to some more.”
All in all, I’d have been very impressed if you told me that Grosjean would bag a top 10 before the race.
That’s before it became the strategical minefield of a race it was, and don’t forget that the tiny Dale Coyne team is facing four Andretti cars, three Ganassi cars and four Penske cars capable of running up front. That’s 11 cars from the top teams before you even look at the medium sized teams, which are still bigger than Coyne.
St Pete (pictured above) is going to be a much bigger challenge for Grosjean having had no testing there going in. However, it’s incredibly exciting to see how Grosjean gets on as US street circuits seem to be a bit marmite for drivers coming from Europe; you love them or hate them. Grosjean attacking the barriers – not literally – in Florida could be a great watch.
How the other high-profile rookies got on
McLaughlin – the world on his shoulders unfair
I always felt Scott McLaughlin was on a hiding-to-nothing entering Barber.
Short of a Formula Ford outing in his youth McLaughlin has spent his whole career in touring cars.
OK, he had substantial testing and one race outing before this IndyCar season, but his Team Penske team-mates talking him up and saying he’d definitely win a race and fight for the championship this year really hasn’t helped with the weight of expectations on him.
It means McLaughlin qualifying 12th and finishing 14th in a really strong field looks like a poor result, but it was good in many ways.
Of the Penske drivers, Will Power qualified up front and had clean air which was great for his weekend. Newgarden crashed. McLaughlin qualified ahead of Simon Pagenaud, who was 15th.
P14 in the race. Learnt a tonne this weekend, nice to get a race under my belt. Team had great pit stops and the car had good speed! Bring on St Pete next week, thank you for the support! #SM3 pic.twitter.com/HSZ7ubkdgs
— Scott McLaughlin (@smclaughlin93) April 19, 2021
McLaughlin moved up to ninth at the start but a three-stopper with a medium-length first stint was the wrong tactic to be on and ultimately it cost him when he had to make his third stop late, which dropped him to 14th. Pagenaud finished two spots ahead in 12th.
Not an ideal race for McLaughlin but fighting back from that adverse strategy wasn’t going to be easy and he still beat drivers who were in the same scenario.
What McLaughlin needs is for the weight of expectation to be lifted on him so he can go about his business. Sadly that’s unlikely to happen as St Pete is the only track he’s previously raced at and that’s coming up next.
Jimmie Johnson – That’s the headline
It’s impossible to have more respect for Jimmie Johnson than I have for his switch to IndyCar.
He could have retired from NASCAR as a legend and chilled out, but instead with no single-seater background he’s taken on arguably the toughest championship he could have in the circumstances.
The 45-year-old celebrating not finishing last in his qualifying group is perhaps symptomatic of what we should be expecting from Johnson this year, but there were signs of positivity among the slight disappointment of a lack of pace.
First @IndyCar race: complete.
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) April 18, 2021
His best race lap was five-tenths slower than race-winning team-mate Palou’s, although it’s worth pointing out there were a few times Johnson was let off the leash to push whereas Palou spent most of his race fuel saving. Johnson’s best was 1.4s off O’Ward’s race best.
Johnson did have a spin where the front end appeared to go light over a hill and it looked like he’d lifted just before and then got on the throttle as the car went light
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) April 18, 2021
From his onboards, he’s still hesitant to commit to the throttle when the series’ best are booting it much earlier and sorting the following jiggles with aggressive steering input corrections.
It’s not that Johnson’s reactions aren’t up to that, he’s just not yet certain what the car is doing and therefore can’t correct quick enough. These cars are on an absolute knife-edge.
After five tests, five days in an IndyCar, I think Johnson’s performance was actually better than the three-laps down and 19th looked given the context.
It’s just a hard adjustment to see a driver who dominated a NASCAR championship (in an era it was supposedly made impossible to dominate for entertainment purposes), and dethroned one of its best ever drivers in Jeff Gordon in the process on the way to seven titles, at the back now.
We know how good Johnson is, but all we can do is temper expectations, and at least know that he’s having so much fun while he’s racing in IndyCar.