One of the fastest drivers on the 2012 starting grid, Romain Grosjean will, this weekend, be a spectator to the high-speed action at the Italian Grand Prix. The Lotus driver is serving a one race ban for triggering the multi-car accident at the opening corner of last Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.
It is a harsh, but in my opinion fair, penalty for an appalling error of judgement. Grosjean, ninth on the starting grid, simply cut across the track into eighth-placed Lewis Hamilton as if he wasn’t there.
The move forced the McLaren driver first into the wall then, with wheels in the air and their brakes therefore useless, both drivers ploughed into the back of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari, also taking out the Saubers of Kobayashi and Perez in the process.
What is particularly worrying — and no doubt precipitated the first driver-ban penalty since Eddie Irvine was sidelined for a similar offence in 1994 — is that it isn’t the otherwise likeable Frenchman’s first such incident. Romain impressed the entire Formula One circus when he claimed third place on the grid in Melbourne, only to throw it all away with an accident in the opening lap.
The following race in China didn’t last much longer. It got even worse a few races later, when Grosjean didn’t even progress beyond the first corner after tangling with Michael Schumacher on the startline in Monaco.
Meeting the Frenchman out of his race car, he is charming, funny, and exhibits an air of modest self-confidence. Unlike others on the starting grid, there is no attitude or aggression to hint he would be the cause of so much on-track carnage.
Yet, it seems that despite his prodigious natural talent, he has always seemed a little accident-prone. The first part of his Formula One career came to a premature end in 2009, after races such as that year’s Singapore Grand Prix.
Grosjean started the weekend by giving the beleaguered Renault team precisely the publicity it didn’t need. He spun into the wall in practice in precisely the same location as Nelson Piquet Junior had hit the previous year to trigger the infamous “crashgate” saga.
Then in the race, Grosjean only lasted three laps before retiring with his brakes worn out. Despite the team screaming at him on the radio, he’d been unintentionally riding the brake pedal with his left foot.
His manager Eric Boullier packed him off to sports car racing and the GP2 series (which he won last year) for a couple of seasons to mature his obvious, but untapped talent. Boullier is now team principal of Lotus GP and remains convinced that he has a potential champion on his hands, if only he can smooth out the rough edges.
Meanwhile, Monza, Formula One’s oldest and fastest circuit — with cars reaching speeds of more than 360kmph and averaging more than 240kmph a lap — will bring its own challenges. In the search for the highest-possible top speed, the teams reduce wing angles and the aerodynamic downforce to the absolute minimum.
It takes a special type of skill to master controlling a car under these conditions and of the current front-running drivers, McLaren’s Jenson Button, who dominated at Spa, and Lewis Hamilton, who won earlier this year with a similar aerodynamic configuration at Montreal are among the front-runners.
Lotus, with Belgian reserve driver Jerome d’Ambrosio partnering Kimi Raikkonen, have a car which could offer an outside chance of victory.
Meanwhile, the Force India cars have strong straight-line speed and could legitimately challenge for a podium position.
Sebastian Vettel, now second in the title race, cannot be discounted, having won at Monza twice, his maiden win for Toro Rosso in 2008 being repeated last year for Red Bull. However, championship leader Fernando Alonso, who delighted the home ‘tifosi’ Ferrari fans with victory in 2010, could give them something to cheer again on Sunday.
Steve Slater is an F1 race commentator on STAR Sports.