For the second Grand Prix in succession, another driver garnered more significant attention than the race-winning Sebastian Vettel.
Though he slipped to third at the flag the Lotus driver turned heads, more so than the two Red Bulls in front.
That is all the more impressive given how Vettel rallied to his fifth straight win, recovering from third to make a two-stop strategy work to perfection.
But then, Grosjean's was that impressive.
Shining At Suzuka
While it would be foolish to intimate one Grand Prix is the making of a man, it is fair to assert that Grosjean's recent form is more than just a purple patch: Lotus' rough diamond is really beginning to shine.
It has long been the case with the Frenchman that he always had the potential to be considered a top-quality F1 driver. But equally long in the offing have been doubts that questioned the likelihood of that potential being realised.
That was not the F1 fraternity being judgemental. It was a direct consequence of the mistakes initially made by a man thrust into the sport with Renault at 23.
He had won the European Formula 3 title in 2007 and the GP2 Asia crown the following year. Twice a race winner in the main GP2 championship that year (on his way to fourth), he was second (to Nico Hulkenberg) in the GP2 points in 2009 prior to his F1 call-up.
The point here is that Grosjean was a very talented young driver and, at 23, should not have been overly out of his depth. But for some the move to F1 can be too much, too soon; and so it proved for Grosjean.
Renault was always going to be a difficult place to bed in immediately, and he endured a point-less half campaign. Cast into the wilderness, he regrouped with the 2010 Auto GP title (and won races in FIA GT), then secured the GP2 title in 2011.
A return to F1 beckoned last season, with the team that had first introduced him to the top level of the sport three years previously. He proved quick but erratic, balancing three podiums with at least six incidents throughout the year that were down to collisions or spins. That included causing a huge first-corner accident at Spa, which led to a one-race ban.
Such was the magnitude of his errors that Lotus was seriously considering axing him for 2013. And that is what should not be forgotten in the wake of his performance in this year’s Japanese Grand Prix.
The Difference A Year Makes
The race marked 12 months since he incurred the wrath of Mark Webber for spinning the Australian out at Turn 1. A year is a remarkably long time in F1, and Grosjean is a superb example of that.
Even at the start of this year, there were errors. An uninspiring opening trio of races was blamed on an unknown chassis problem, but he bounced back with a podium in Bahrain. Suspension failure in Spain and a crash-strewn Monaco weekend cut short that renaissance, while a poor qualifying session in Canada and wing problem at Silverstone compounded the Frenchman’s pain.
Since then, however, he has found his feet. In those seven races he has been the more impressive Lotus driver, even if results do not reflect that. He could have challenged for victory in Hungary, but erred in the heat of battle (a frustrating but forgivable mistake) and was then harshly penalised for a superb move on Felipe Massa.
Both he and teammate Kimi Raikkonen were uncompetitive in Belgium and Italy, yet Grosjean netted points in both. In Singapore, Grosjean challenged Vettel for pace on Saturday and looked a good bet for a podium until an engine problem in the race. A week ago in Korea, again Grosjean had the legs on Raikkonen, but a safety car and a timely (and misplaced) fire vehicle gave Raikkonen the advantage.
Grosjean's results this year might not look fantastic at face value, but that's because of the four non-finishes and tricky start to the season that skew the picture. But Japan was his most impressive performance yet, getting a superb start and leading comfortably (in terms of his own performance, if not by time/advantage) until the Red Bulls’ superiority eventually showed through.
That he had such an advantage over Raikkonen at what is considered the driver’s circuit was proof of how good the performance was.
Learning From Mistakes
But if more proof was needed, Vettel paid his own tribute to Grosjean.
In quotes picked up by Autosport, the triple world champion said:
I thought it was a great day for Romain, he drove a fantastic race. I think Romain did a great job all weekend. We know Kimi is a strong driver. Last year Romain did some mistakes but the most important thing is that we learn from these mistakes. [Romain] learned a lot of things and gradually he is improving so big respect for that.
Vettel knows a thing or two about learning from mistakes.
In 2010, with he and teammate Mark Webber tied for points entering the seventh round of the season in Turkey, Vettel took out both drivers in an ill-judged move that forced his own retirement and restricted Webber to third. It allowed Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button through for a one-two and soured intra-team relations.
Later that same year, a catalogue of errors at Spa ended in him spearing into the side of Button under braking for the Bus Stop early on in the race, ending the Brit’s race.
A late rally earned him a maiden title despite a season littered with errors; but Vettel has not looked back. He has been imperious in the seasons since.
While Grosjean’s 2012 season was hardly salvaged in the same fashion as Vettel’s 2010 campaign, his 2013 campaign has picked up serious momentum. He should be lauded for exceeding expectations in how he has stepped up.
His transformation is not complete, but it would be an accurate conclusion to suggest that he has matured now. It would not be a surprise to see him thrive as team leader next season.
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