Some drivers arrive in Formula One seemingly predestined for success and almost immediately live up to that hype. In recent years, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel fit that mold.
Others clearly have the talent to be in F1, but their career arcs are more gradual climbs. Jenson Button, for example, took his first win in his seventh season and the world championship in his 10th.
Romain Grosjean, who finished a brilliant third for Lotus in Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix, has always had the speed and talent. He was a champion in Formula Three and GP2 and scored three podium finishes in 2012, his first full F1 season (a detail often omitted amidst talk of his many first lap errors that year).
The Frenchman does not, however, have the results yet to match his potential.
In 2013, Grosjean struggled to match his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen's results early in the year, but he took four podiums in the final six races. Meanwhile, Raikkonen bolted the team for a second chance with Ferrari.
Everything seemed set for Grosjean to take over as team leader in 2014 and perhaps even break through to score his first victory (Raikkonen had one in each of the previous two years). Instead, Renault struggled to produce a competitive, reliable engine under the new hybrid V6 regulations, and Lotus were relegated to the back of the pack—and Grosjean to the back of everyone's minds.
The team switched to Mercedes engines for 2015, and the future suddenly brightened again.
Although Lotus have been better this season—even before Grosjean's Belgian podium, they had already scored 35 points, compared to 10 all last year—financial problems have held back the development of the car.
In Belgium, trackside operations director Alan Permane told Sky Sports F1's William Esler, "This is the worst season we have had financially and we have scrimped and scraped for parts and to get the cars on the track is a massive effort each week."
On Sunday at Spa-Francorchamps, though, Grosjean made all the scrimping and scraping pay off. And he also demonstrated why Lotus have shown so much faith in him throughout his career.
Yes, he was assisted by two tyre issues for some of his nearest competitors—a penalty for Valtteri Bottas for fitting a mismatched set during a pit stop and a blowout for Sebastian Vettel as Grosjean closed in at the end of the race—but the Frenchman thoroughly deserved his third-place finish.
Grosjean surprised everyone on Saturday by qualifying fourth, although a penalty for a gearbox change (another money issue, as Permane explained in the Sky Sports F1 piece) meant he actually started ninth on Sunday.
Unperturbed, he made a clean start and used DRS to pick off Bottas (twice), Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez in the first half of the race.
Then, on Lap 21 of 43, with Ricciardo's car stalled at the beginning of the pit straight, the virtual safety car was initiated (where each driver must slow down to a predetermined lap speed). Grosjean and several other drivers dove into the pits, while Vettel remained on track, trying to make up ground after a poor qualifying left him eighth on the grid.
When the race restarted, Grosjean was fourth, eight seconds behind Vettel, and he spent the rest of the grand prix slowly reeling the German in.
By Lap 39, Grosjean was within one second of Vettel, but did not quite get close enough to make a pass before Vettel's overworked tyre finally gave out at the high-speed exit of Raidillon.
Whether Grosjean would have actually passed Vettel or not is largely irrelevant. His consistent, mistake-free race, extracting more performance out of the car than anyone expected, is the mark of a top F1 driver. Lotus have maybe the fifth- or sixth-best car on the grid. To put that car on the podium is a huge achievement.
In the post-race press conference, Grosjean said it was, "Probably one of my best races ever."
Given the right car, Grosjean certainly has the talent to win races, and perhaps even the world championship. But his star—so bright coming into 2014—has faded amidst the rise of Bottas and Ricciardo and Mercedes' ongoing dominance.
With his performance in Belgium, Grosjean made it clear that he will not fade away.
As he told Sky Sports' James Galloway last year, "What I really want now is to win my first grand prix of course—and why not trying to become World Champion?"
One step at a time, but, after a year and a half of disappointment, Grosjean is finally stepping in the right direction again.