‘I saw death coming’: Romain Grosjean pushes on in IndyCar after F1 wreck

For some racing drivers hand blisters are an occasional nuisance. For Romain Grosjean they have become a constant menace, ever poised to loosen his grip and send his bold move from Formula 1 to IndyCar spiraling off course. Heading into IndyCar’s season-opening test in February, the 35-year-old Franco-Swiss wasn’t confident his tender mitts could hold his No 51 Honda-powered Dale Coyne Racing machine on the 2.3-mile, 17-turn circuit at Birmingham, Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park for long without making blood bags out of his racing gloves. So Grosjean, who races under the French flag, consulted with two close compatriots he thought might have some handy advice.

Fabio Quartararo, the young French MotoGP star, alas, had no pointers for Grosjean; turns out, blisters aren’t a big problem for him. But French tennis god Gael Monfils has had plenty of experience with right-hand blisters in 16-plus years as a top touring pro. He hipped Grosjean to the wonders of tennis tape and even walked him through how to apply it. The stuff worked to a tee for all but one testing stint, but that was only because Grosjean forgot to mummy up beforehand. “I could tell in 10 laps that the blister was coming,” he tells the Guardian. “But then I came back to the pits, wrapped my thumb, and it was fine.” As for whether Monfils can expect any career advice in return, Grosjean says the line’s always open. “I give him a kick in the nuts when he needs it.”

Grosjean shares this story days before making his debut in Saturday’s Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway from inside an infield motorcoach – the traveling home away from home that’s cozier than F1’s five-star hotels in some ways. “Here I’ve got all my stuff: my bicycle, my computers, my Honda motorbike – that should come very soon – and all my clothes,” says Grosjean, who’s still commuting from his native Switzerland. What’s more, he doesn’t have to worry about losing a bottle of lotion or cream on his way through airport security – which would be a major disruption to his hourly moisturizing sessions. Grosjean’s not trying to be a skincare diva. It’s just that his hands are quite tender and flakey. Half of his left hand is covered by a Bordeaux-colored bruise, more bittersweet residue from his final F1 race.

Grosjean was barely three turns into last November’s Bahrain Grand Prix when his Haas machine veered off track and slammed into a right-side metal barrier at 119mph, red-flagging the race for over an hour. The impact, measured at 67g, bisected his car – the top half exploding in a raging fireball as it disappeared into the barrier. As Grosjean sat trapped inside that inferno, well, he looked for all the world like a goner. “No! Please!” Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc begged over his team radio, the on-track passing of godfather Jules Bianchi always heavy on his mind. AlphaTauri’s Daniil Kvyat was no less distraught over his team radio after venting his frustrations about nearly being taken out by the Haas car. “Tell me he’s OK,” he pleaded. Grosjean would later tell French TV: “I saw death coming.”

After 27 of the longest and quietest seconds in racing history, as a batch of first responders wrestled with the blaze up close with handheld extinguishers, Grosjean, with the flames and visions of Niki Lauda’s 1976 crash at the Nürburgring closing in on him, willed himself out of the wreckage. The thought of his three kids growing up without a father ultimately gave him the strength to free himself from his safety restraints and jump out of the fire and into the waiting arms of medical car driver Alan van der Merwe and F1 doctor Ian Roberts. With their help and against their advice, Grosjean then walked to an ambulance, determined to show he was OK. F1 fans the world over exhaled.

In the end Grosjean escaped with second-degree burns on his hands and ankles. It’s a testament to the fireproofing strength of driver livery and the halo device that shielded Grosjean’s head from making direct contact with the barrier, not to mention his superhuman pain threshold. But, really, it’s a miracle that Grosjean is even breathing – let alone keen to turn laps again. As much as it burnishes his legacy to be known as the driver who left in F1 an actual blaze of glory, he didn’t want the fire to be the last memory of him behind the wheel. With his time at Haas at an end, he mulled offers in sports cars, F1 and Formula E before going to IndyCar. To make his wife, Marion, more at ease with that decision, Grosjean has left the business of orbiting the series’ oval circuit (where speeds are highest) to Pietro Fittipaldi – the same driver who finished his 2020 F1 season at Haas. That includes this month’s upcoming Indy 500.

So far Grosjean would appear to be more than holding his own on IndyCar’s road and street circuits, rating second among the series’ five rookies despite running just two of the first four races. If that seems as it should be given Grosjean’s Grand Prix credentials, know this: his is no ordinary rookie class. Well above him in the points is Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, a three-time Australian Supercars champion; below Grosjean is seven-time Nascar Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who’s likewise steering clear of ovals despite his considerable experience on them. To keep pace, Grosjean has gotten into simulator racing – something he didn’t do much at all before. Also: before IndyCar, he had only completed seven races that included refueling pit stops; in F1, they go the distance on one tank.

Still, he’s embracing the new challenges and the new car – which, while less powerful and adjustable than F1 machines nonetheless offers things that those track weapons can’t: plenty of in-race passing opportunities, boost on demand and a real shot to win any given weekend. “In IndyCar, it’s much more healthy,” he says. “You actually fight 23 other drivers, whereas in Formula 1 because only your teammate has the same car as you most of the time you only fight that guy.”

Of course that’s not to say there aren’t IndyCar drivers who wouldn’t cannonball into that shark tank if they got the chance. As Formula 1 expands its US footprint, talk of IndyCar evolving its reputation from washout league for Indy 500 champs like Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi into a true talent incubator has increased. Colton Herta, IndyCar’s youngest-ever winner, is oft-touted as a possible candidate for the tile of next American F1 driver. Mexico’s Pato O’Ward earned himself a McLaren F1 test after delivering an IndyCar win for team boss Zac Brown earlier this month on the intermedia oval in Fort Worth. “The guys here,” says Grosjean, “are super talented”.

As for returning to F1 himself, Grosjean was still on his hospital bed in Bahrain when Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff promised him one last day in an F1 car if he couldn’t make it back in time to complete the 2020 season with Haas. The offer sounded too good to be true. But when Mercedes called some time later to schedule a seat fitting in Brackley, “I’m like, OK, this is really happening,” Grosjean says. To hear him tell it, they really opened the kimono. “They showed me everything,” Grosjean says. “Everything. I was amazed. I could understand why they were the most successful team in the [recent] history of the sport.”

Late next month Grosjean will pilot Merc’s 2019 title-winning W10 machine for a private test session at Circuit Paul Ricard, bringing the best feel-good story in sports full circle. As for what comes after, Grosjean is only committed to IndyCar for 2021. However the year ends, it’s enough to enjoy so much support among family, friends and fans – and have the chance to cross a finish line most never pictured him reaching again. What a time to be alive.