Romain Grosjean on His New Endurance Racing Gig, His Last Days with Haas, and Turning His Frightening F1 Crash Into Something Positive
In November 2020, Romain Grosjean exploded into a fireball in front of millions of people. He was driving the first lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix for Haas, the languishing Formula 1 team that he would be leaving just a few weeks later. The Swiss-French veteran of 11 seasons and 10 podium finishes in F1 made contact with another car, lost control of his own, bashed into a wall, and produced one of the most horrifying moments in racing (and Netflix) history. Miraculously, Grosjean walked out of the fire with only minor injuries. Now, more than two years later, he talks about the crash with almost a half-smile as he points to a scar on his left hand. That night in Bahrain, as Grosjean exited F1, he took on a nickname: The Phoenix.
Grosjean has been reborn as a few different things. These days, he is a Miami resident. He is an airplane pilot. He drives in IndyCar, the American series he used to tell his wife he’d never race in, for Andretti Autosport. And this weekend, he will drive in the 24 Hours at Daytona, an endurance race on the Atlantic coastline of Florida that is just what it sounds like: Grosjean and three teammates on Italian racing squad Iron Lynx will take turns launching a screaming-green Lamborghini Huracán around the 3.56-mile course at Daytona International Speedway, 24 hours in a row. No one driver can drive for more than four hours out of any six, and Grosjean doesn’t think he’ll do stints of much more than 54 minutes at a time. But they call it “endurance” for a reason, and it’ll be a different kind of test for a driver who is used to flooring it for a few hours at a time.
An additional complication lies in machinery. There will be several distinct classes of car on track at Daytona, with roughly a 12-second-per-lap qualifying difference between the fastest and slowest types. Grosjean will be in one of the slower car classes, a GT Daytona Pro—sort of an exaggerated version of the years he spent racing Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes around F1 tracks while operating a Haas.
GQ talked with Grosjean about his endurance test, his F1 career, what he took away from going up in flames in front of both live and reality TV audiences, his new American life, and the limits he won’t test.
Even if you’re not racing for more than an hour a time, 24 hours is a long time to maintain focus while going well over 100 miles per hour. How does your preparation for an endurance race differ from your prep for an F1 race that will take two hours, start to finish?
For me, it’s not so much the time in the car, because on ovals like the Indy 500, we can get to three hours, four hours, just because of the safety car or caution. So the time is not so much the hard work. It’s more that here we’re in GT [grand touring] cars, so we are the slowest on the track. And there’s four different classes of cars, so there’s always guys coming around. And we have a spotter, so he tells us, “OK, it’s coming right, it’s coming left,” and so on. But it’s really trying to drive the best you can knowing that there are other guys around you that are going to go faster because they’ve got a faster car.
They also are into their race. So it’s definitely a mental load, and that’s why you need to get into the race well-rested. You need to, between your stints, try to get some rest. It’s physically demanding, but it’s not huge—it’s more mentally how you recharge your batteries.
I was going to ask about the different classes of cars. You drove a lower-field F1 car at the end at Haas. But the difference even between you and Lewis in those years, per lap, might be a second or two or three. What is it like to be in a race with other machines that are just completely different from yours, when you know that no matter what you do, they’ll blow by you?
It’s the beauty of endurance, that there’s a lot of different classes and a lot of different categories. So yeah, there are cars that are 10 to 15 seconds faster than we are a lap, and they’re coming in fast. It’s also an ability—to not to lose time whilst being overtaken by a faster car. Because it’s great to be a tenth faster than everyone else on a lap. That means you gain one second over 10 laps. But if you lose one second every time you’re overtaken by a car, it’s pointless. So it’s finding the right balance of where you can be overtaken, how you don’t lose time, how you play that card the best you can. So it’s definitely a challenge, but it’s also the beauty of it.
The car you’re going to drive looks pretty sweet. What stands out about it?
Yeah, it’s a good-looking car. That’s for sure. It’s very iconic, I think, as all Lamborghinis are. But that one is a race version. It sounds amazing. That’s definitely something that we all noticed because, yeah, it’s a V12. It’s got that sound, and so far it’s been driving really well for us.
You have driven in a lot of racing series even by the standards of top-tier professional racers, so you’ve been in a lot of different cars. What stands out about this one? How is it different from what you’ve driven either in F1 or IndyCar?
I think the biggest difference is that the cars I’ve raced the most are the single-sitter. There’s a lot of downforce, light cars, open cockpits, whilst here it’s a closed cockpit. It’s a heavier car. It’s got less downforce because it’s a GT. So it’s just a different category and it’s about understanding how to drive the car to go fast. Because it is a bit different from what I normally do.
This is not your first endurance race. You did the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2010, and I know your team didn’t finish the race. What do you remember about what happened there?
We knew that we weren’t going to finish when we took the start. We had two engines: one for the whole week and qualifying, and one for the race. And when they mounted the engine for the race, one guy lost a bolt in the engine. They started the new engine and blew it off. So we went back to the one from qualifying and practice, and we knew that it wasn’t going to go to the end.
Luckily it exploded when I was in the pit lane, so I didn’t have to walk too far. But I remember retiring from the race and taking my normal clothes and going to the Dunlop chicane, the first corner, just to watch the cars, because I love the race. I love the experience.
It’s quite funny. I found an interview that I did for a very famous French newspaper back then saying, “It’s not my last time.” Now here we are 13 years later, and I’m going back to Le Mans. So that’s pretty funny.
In 2021, you didn’t sound that interested in ever going back to F1. You said, “The good seats are all taken.” Your current employer is now trying to get into F1. If Andretti succeeds, would you want to go with them?
One thing I learned last year is to never say never. I told my wife I would never live in the U.S. and I would never race in a U.S. series and I would never do the Indy 500, and I’ve done the three of them. So I think it’s just: You never know what the future is like. Now, I enjoy being in IndyCar. I enjoy being able to do Lamborghini IMSA for the endurance races. It’s the right balance for me.
For sure, Formula 1 stays the pinnacle of motorsport. So yes, if it was a team to win, yes. For sure, Andretti would have a lot of work if they make it Formula 1, just the way Haas was. Right now I would say I prefer to stay in IndyCar, but again, you never know. When things are done and concrete and in front of you, sometimes your mind changes.
You had a long F1 career, and the thing a lot of people will remember—especially those of us who are new, who started watching a few years ago—is the crash at the end. When you reflect on your own time in that series, how much do you think about the ending relative to everything else?
The way I’m known, especially in the U.S., it’s through that accident because a lot of the U.S. audience is very new to Formula 1 and came through Drive to Survive. The way I see my career is a bit more than that. It’s 180 grands prix, 10 podiums, the best finishing position Haas has ever had in Austria. So yeah, the crash is definitely part of my career, part of my life. And I’ve got the scar from my left hand that’s going to be here forever. So it’s a good reminder that’s here, but it’s just not that. It’s a bit more than that. And I see it as just part of my journey, like any podium. It’s just something crazy, but turned out to be good.
Does it bother you that the perception, at least in the States, is so focused on what I imagine was a pretty traumatic event?
No, I don’t care. It’s part of my career; it’s part of my life. Especially in the U.S., because the audience is very new to Formula 1, a lot of people remember that accident, and they have never seen my podiums back in 2012 and 2013. I almost won three races in Formula 1, and it never really happened for outside reasons. But it’s quite funny. I met some people that know of me since the Lotus days in Formula 1 and say they’ve been watching it all. And I watch a lot of younger people, younger audience, they have only seen Drive to Survive on Netflix. So they talk about Guenther Steiner and ask how he is in real life, and of course the accident.
But I think the accident, it’s one of those things that kind of marked the world. It was pretty much on every TV you could switch on. It was very impressive. That’s the way I see that: “phoenix.” It’s the rise from something bad. It’s not necessarily related to the fire, but it’s how you can rise from something that could destroy you but use it in a positive way and rise from there.
In what way do you think you turned that crash and the fire into something positive?
I just think you enjoy life better after. Because you were supposed to lose it, you realize that it can be gone any time. And you just become much more: carpe diem. Much more enjoying life. And for me, that’s why I say it was a positive experience. It sounds a bit crazy, but life is just more beautiful since then.
That’s really interesting. Some people would hear what you’re saying and think that it’s insane that you’d even be back on the track, because you’re enjoying life so much. So why risk it again?
Well, life is here to be lived. And if you want nothing to happen to you, you just stay home and you don’t do anything. And that’s not the way I see life. I’d rather live it at 300 kilometers an hour. Enjoy everything I can. Flying airplanes, driving race cars. Having fun, rather than just trying to say, “Oh, this could be dangerous. I’m going to stay home. I’m going to protect myself.” It’s just the way I see it. I think if I want to be happy, I’ll just need to be able to experience those things and have those sensations.
So that’s what I see. It’s all the trouble that you had before, that traffic jam or delayed plane or stuff like that you would moan about. That now you’re like, “Well, if I was dead I wouldn’t be here.” So it’s not such a big deal. And I think that’s why you see the biggest difference.
You mentioned flying planes, and I know you got a pilot’s license recently. Is that part of the same “seize the day” desire that came out of the crash?
Yeah. It’s something I wanted to do for a long time. I flew this morning to Daytona. And it’s kind of similar to racing cars in a way, the workload and managing the communication and flying the plane. So some of it was very easy. The radio initially was [like] Chinese to me—especially when it’s not your mother language or English, sometimes it’s a bit harder. But I love it, and it’s freedom. It’s just, “enjoy life.” I can bring my kids to The Bahamas every weekend if I want to. We can go on vacation anywhere. It’s just a cool way to do it. And then of course flying is risky if you don’t follow the rules, if you don’t look at your weather. Right now there’s a huge squall line crossing between Georgia and South Carolina. I wouldn’t be flying right now, because that would be taking a risk that is crazy.
But it’s so cool to do. It’s so much freedom. And let’s fucking do it.
Does it scratch the same itch in your brain that racing cars does? Like, do you have something in your soul where you just need to find powerful, fast machines and operate them at high speeds?
Yeah, I love speed. I’ve got something with speed for sure. But I also know myself. I’ve never bought a fast motorbike because I know I’ll want to go fast on the motorbike and I know it will end badly. So I’ve got a 1981 BMW R100 RS. I cannot go fast. I just love riding it for the fun of riding it. But that’s why I say I think that you need to know yourself and you need to know what you’re capable of and not. And I don’t like people thinking racing drivers are crazy. We’re not. We know the risk, we know the consequences, but we also have, most of the time, as much as we can under control.
So that’s your red line. Motorcycles that go too quick.
What else gets into your mind and tells you, “That’s a little much. That’s not for me?”
Oh, there’s loads. I love skiing, and there’s a lot of places where you want to go skiing, but things can go wrong. So yes, I love the sensation. I love the freedom of being able to do whatever you want to do. But if I go ski touring, I’m going to take a guide with me who knows the mountainYou can do things, but they just need to be done under control as much as you can. Obviously things sometimes don’t turn out your way. I think control what you can, but keep enjoying life.
How much different is your experience walking around in the United States than it was before the crash and before the Netflix show?
A lot. It’s funny. Michael Schumacher used to come here on vacation because no one knew who he was. And right now, I think it’s the country where I take the most selfies and pictures and autographs.
We lived in Switzerland. People in Switzerland don’t ask much, so it was very quiet there, which is nice. But yes, Chicago, New York. We’ve visited Washington and these big cities. And every time, we’re surprised by how many selfies and pictures I do. Even in front of the Statue of Liberty, and I was like, “Oh, come on. This is the Statue of Liberty. Who cares about me?” It’s quite funny.
It’s been a long time since you’ve won a race, something I don’t point out to be critical but to acknowledge how hard racing is and how much comes down to team and circumstance. This weekend, you literally can’t have the fastest car on the track. At the end at Haas, you had one of the slowest cars out there, and everyone knew it. I know you’re getting paid, but I don’t sense that’s the only thing that keeps you racing. How do you find motivation given the competitive realities of motorsport and that you’ve often not been in the fastest cars?
I think you have a reserve of what you can do and what you can achieve. My last year at Haas, we did the first race after COVID in July in Austria. And I lost the brakes twice in free practice. And I called my wife and said, “Hey, I’m done. I’m leaving the team, whatever happens at the end of the year.” I arrived to the point where I could tell that motivation was not going to be there anymore for that challenge, and I needed something new. I think when you join a new team like I did with Haas, there’s a lot of motivation in bringing the team up and hoping for the future.
If I’m being honest, the last two years in Formula 1 were not very enjoyable—’19 and ’20. So for sure, yeah, you get to a point where you know you’ve reached your maximum and it’s got to be the end. Then here, obviously in the States, in IndyCar, it’s different. Everyone’s got a chance to win. And this weekend, yes, we may not be the fastest car, but we have a category that we can win. So there’s always that thing. And that’s what I say. When a lot of people say, “Are you going to go back to Formula 1?” I say, “No, if it’s not somewhere where I can win,” because that’s what I want more than just being in Formula 1. But for a long time, being in Formula 1 is pretty fun.
Were those years at Haas as much of a, let’s say, party as they looked like on reality TV?
Netflix chooses, a little bit, the angle they want to attack every team. And some of it is true, some of it is a bit made up. But yeah, the last two years were — they were long years.
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