Romain Grosjean’s Best Race Was About Managing the Impossible

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For Romain Grosjean, the 2012 Canadian Grand Prix wasn’t shaping up to be anything special. He’d settled into a rhythm halfway through the race and didn’t think much would change before the end.

“OK,” he thought. “Today, we’re going to finish sixth. It’s going to be a good day.”

Then, all of his competitors began to fall apart.

Welcome to Split Second, where we ask racers to recall a split-second moment that’s seared into their brain—the perfect pass, the slow-motion movie of their own worst crash, the near-miss that scared them straight, or anything else—and what gives the memory staying power. In this edition, we spoke to Romain Grosjean, who described the moment tires began to eat up his competition at the 2012 Canadian Grand Prix.

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Grosjean, driving for the Lotus Formula 1 Team, started seventh. He was about a second off of polesitter Sebastian Vettel’s pace in the final qualifying session, and he told Road & Track he wasn’t super happy with it.

But the race didn’t bring much of an opportunity to improve. By lap 40 of 70, Grosjean was stuck in seventh. Lewis Hamilton led, followed by Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Räikkönen, Sergio Pérez, and Mark Webber. Raikkonen and Pérez were yet to pit, and Grosjean couldn’t find a way around Webber despite clawing at his rear wing.

“I was stuck behind Mark Webber, maybe Michael Schumacher for a bit,” Grosjean said. “I still remember going between the third chicane and the fourth one, and braking under the bridge, and thinking: ‘Well, I can’t pass those guys. I’ve been trying for 20 laps.’”

Grosjean hadn’t given up; he’d just accepted his fate. But fate had a different idea.

The top drivers that day were split on pit strategies. Some only planned to make one stop, meaning they’d save time by staying on track but would have to care for much older and slower tires. Others, like Hamilton, opted for two stops, hoping they’d be able to make up the time lost in the pits—and then some—by running a faster pace.

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“Are you sure they’re not doing a one-stop?” Hamilton asked his McLaren Mercedes team of his competitors on lap 42.

“Yes, we’re sure of that, Lewis,” his team radioed back.

Except no one was sure. The longer Alonso stayed out after Hamilton pitted from first place, the more likely it became that he wouldn’t make a second stop at all—and that he’d be able to hold his newly inherited lead until the end.

“Then suddenly, people started having big tire issues and sliding,” Grosjean told R&T. “I’m passing people one by one. Eventually, everyone pitted or started sliding or going off track in front of me, and I was like, ‘OK, one more position. One more. One more.’”

Grosjean wasn’t anywhere near the two-stop conversation. His first and only stop of the day came on lap 21, and by lap 55, he ran fourth behind Alonso, Vettel, and Hamilton. Alonso led Vettel by 3.2 seconds, Hamilton by 12, and Grosjean by 15.8.

Webber had given up fourth to Grosjean just a few laps earlier. The one-stop strategy wasn’t looking good.

“Wherever you look, something is happening on this track at the moment,” commentator David Croft said on the broadcast on lap 59. “Ferrari have Felipe Massa in the pits. His tires were giving up. Fernando Alonso, we don’t know what’s happening with those tires. They’re talking to him in Spanish on the team radio.”

“Now, if they pitted, they would fall behind Hamilton and Grosjean,” co-commentator Martin Brundle responded. “If they get to the end, Alonso will have done 52 laps on his tires, and Vettel 54. Their tires really fall away from them in the closing laps. They’re in big trouble.”

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“If Alonso or Vettel pitted now, chances are they get caught by Grosjean,” Croft said. “Their hands have been forced.”

Yet Grosjean, whose tires were nearly the same age, seemed fine.

“It was, like, easy,” Grosjean told R&T. “We just had a really good car and tires, and I wasn’t expecting people to start struggling that much. We were one of the only teams to be able to do one stop.”

Vettel slipped into Hamilton’s grasp on lap 62, and he pitted two laps later. Grosjean moved up to third. At the end of lap 64, Hamilton took the lead from Alonso. He was out of tires and out of grip.

“McLaren said this morning that on a one-stop strategy, you’re a sitting duck toward the end of the race,” Croft said after the pass.

“Fernando Alonso, I can see on the Ferrari pit wall, they’re now focusing their attention on Grosjean,” pit reporter Ted Kravitz responded.

“Grosjean will be closing up very quickly now behind Alonso,” Brundle said. “They’re both on the one-stop. Just shows you what a great job Grosjean’s done at looking after his tires.”

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By lap 66, Grosjean caught Alonso.

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“Alonso, I passed him at the exit of the hairpin in Canada,” Grosjean told R&T. “He was wheel-spinning like crazy. He had no more rear tires on the Ferrari, and I was just behind. I went on throttle, I passed him easily, and I was just like: ‘Bloody hell, you know, that’s working really well for us.’”

“His tires are only two laps younger on the black Lotus than the Ferrari,” Brundle said after the pass.

“Looked like it was 22,” Croft responded.

Grosjean’s tires never gave out. He sped to a second-place finish, just 2.5 seconds behind Hamilton. It remains his best finish in F1, which he matched a year later at the United States Grand Prix. But Grosjean doesn’t take full credit—or much at all.

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“I would like to take a lot of credit for it, but I think it would be unfair,” Grosjean said. “I’m normally pretty good at managing my tires. But I think in that race, that occasion, it was more the car.

“The Lotus in 2012 was really good on tire wear. We had no idea why. But it was working well, so it was kind of easy for us.”

What Grosjean avoided in tire wear, he suffered in a massive foot blister the next day. It was the only time he remembered struggling that much with foot pain in Canada.

“The shoes were not great, and because there’s so much braking in Canada, my foot was so painful when my wife—well, she wasn’t my wife at the time—picked me up at the Paris airport,” Grosjean said. “I could barely walk, and we went to have pizza in Paris. That was nice.”

Grosjean’s celebrations lasted for days, including with his new wife.

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“I remember jumping in my crew chief’s arms,” Grosjean said. “I was getting married 10 days later, I think, so it was quite a couple of weeks.

“We got married on a Wednesday, because most of my friends are racers. We weren’t all in the same category, so you can imagine trying to get WEC, Formula One, Formula 3—all the calendars—working together. So it was like, ‘OK, let’s do it on a Wednesday so everyone can come.’ We got married at the town hall in Chamonix in France.”

But the podium that weekend wasn’t just special because of the events surrounding it, or because Canada is one of Grosjean’s favorite F1 races. It was special because he never saw it coming.

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STAN HONDA / Getty Images

“You know, you normally don’t expect things to fall apart the way they did,” Grosjean said. “In Formula One, everything is calculated, so you know exactly what you have.

“But I guess that day, it wasn’t.”

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