By Jack Benyon | the-race.com
Romain Grosjean is the first double polesitter of the IndyCar season, and it’s come at a time when it might just secure his IndyCar future beyond all doubt.
Grosjean has started 2023 in absolutely scintillating form. He was on pole in St Petersburg then taken out in the race while contending for the win, was in line for a top four in Texas before crashing out in dirty air, and was second last time out at Long Beach when if it wasn’t for saving fuel, he may have had a chance at the win.
Now seventh in the points, with the Texas result adjusted he’d certainly be in the championship lead.
He’s also one of only two drivers to make the IndyCar-equivalent of Q3 – the Fast Six – on all three road and street courses this year, alongside Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward.
Having struggled with understeer through 2022 in his maiden season with Andretti, both driver and team must have wondered if it was going to be possible to continue together beyond 2023 as he finished 13th in points and worse in some statistical categories than he managed during his rookie season at the Dale Coyne team with much fewer resources in 2021.
But at the moment, there are no better realistic free agents on the market for Andretti to consider, and even if there were, none are performing at Grosjean’s current level.
Points leader Marcus Ericsson is also out of contract at the end of the year – coincidentally, Grosjean’s late flying lap in Q1 put Ericsson out and condemned him to a 13th place start at Barber – but Ganassi is likely to retain him for the same reason as Andretti is with Grosjean. They are doing well, and they are the best option on the market.
The Race’s paddock sources indicate that both Grosjean and Andretti are interested in renewing their current arrangement, although Grosjean himself said those discussions will come in May when asked about his start to the season impacting his future by The Race after qualifying today.
“That’s a discussion for the Month of May or so,” he said.
“But yes, my contract runs out at the end of the year, so you want to do a good job.
“But also I think what we’ve seen this year is the fruit of what we did last year, and it wasn’t the season that we were expecting, but we all worked hard and got it together. The team made a lot of changes, I think, in the winter.
“From as far as I could tell, it was a huge difference, and also I think myself, I looked at myself and tried to understand what I could do better, and I think that’s what we’re seeing right now.”
Andretti has turned its fortunes around. It’s had three poles and a win from the first four races, and while it’s not been totally flawless, it’s clear that staffing moves, an intense focus on pitstop improvements and a proper deep-dive into its recent issues have yielded really strong results.
Grosjean’s pole – the eighth different driver in a row at Barber – wasn’t a fluke, he’d set the fastest banker lap earlier too at a track he’d started seventh and eighth at in his career so far.
Although the team, Grosjean and his engineer Olivier Boisson among others have worked wonders to alleviate the understeer that Grosjean struggles to drive with, how this re-invigorated Andretti team would do on the first natural terrain road course of the season was a big question for its four drivers.
But again, Grosjean proved his class here as team-mate Colton Herta didn’t make it to Q2 and starts 14th, while Long Beach winner Kyle Kirkwood spun on the first corner of his outlap out of the pits which damaged bodywork and left him 12th.
Grosjean always looked assured in the session, and despite mistakes at Turn 5 and 13, made it through for pole at one of IndyCar’s toughest and most rewarding tracks to nail a lap on with the three-thousands-of-a-second gap.
Now the question turns to how he goes one better than before and wins his first IndyCar race, something he deserves to have done by now.
In 2021, at the Indianapolis road course race, he was held up by a driver trying to stay on the lead lap which allowed Rinus VeeKay to undercut him and win. At St Pete this year, he was clean torpedoed by Scott McLaughlin. He’s got to be just hoping for a clean race whatever happens.
“If no one crashes into me, good,” Grosjean smiled, before answering another question on whether he’d go for defence or attack at the start of the race.
“It all depends how the car feels and what you’ve got under your feet. There’s going to be rain tonight, so the track is going to be different tomorrow.
“The good news is that I’ve been racing Alex [Palou] for a while, and it’s been always clean and nice with him.
“There’s definitely drivers that you’re a bit more careful with, but with Alex, I think it’s a good front row. Again, it’s a Honda-powered front row, so that’s a very good job.
“Tomorrow, like I say, turning the wheel here for 90 laps is a challenge, so it’s not all about the first 10 laps.”
He added: “We want to be a championship contender at the end of the year, so we’ve got to be here [qualifying high up] every race.
“We’ve shown that the pace is there, which helps a lot to be at the front, but 100 percent want to score some points and finish the race.
“If it’s first, second, third, fourth, fifth, we don’t know, but what we know is we need to keep scoring points and be consistent for the championship.”
Grosjean’s lack of desperation fighting for that win is a testament to his understanding of IndyCar. Will Power won the championship with one win last year to his team-mate Josef Newgarden’s five.
The #28 driver knows that stacking up these top finishes is vital, which is one of the reasons he is always so smiley when he’s on the podium, even if he hasn’t won.
It’s yet more proof that Grosjean has the mindset and understanding to be fighting at the front and for championships in IndyCar when the possibility presents itself.