On Tuesday, Haas F1 Team formally announced the signing of Romain Grosjean as their lead driver for the 2016 season. The rumblings of Grosjean’s arrival at the new American constructor began about two weeks ago, and was confirmed over the weekend - the announcement was even accidentally given away just an hour prior to Tuesday’s press conference, much to the embarassment of Haas' webmaster. (We feel for you, friend.)
Studying race charts and relying on advanced statistics, I’ve been able to outline the strengths and weaknesses of the Grosjean signing, which is filled to the brim with strengths and nearly devoid of any weaknesses. This is one of the best, if not the outright best, signings for a brand new team in Formula 1 in many, many years, and owner Gene Haas and team principal Gunther Steiner absolutely nailed it down to perfection when selecting their first lead driver.
Skepticism still lingers over Haas’ entry next year for one reason: Formula 1 is a brutal, hostile environment for new constructors. It’s brutal enough for some teams who barely have the means to keep their teams running without having to cut corners and sacrifice talent for financial considerations. Not including teams who have succeeded a previous constructor (such as Red Bull, Mercedes, and Force India) there have been exactly four new teams that have scored points in their debut season within the last twenty-five years. Of the three teams who joined F1 and competed starting in 2010, the team now known as Manor is the last of them still competing today. Recall that Caterham made a memorable splash from their inception by signing former Grand Prix winners Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli to drive for them. With a loaded staff including team principal Tony Fernandes and technical director Mike Gascoyne, they were often tipped for a huge jump to the upper mid-field every year. They ended up scoring a staggering, astronomical total of zero points in just short of five full seasons. Lest we forget USF1, which never even got on the grid.
Even though Gene Haas is a multi-billionaire, even though he is a championship-winning team owner in the ultra-competitive world of NASCAR who built his team from a floundering also-ran into an elite organization, and even if he has assembled a solid group of personnel to run his F1 team across two bases in the US and England, and secured a lucrative and crucial partnership with Scuderia Ferrari that positions them as the new Ferrari “B-team” going forward - none of this will guarantee success for Haas if they don’t have the equipment, strategy, and/or resources to be more than minnows. Thankfully, every step of Haas’ F1 plans has indicated that they will be a competitive team from the get-go. But if the worst happens and Haas fails to match the first-year successes of teams like Jordan (5th in 1991), Sauber (7th in 1993), and Stewart (9th in 1997), it won’t be the fault of their drivers.
And they’ll be led by Romain Grosjean, who leaves Lotus F1 Team after four seasons and change to join Haas in 2016. Grosjean’s story is that of perseverance through adversity at the pinnacle of motorsport. His first stint at “Team Enstone”’s previous incarnation at Renault at the end of 2009 is often forgotten, because it was so utterly forgettable. I'll go on the record as saying that I thought he'd never make it back to F1 after his awful cup of coffee at Renault. But from that disappointment, he would claw his way back into F1 over the next two years, via consecutive championships in the Auto GP World Series and the GP2 Series, and race wins in the FIA GT1 World Championship - which, if you can believe it, was a thing that once existed in the present tense. Those championships and successes only added to his impressive trophy case which included title victories in the French Formula Renault Championship and Formula 3 Euro Series.
In his return year of 2012, paired with returning former World Champion Kimi Raikkonen at what was now known as Lotus F1 Team, Grosjean finished eighth in the World Championship with 96 points and three podium finishes. But he was overmatched by Raikkonen in every category other than qualifying form, and most infamously, he became involved in several lap one crashes - peaking with the horror shunt at Spa-Francorchamps which saw him earn a one-race ban. In total, Grosjean crashed out of six races in 2012, which is astronomically high by today’s standards.
As of the 2015 Japanese Grand Prix, Grosjean has crashed out of only three races in the last three seasons put together, with his last truly egregious error coming in Monaco in 2013 - more than two years and one generation of engines ago. Grosjean closed out 2013 with a red-hot run of four podium finishes in his last six races, including a season-best second place at Circuit of the Americas, and a dominant drive at Suzuka that should have parlayed into a first career win had Lotus not been out-strategized by Red Bull. He began to consistently outrace Raikkonen before the 2007 World Champion ended his season early due to a back injury. In the last two seasons, Grosjean has developed into a legitimate lead driver, maturing and excelling consistently while current teammate Pastor Maldonado still infuriatingly fails to hone his race-winning raw pace through frustrating driver errors.
But recently, Lotus have fallen from the ranks of the top teams to being stuck firmly in the middle of the order. Hampered by massive financial woes and the loss of key personnel such as former team boss Eric Boullier and technical director James Allison, Lotus are very fortunate that they’re still in the game, and still reasonably competitive to boot - especially when compared to the hot, disgusting mess that was their 2014 season. And even when Renault takes over Lotus next season, it’s still a transitional year for a team that’s had three transitional years in succession - where only their social media department remains as strong as it was in 2012-13. Grosjean’s move to Haas, a team which must seem like a bountiful oasis of consistency and continuity in comparison to the dysfunction at Enstone, thus makes perfect sense for his own career.
* denotes that 2015 season is still in progress.
QvT = qualifying form vs teammate
FvT = race finishing record vs teammate
LLvT% = percentage of laps run ahead of teammate
Grosjean will fall short this year of matching his career-best 132 points and six podium finishes from 2013, but 2015 is Grosjean’s best season to date from the stand-point of intra-team performance - which becomes more and more important with a team that is not a regular points-scoring outfit such as Lotus. This year, Grosjean has outscored Maldonado at a rate of 44-16. He has also out-qualified Maldonado 13 times in 14 races, a more decisive advantage than the ones Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have over Nico Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen respectively.
He has spent 78.52% of his racing laps ahead of Maldonado, up from 56.72% last season - and way higher than his 28.64% mark from his 2012 season, indicative of consistently improving racecraft. Most importantly, Grosjean carried Lotus back to the podium this year with a season-high third place finish at Spa-Francorchamps, and that they’re even within striking distance of Force India for fifth place in the Constructors’ championship with five races remaining is the result of a mammoth job by Grosjean of carrying the team forward through a very difficult situation, with the team unable to develop a fairly solid Lotus E23 at the pace that they’d like due to their financial shortcomings.
This isn’t the “first-lap nutcase” Romain Grosjean of three years ago (and that was a reputation that was slightly sensationalized, even in retrospect). This is a confident, savvy lead driver that has kept his cool under great adversity over the last two seasons, and is ready to lead Haas F1 Team to immediate success. He’s improved year after year in every facet as a driver, and still has quite a bit more ceiling to reach before the end of his career. It’s the best signing for a debuting team since Stewart grabbed a young Rubens Barrichello for the 1997 season, which led to a podium finish in their first trip to Monaco, then three podium finishes (and an upset win for Johnny Herbert) in 1999.
And much like how Barrichello’s success at Stewart from ‘97 to ‘99 led to a Ferrari future for the Brazilian, Grosjean is now positioned to succeed his former teammate Raikkonen at Ferrari if and when the Iceman stands down from the team. A solid 2016 season at Haas will put Grosjean in place to one day join a lineage of French Ferrari drivers led by the likes of Alain Prost, Jean Alesi, Didier Pironi, and Rene Arnoux (and the slightly shorter lineage of Swiss-born Ferrari drivers led by Clay Regazzoni and a handful of 1950s privateers).
Haas wanted an experienced Formula 1 driver to lead them in their debut campaign next year, and they hit a huge home run by signing Grosjean - with a number of worthy potential teammates out there such as Esteban Gutierrez, Jean-Eric Vergne, and Kevin Magnussen representing another potential big hit, and every one of them each have their own strengths and weaknesses that will be laid out in the future. Sure, Romain Grosjean isn’t the baby-faced American hero some had expected, or even unreasonably demanded out of Haas for their debut season. But he’s absolutely the right man for the job to lead Haas in 2016 and beyond. All the team needs to do for him is provide him with the equipment and resources to make good on the endless promise that this deal holds - it's the only way that this deal can go sour.