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The factors behind Grosjean’s dream IndyCar qualifying debut

by Jack Benyon
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

If you’d have told Romain Grosjean he’d be seventh on his IndyCar qualifying debut, I’m pretty sure he’d have taken that with a huge smile. Especially as, having pulled it off, he described the result as being “clearly above expectations”.

“I had a bit of traffic, but it doesn’t really matter today, what we’ve shown is good and I’m very proud of the boys for getting me to P7,” the Dale Coyne Racing driver told NBC after qualifying.

“I’m just ahead of Josef Newgarden, who is one of the stars of the series and knows Barber very well.”

In fact, Newgarden has won more races at Barber than anyone, so he knows how the place works.

“I think we can be super-happy with that,” Grosjean added. “Obviously it is race day when it counts, but I think today we’ve shown the work we did in testing worked well.”

His innate ability obviously underpinned the result, but circumstance also worked in his favour. Here’s how his perfect session came together.

His biggest rival gambled

Scott Mclaughlin Barber Indycar

Scott McLaughlin has been tipped to win a race this year and be a future champion by his Team Penske team-mates, and he had a brilliant start in Barber. However, he starts 12th, five spots behind Grosjean.

As Grosjean’s closest rookie rival – NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson needs more time to get up to speed – McLaughlin is a clear benchmark for the Frenchman given he races for a team with much more resource in Penske, and with more illustrious team-mates.

However, Penske went a different way with strategy.

In IndyCar road course qualifying, the field is split into two groups of 12, and the top six from each goes through to a round of 12. The best six from that group then fights for pole.

Perhaps seeing the top 17 was split by less than 0.8s in the last practice session, Penske gave McLaughlin two sets of softs instead of the usual one in his initial group, which gave him a better chance of getting through that group but meant he’d have no new tyres in the battle for the top 12.

It played out as expected. McLaughlin got through to the round of 12, but was 12th in that round with no new tyres to use.

McLaughlin risked not making it through his group with one set, so with the data at hand it was a gutsy and clever call by Penske. But ultimately sticking to the one set would have given McLaughlin a better chance to fight further forwards later on, as Grosjean did.

This strategy call took one of Grosjean’s closest rivals out of the equation.

Others were out of position too

Felix Rosenqvist Arrow Mclaren Sp IndyCar Barber

Felix Rosenqvist had been due to make the top six in his group before crashing, while series champions Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay failed to get out of the group stage also – both driving cars part of IndyCar’s big three teams in Penske and Andretti Autosport respectively.

Graham Rahal, a second-place starter at Barber in 2019, and his team-mate Takuma Sato, who won that 2019 race, also failed to make the round of 12, as did four-time Champ Car title winner Sebastien Bourdais, who was supposed to kick off an AJ Foyt renaissance this year.

That’s six cars that all failed to make the round of 12, a few of which performing at par would have meant Grosjean would be bumped further down.

Not to take anything away from Grosjean; it shows the standard of IndyCar right now and how tight the margins are. He’s earned it, but many others blew it, too.

Barber’s changed

Romain Grosjean Barber Indycar 2021

Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama came under fire for drainage issues in 2018 and it responded by relaying its surface and solving the issue in the 2019 off-season.

Little did they know how big an impact that would have.

Last year, the race was cancelled due to the pandemic, so no IndyCar has raced on this surface.

No softer tyre usage happens in testing so practice two today was the first time teams got to bolt on the sticky sets. We also have little idea of long-run pace on said tyres on this surface either.

He’s tested here

Romain Grosjean Barber Test Indycar

The IndyCar regulars are unlikely to start poorly, but there’s a much higher chance of the odd out-of-sorts performance in the first race before they kick on and return to robotic form for round two.

It’s different for Grosjean, who is facing a learning experience in a tightly competitive championship.

One thing in his favour at Barber is that he’s tested. Many other teams did too, but even little things like knowing where timing lines are – and how not to crash, like he did at Turn 1 on his first outing – have all been conquered.

He’s going to find conquering that top 10 much more difficult elsewhere, so capitalising like he has at Barber because of testing was vital.

He drove well!

Romain Grosjean Dale Coyne Racing Indycar Barber

It’s obvious, but we shouldn’t discount the fact that Grosjean has just driven brilliantly this weekend.

Like in F1 he used practice to find the limit – clipping the grass and having a few car squirms along the way – and when it counted he improved in qualifying.

After his first test at Barber Grosjean said he needed to alter his training slightly to battle the IndyCar, sans power steering. Given the lasting injuries from his fiery Bahrain crash last year, to adjust his training programme as well as his driving style slightly for the series is no mean feat.

He also improved his qualifying laps in particular. Even though his last lap wasn’t quite enough for the top six, it was still a strong effort that beat some top drivers in a very narrow window.

The fact that these drivers are so close together proves the high standards in the series right now and while other factors helped, Grosjean performed brilliantly.

What about the race?

Romain Grosjean Dale Coyne Racing Indycar Barber

Strategy will be key on Sunday.

The gap between the soft and hard tyre looked huge in the sense that the softs come in almost immediately and then drop off, while the hards were getting quicker and quicker 12 laps into a stint even during practice. How quickly the reds degrade will be vital.

Choosing what tyre to start on and how to manage that through the race is the kind of thing IndyCar veterans still get wrong, so as part of his first race with his new team there’s sure to be teething issues for Grosjean.

What he absolutely needs to do is keep out of trouble. If the strategy robs him of a result, you can deal with that almost as an outside factor. Bin the car or crash and you’ll regret that for a while after such a strong qualifying introducing you to a new series.

Grosjean has Newgarden and Colton Herta just behind, so he has a good benchmark for strategy and pace in the race.

Keeping things clean, delivering strong in and out laps and hitting his marks in the pits will be really important, and fuel saving can also become a factor.

A top 10 is certainly not out of the question after that strong start in qualifying, but not guaranteed either.

“We have 90 laps of racing to do, I need to learn tire degradation, fuel saving, refueling, pit stops, how an IndyCar race goes,” Grosjean summed up. “So, still a lot to learn tomorrow but I’m really happy with today.”

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