After 10 seasons in Formula One, Romain Grosjean has not thought of himself as a rookie in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES season. He will this weekend.
There is no other way to describe Grosjean’s status as INDYCAR heads to World Wide Technology Raceway for Saturday’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline and Axalta (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN and the INDYCAR Radio Network). Grosjean’s only experience charging around a track with no right-direction corners is a July 27 test at this 1.25-mile track in Madison, Illinois.
Grosjean entered his first INDYCAR season unwilling to attempt an oval race, but now that he has roughly six months’ experience with Dale Coyne Racing with RWR and an understanding of INDYCAR’s safety features, he is ready for a short-track trial run. If all goes well, Grosjean could race at the sport’s larger tracks, including Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in 2022.
“It’s so different from every type of racing I’ve done before,” he said of oval-track racing. “So, I’m a rookie (there), a proper rookie.”
Grosjean’s first oval race should be fascinating to watch, similar to Scott McLaughlin’s first race at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this year with Team Penske. Like McLaughlin, Grosjean must adapt quickly as he will only have a 90-minute practice (Saturday at 1:15 p.m. ET live on Peacock Premium) and two hot laps in NTT P1 Award qualifying (5 p.m. ET) before same-day racing.
Grosjean certainly knows to show the track with walls surrounding it the respect it deserves.
“I just want to gradually go for it, improve myself, learn about it,” he said. “It’s a weird one. The cars drive (themselves). People are telling you that’ll be fine, and you’re like: ‘What are they talking about? I drive my car.’
“On the ovals, I think the car does the work and you control the speed, and it’s quite a bit of a strange feeling.”
Grosjean has been warned not to expect too much too soon from either himself or the car. Driving on an oval is about building confidence and developing a rhythm. As those grow, speeds climb. Then, racing against others takes the challenge to a higher level.
“I’m excited, and also I think you need to respect ovals like street courses,” Grosjean said. “There is not much room for mistake, and that’s something you need to keep in mind rather than just trying to go (all) out straight away.”
Grosjean is coming off a second-place finish – his second podium and fifth top-10 finish in nine races this season – in last Saturday’s Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix on the IMS road course. That frequent success in the No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda has him within seven points of McLaughlin in pursuit of the series’ Rookie of the Year Award.
McLaughlin has performed well on the ovals despite having no previous experience with them. He finished second to six-time and reigning series champion Scott Dixon by .2646 of a second in his first oval race at Texas, then backed it up with an eighth-place finish the next day.
McLaughlin finished 20th in the “500,” but he stayed on the lead lap and has completed all 660 oval-track laps this season. The 84 points he has scored on ovals is why he leads Grosjean with four races to go. The final three races will be held on permanent road courses or temporary street circuits.
Grosjean applauded McLaughlin, who drives the No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet, for taking on the entirety of INDYCAR’s 16-race schedule.
“When you miss (three) races, it’s not easy to fight for a championship, but it’s definitely cool to be back in the game,” Grosjean said. “Saying that, Scott is really strong on ovals, so he may be strong (this weekend) and score some good points.
“We just go racing, we have fun, and we do the best we can.”
There have been only two single-digit finishes for Rookie of the Year honors in the past 12 years. James Hinchcliffe defeated JR Hildebrand by six points in 2011, and Felix Rosenqvist edged Colton Herta by five points in 2019.