After the checkered flag flew on the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey and the 27-car field parked on pit lane, the crowd at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca erupted in cheers. But they weren’t all cheering for race winner Colton Herta.
Many also were cheering for Romain Grosjean, who stood atop his car and saluted the crowd after finishing third and scoring his third NTT INDYCAR SERIES podium finish of 2021.
In the late stages of the race, while Herta pulled away for his second win in as many races at the track and Alex Palou strengthened is grip on the battle for the Astor Challenge Cup, NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Grosjean was producing incredible and bold passes that made him the star of the show.
Whether it was an impressive pass around the outside of Pato O’Ward in Turn 4 or a show-stopping divebomb on Jimmie Johnson in the famed Corkscrew corner, the driver of the No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda was having the time of his life.
While Grosjean has enjoyed a fun season as his racing career has been revitalized by the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, he’s also become a fan favorite with crowds cheering his name everywhere he goes. Knowing they liked what they saw Sunday, he wanted to show his appreciation for them, like they’ve done for him all season.
“(The fan reception) is difficult to describe, really,” Grosjean said. “I mean … yeah, it's difficult to describe. It's just been incredible. I had a podium when I got the ovation (at the IMS road course) and I almost cried, and I don't cry very often. It's been more than anything I could imagine.
“Without the fans, we wouldn't be racing. Without the fans, there wouldn't be any TV viewership. If there's no viewership, there's no sponsor. If there's no sponsor, there's no job. They are a very important part of what we do. But what they give me back is just incredible. So, I wanted to share with them the podium.”
Grosjean started the day 13th in his first race at the famed 11-turn, 2.238-mile road course. He used a three-stop pit strategy to make his way toward the front of the field, and it worked.
Grosjean was the only other driver besides Herta to lead the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 19, and again on Lap 69. In total, he led four of the 95 laps. He made a race-high 27 passes on track, 15 of which were for position. He was also tied with Josef Newgarden as the biggest mover of the race, rising 10 positions from start to finish.
Grosjean said the middle stint of his pit strategy was challenging because he was trying to go as long as he could to ensure his last pit stop was later in the race so his tires would be fresher than the rest of the field’s.
The challenge was worth it for Grosjean and the fans. He pitted for the final time on Lap 73, and he blended onto the racetrack in seventh. Then his final charge toward the front started.
Over 20 laps, Grosjean made up 22 seconds on leader Herta with fresh tires and a series of audacious passes, to the point that it looked like Grosjean could catch Herta in the closing laps.
But his run took a turn with seven laps remaining while running third. Grosjean was closing in on Johnson’s lapped No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda up the hill and into the iconic Corkscew turn, which is a blind, downhill left-right turn that has been home to several iconic INDYCAR SERIES moments.
Former Formula One driver Grosjean hit seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson as they entered the corner side-by-side. Miraculously, and likely thanks to their world-class experience, both drivers continued.
Grosjean said he felt a vibration in the car after that contact, but the payoff of having his Zanardi moment, similar to Alex Zanardi’s famed pass of Bryan Herta in the Corkscrew in 1996, felt better.
“I was definitely going in,” Grosjean said. “I think Jimmie probably didn't see me. He was pushing hard to protect Alex (Palou, teammate) from me, which is the game. So, we made a bit of contact. Had a lot of passes on the Corkscrew, which was good. Felt a bit like Zanardi, which is not a bad thing.”
To Grosjean’s point, it was his second Zanardi-like pass of the day in the Corkscrew. He put an impressive pass on six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon earlier in the race and made it through with no contact.
Still, Grosjean’s thrilling on-track performance Sunday wasn’t enough to leapfrog fellow rookie Scott McLaughlin in the Rookie of the Year points battle. Grosjean sits 20 points behind McLaughlin, driver of the No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet, with one race remaining next weekend on the Streets of Long Beach.
Grosjean hoped he closed the gap more to his rival that has competed all season, unlike Grosjean, who skipped the first three oval races of the season, including the double-points Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, before deciding to compete at World Wide Technology Raceway in his oval debut.
Mathematically, he still has a chance to win the Rookie of the Year honors, but it will take luck next weekend. Regardless, Grosjean said he would be happy to lose this honor to McLaughlin, whom he respects.
“You’re kidding me? I didn’t pick up more than that? Bloody hell,” Grosjean joked of his gap to McLaughlin. “It’s OK. Scott can have it. That’s what I said from the beginning of the year. I’m very impressed with Scott McLaughlin. I think Scott definitely is more rookie (of the year) than I am.”
Even if Grosjean, 35, doesn’t win the Rookie of the Year title next weekend in Long Beach, odds are he’s going to give the California crowd something to cheer about. And while they’re cheering, the Frenchman will be smiling back, honored by what the crowd is giving him in return.