I've been flying the flag for Romain Grosjean for the best part of this Formula 1 season. In searching for a new driver to support, following the departure of the great Rubens Barrichello, the talent of Grosjean really caught my eye, and I've been cheering for him, and the Lotus team, ever since. (Of course, I'm not as attached to him yet as I was to Barrichello - there is a small part of me which still hopes the veteran Brazillian driver may yet return in 2013 - but it's a work in progress; Barrichello left big race boots to fill!)
It has, however, been difficult to keep the faith, over the past fews days, in the midst of the backlash from last weekend's first-corner carnage at Spa Francorchamps, in Belgium. The crash which took out Championship contenders Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, as well as Sauber's Sergio Pérez was initially triggered by Grosjean off the start line, and this is the reason for his unfortunate one-race ban.
To be absoutely clear, I am certainly not condoning Grosjean's driving off the line in Belgium; having watched numerous replays, it was definitely a very poor piece of driving, and the resulting incident was frighteningly close to being very serious indeed (in terms of injuries, or even fatalities). The punishment for this error of judgement is severe, but not unfair. My worry, though, is that it unfairly tarnishes other race fans' opinions of Grosjean - a young, talented racing driver, with lots to give.
Something which has particularly alerted me to this possibility is the statistic being constantly parroted in news articles, and on forums and message-boards across the web, that Grosjean has been involved in no fewer than seven incidents in the opening stages of a Grand Prix - six times on the first lap, and once on the second lap.
Whilst factually accurate, it is my opinion that this statistic doesn't portray Grosjean in a fair light. After all, how many of those incidents were actually his fault - and on how many occasions was he just unlucky? I have been looking into this, and with the help of this handy video from BBC sport, showing all of Grosjean's opening-lap crashes this year, I shall attempt to point my point-of-view across.
In the opening race of the 2012 season, at Melbourne's Albert Park circuit in Australia, Grosjean collided with Pastor Maldonado on Lap 2, breaking his front suspension, and forcing his retirement from the race. The two young drivers are side-by-side coming around the corner, their cars touch, and Grosjean slithers off onto the gravel with his right front wheel hanging off at a very strange angle indeed. Former Grand Prix driver, and BBC Sport commentator David Coulthard is very quick to pin the blame for this incident on Grosjean:
"The pass was done, and Grosjean should've got out of the power there!"But having watched this crash several times, I can't honestly say I agree with that analysis. As they come 'round the bend, it looks to me like Maldonado squeezes Grosjean, and he runs out of room on the track.
I don't have the experience or the insight of Coulthard, of course, but I can't reconcile myself with the idea that this crash is solely Romain Grosjean's fault. At the apex of the turn, the two cars are level with each other - Maldonado has more pace, but he has to allow Grosjean the space he needs on the exit of the corner, and he doesn't do that. In my opinion, this is purely a "racing incident" - just one of those things that happens.
This first lap collision with Michael Schumacher is a difficult one to call. So much rain is there spattered on the lenses of the cameras that it's hard always to see what's going on in these replays. Relying as much on the commentary as anything else, it seems that Grosjean touched Schumacher's car from behind - which, in the wet conditions, was enough to send the German driver into a spin.
In my (inexpert) opinion, it appears to be another "racing incident" - although I would say that Grosjean is more at fault than Schumacher, on this one, being the car behind. Racing in wet weather is tough, though, and things happen so quickly that one tiny mistake can have big consequences.
In the end, Grosjean later retired from the race, and Schumacher recovered to finish 10th.
Another hard one to judge, this. Contact with Sergio Pérez at the third corner on the first lap causes a puncture on Pérez's car, forcing him to pit for tyres. The only camera angles I have found of this have been most unhelpful, and it is hard to see really what is going on - again, Grosjean closest to the edge of the race track here, and it's possible to accuse Pérez of not allowing him enough room, although this would be quite a flimsy claim.
The most concrete thing anyone can say about this incident is that there was no penalty award to either driver in its aftermath. If the Race Stewards (with many more camera angles than I will probably ever have access to!) didn't deem anyone to be at fault for this, then, in the absence of any firm evidence of to call my own, I can hardly go against that!
Yet another "racing incident" (at least in the eyes of the Stewards!) it would seem.
Grosjean's contact with Michael Schumacher off the line in Monaco was a particularly unfortunate one, I thought. It added to a catalogue of woes for the Schumacher - the seven-times World Champion had been the fastest car in Qualifying, but had been demoted for a pervious incident with Bruno Senna in Spain.
I really felt for Michael in this situation, as he hasn't had the best of luck since his return to the sport, and his Qualifying performance in Monaco allowed us all a glimpse of what he is truly capable of, and showed us that he can still be the great racing driver that he undoubtedly was during his first career in F1. This first-lap crash was a sad end to what had once been a very promising weekend for the German.
Having watched the replays, this is a fairly cut-and-dried one, and I have to concede that it is Grosjean's fault. He was ahead of Schumacher on the grid, but the Mercedes is faster, pulling up alongside Grosjean's Lotus as they move away. Grosjean is guilty here of not being quite aware enough of his surroundings, in my opinion - he doesn't seem really to know that Schumacher is there next to him, and he cuts across the Mercedes as they leave the grid, without allowing him enough space - they touch, and Grosjean's car spins 'round, ending his race.
Interestingly, David Coulthard's commentary doesn't assign the blame for this incident to Grosjean (although, in my opinion, that's quite clearly where it lies), saying instead:
"Unfortunately, I think that's just one of those things, in Monte Carlo."
Another heartache incident here, as the victim is promising young British driver Paul Di Resta who collects a puncture and ends up retiring from his home Grand Prix at Silverstone (interestingly, Di Resta's only non-finish so far this year).
Despite his impressive record, though (only one DNF this season), I am inclined to blame Paul for his puncture at the British Grand Prix. Di Resta's Force India car comes across the front of Grosjean's Lotus, as they exit the corner, and his rear wheel tags Grosjean's front wing, causing the puncture.
From watching the replays, there is nothing (so far as I can see, anyway!) which suggests that Grosjean in any way altered his course into the path of Paul Di Resta's car, and I can only assume that this was an error on the part of the British driver, thinking he was already well clear of Grosjean, when, in fact, they were still slightly overlapped.
Another really tough one to decide, here - not least because the footage of the actual incident itself is so scarce. It looks, from what I can see, as if Grosjean is hit from behind by Felipe Massa, but it is difficult to apportion blame to either driver, on such scant evidence. Like in Spain, the only thing I can say for definite is that there were no penalties handed out by the Stewards for what happened - in their eyes, I assume, this was another "racing incident", and from the little of it I've seen, that is an explanation which satisfies me.
So much has been written about this already, it seems a little pointless for me to delve into it too deeply now. Yes, of course this crash was Grosjean's fault - it was stupid and reckless, and it could've ended up seriously hurting someone.
So, in conclusion, only two of those incidents (Belgium and Monaco) were definitely Grosjean's fault. The other five are debatable, at best.
The one-race ban, as I've already said, is a harsh but fair punishment for the crash in Spa. I am pleased to see that Grosjean's response to his suspension from racing has been a mature and responsible one, apologising unreservedly for his actions, and vowing to be more aware from now on.
What saddens me, though, is articles painting Grosjean as a perpetually reckless or dangerous driver (like this one in the Globe and Mail) or comments and Blogs which lump Grosjean in with Pastor Maldonado - a man who, in my opinion, is a very dangerous driver, with a history of overly-aggressive driving, and using his car as a weapon (see the comments at the bottom of this article on ESPN for examples of what I mean).
I hope that, when the dust settles from all of this, and Grosjean returns to F1 in Singapore at the end of September, the world of racing fans can see through this unfortunate episode, and continue to recognise the talent and potential which this exciting young driver brings to the sport.