x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Raw speed is key ingredient in F1

It seems easier to teach a quick driver not to crash than to get an average driver to drive quicker, which explains why Romain Grosjean has a seat for 2013 and Kamui Kobayashi does not.

Romain Grosjean out-qualified Lotus teammate Kimi Raikkonen nine times in 2012. His natural pace was why he retained his seat for 2013. Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP
Romain Grosjean out-qualified Lotus teammate Kimi Raikkonen nine times in 2012. His natural pace was why he retained his seat for 2013. Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP

On paper it does not seem fair that a driver who spent half the season crashing into other cars has retained his seat in Formula One while a guy who had his best season in the series – almost matching the efforts of a teammate considered good enough to drive for McLaren-Mercedes in 2013 – loses his.

But this is the scenario that has presented itself this week with the news that Romain Grosjean has been kept on by Lotus for next season, while Kamui Kobayashi has given up on remaining in F1 for 2013 after being dropped by Sauber.

Kobayashi was unlucky in some respects that no more drives were available elsewhere once his Swiss employers decided they were not going to keep him on, as they brought in both Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez.

Kobayashi is a safe pair of hands. Yes, his overtaking moves have in the past earned him a bit of a wild-man reputation, but he enjoyed a consistent 2012, with his 60 points only six less than his Sauber teammate Sergio Perez, who will drive for McLaren next year.

The issue is that only rarely did Kobayashi show the kind of form that screamed race winner. He could be quick if the machinery allowed him, but you never got the feeling he was extracting more than the maximum from a car – unlike Fernando Alonso at Ferrari for example.

He was absolutely on form in October in Japan when, roared on by a partisan home crowd, he outraced both the McLarens to finish third for the first podium of his career. But, unfortunately for Kobayashi, F1 takes place only once a season in Japan, so that kind of display was a one-off in 2012.

The reason Perez got the McLaren job was the view he was able to make a difference when the opportunity arose, most notably when he almost won in Malaysia.

Kobayashi's consistency rarely caught the eye, and unfortunately being reliable is not enough in F1 these days.

Which brings us nicely on to Grosjean, who was the opposite of reliable in the past season. While his teammate Kimi Raikkonen finished every race, only failing to score points once in 20 races, Grosjean had a 50 per cent success rate with 10 finishes in 10 races.

He was called an "embarrassing first-lap nutcase" by Mark Webber in Japan after he crashed his Lotus into the side of the Red Bull driver's car, one of many incidents he was involved in during the opening stages of a race in 2012, although not all were his fault.

He even became the first driver in 18 years to be banned from a grand prix after his reckless slice across the grid at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix caused chaos.

You could be forgiven for wondering just how, on reading this, Grosjean kept his job, given his mistakes.

The answer comes in two words. Raw speed.

Some drivers have natural pace, some do not. Grosjean is quick, very quick. He demonstrated his speed in the opening race in Australia when he was third fastest, and his qualifying times were strong for most of the year.

Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, is no mug and 16 pole positions in his career show he knows a thing or two about putting together a quick lap.

Grosjean out-qualified him nine times in 2012 – a pretty good effort for guy who had been away from the sport for two years and had only raced in seven grands prix before this season.

When he managed to get around the opening lap of a race without having damaged his car he was solid.

What the Lotus bosses weighed up when they chose to retain Grosjean is the following conundrum: is it easier to teach a quick driver not to crash such a lot, or coach an average driver to go faster.

They have clearly gone with the former.

If he stays out of trouble, and if is the operative word, Grosjean could be a real factor at the front. He has the speed, now he needs the consistency.

Mika Hakkinen, the double world champion, had his fair share of shunts in his early days in F1, so much so that he was the last man before Grosjean to be banned for a race after he caused a multi-car pile-up at the opening corner of the German Grand Prix in 1994.

He bounced back and cut out the errors, and he would go on to be a regular race winner.

Now, this column is not saying Grosjean is a future world champion. There is a lot of work ahead, but he has the raw speed already.

The likes of Kobayashi are a safe option, but only rarely do they find the pace necessary to make a difference. Grosjean has it and Lotus can only hope he finds the rest of the package required to be a contender.


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