Romain Grosjean had to fight hard to get a second chance in F1 with Lotus this season. The Frenchman talks to Gary Meenaghan about how races in the UAE helped in his rise to the top.
Maturing Romain Grosjean has food for thought on return to Yas
Romain Grosjean is lost. It is January 2008 and the young Frenchman is visiting Dubai for a week-long, warm-weather preseason training camp ahead of the new GP2 Asia Series.
It is his first time in the emirate (or, as he calls it, "a cool, crazy city with massive, big buildings") and, like many young, adventurous tourists who visit this land of sand, he has signed up for an afternoon exploring the rolling dunes on a quad bike.
Only, somewhere along the way, his enthusiasm for excessive speed has got the better of him.
"After five minutes out on the quad, I turned around and there was nobody with me," he told The National.
"It was like being stuck in an ocean of sand with nothing around. I was completely lost.
"Luckily, I met some guys who were living out there and they told me where to go. I couldn't understand how they knew, but they just said 'It is part of our culture.' For me, that was amazing because they were right, I got back and am still alive!"
Grosjean should be forever thankful to the Bedouin who guided him. A few days later, he was standing atop the podium at the Dubai Autodrome celebrating a memorable double win for ART Grand Prix in the opening two rounds of the Asian season.
Twelve months later, he had coasted to victory in the drivers' championship, scoring almost twice as many points as his closest rival, Sebastien Buemi.
Already a Formula One test driver, Grosjean's victory in the GP2 Asia series and a fourth-place finish in the full GP2 championship - as well as an ability to provide the prerequisite financial backing for F1 - was enough to see him make the step up midway through the 2009 season, when he then-23 year old's introduction to the top table of motorsport was, however, far from a fairy tale.
A succession of brake problems and a general struggle to get to grips with the car, saw Grosjean fail to finish in the points at any of his seven races.
He was forced to retire in Belgium and Singapore and, at the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, he started 19th from 20 cars and was the last car to finish.
It came as little surprise when Renault announced he would not retain his race seat for the following year.
It is said that once a setback is suffered, the best solution is to jump straight back in the saddle. Grosjean, having been disregarded by the F1 fraternity, signed up instead to race in the GT1 World Championship, the first race of which took place at Yas Marina Circuit.
It was a bittersweet moment to return to the scene of his final F1 race, but fortunately he enjoyed a more positive afternoon in the sun.
"Well, in 2009 Formula One, I was last on the grid and almost last in the race and in GT1, I won - so I prefer the time in GT1!" he said, remembering his first post-F1 return to to the capital.
"That first time, when it came to getting in the GT1 car at Yas, it did not feel too strange, because I knew it was a way to try to get back into Formula One and that was always the ambition."
It took longer than Grosjean would have hoped, but the ambition edged closer last November when his success in the 2011 GP2 championship was rewarded with two free practice sessions for Renault.
One took place in Brazil and one, inevitably, took place two weeks earlier at the track that seems to uncannily appear during important moments of his career: Yas Marina Circuit.
"It was all part of the process to get back into Formula One," he said. "The GP2 championship was very important, but the practice session at Yas and then two weeks later in Brazil was crucial, especially as Yas Marina is a circuit that I already knew very well."
Grosjean's performances were enough to see him given the seat for this season and he will return to Yas Marina one more time this weekend. Much like the Abu Dhabi skyline, both the Frenchman and Renault have evolved considerably since 2009.
Renault are now registered as Lotus, while Grosjean has shorn his shaggy hair and married his long-term girlfriend in July.
Yet it has been his performances on track that have been the biggest indicator that the 26 year old has matured with age. He still has a world champion as a teammate - three years ago it was Fernando Alonso, now it is Kimi Raikkonen - but this season he has been able to hold his own and fight for points.
An impressive start to the season in Australia saw him out-qualify Raikkonen and in the following 11 races, he claimed three podiums including a career-best second-place in Canada.
"I have learnt a lot since 2009, but the most important thing is my maturity; I have matured a lot," he said. "It was a tough time back then, but it has made me stronger. Today is very different and far more enjoyable, but part of the reason is because I have evolved a lot. A driver must always evolve."
Certainly, Grosjean's decision-making must improve. In the first half of the season, he was involved in seven first-lap incidents, but it was his aggressive manoeuvre on Lewis Hamilton in Belgium in September that saw his maturity questioned once again. At Spa, the Lotus driver squeezed Hamilton off the track on the approach to Turn One, resulting in the Englishman losing control of his McLaren-Mercedes and colliding into the back of Grosjean, who in turn was catapulted over the top of Fernando Alonso's Ferrari.
Grosjean's recklessness saw him fined €50,000 (Dh238,100) and hit with a one-race ban by the FIA, making him the first driver for 18 years to be ordered by authorities to miss a round of the world championship as he sat out the Italian Grand Prix.
The severity of the punishment forced Grosjean to reconsider his driving style and he argues he has emerged from the experience a better driver, though Mark Webber, the Red Bull Racing driver, may not agree with that after being hit by the Frenchman at the second corner of the Japanese Grand Prix last month, and Grosjean was penalised with a 10-second stop-go penalty as a result.
"If you have a hill in front of you and you go to the top and then go down, you emerge stronger after it," he said. "Monza was not the most exciting race of the season for me, but it was good to be on the pitwall and listen to Kimi and the engineers. I learnt a lot."
Grosjean is hoping he can put his new-found knowledge and his three years of maturity to good use when he returns to the UAE this week. And this time, having now raced at Yas Marina seven times in different series, he will not appear lost among his peers and will certainly not require directions from the Bedouin.
Don't miss The National's 44-page Abu Dhabi Grand Prix magazine - available from Thursday