Do you know those 4×4 buggies that people drive around sand dunes?
They’re a little wild-looking, a little … mad-looking.
When I was kid, man, I wanted to drive one of those so bad. You see, I had a dream. It was sort of strange — but I was little, so who cares? I don’t even know where it came from, or how I thought of it. It was just in my mind. I would tell my parents about it and they would shake their heads at me.
Romain … that’s not going to happen.
This was my dream: I wanted to find gold in the desert. You know Indiana Jones? I wanted to be like the Swiss Indiana Jones, or something. That was all I wanted to do when I grew up. I know, it sounds ridiculous and doesn’t make any sense, but it was what I wanted. I had this image in my head: Me in a big black dune buggy, racing across the Sahara desert — being chased by some bad guys or something — trying to find a chest of gold.
Romain the gold hunter, Romain the buggy driver — that was going to be me. But the best part of my dream wasn’t the gold, it was the 4×4 buggy. I knew I loved speed from the all the biking I had done as a kid, and I knew I loved racing. And what kid doesn’t love a dune buggy?
Looking back, I never really got close to one. Or even close to a desert. But I didn’t forget about the dream. And I never lost my love for driving. Never.
Even now — with next season marking 10 years since I debuted in Formula One — I still think about my dream from time to time. I think about how silly it was, but I also think about other dreams I still have — and they’re not so silly. I know where they come from. And I know I still have a chance to make them come true.
But here’s the thing: F1 is a funny sport. Driving for one of the teams that’s not one of the top two or three in the sport makes you see racing differently. I haven’t won a race in seven years — in any series. My job is to win. But such is life in F1. It’s a bit weird.
I feel like I’ve learned some things in F1 — and I want to share my thoughts and my thanks, and I also want to bring you inside the world of our sport, and our team, Haas F1. Because it’s a special place unlike any other racing team I’ve ever been a part of it. And F1 needs more teams like Haas.
Haas is one of the things that make F1 great. The team is filled with determined goal-setters, out-of-the-box technical thinkers and yes, even crazy dreamers. I’m lucky to be a part of this team, because there was a time not so long ago when this opportunity felt like it would never come.
In early 2010, I was coming off my first seven races in F1 to end the 2009 season with Renault. I was expecting to get a seat with the team going into the 2010 season. I felt I had raced well. I felt I was on the right trajectory. But — and you might know this — the politics in F1 are quite … prevalent, let’s say. I tried to keep to myself as a rookie — to lay low. But then I heard I was “arrogant” and a had a “big ego.” And the thing is … that just wasn’t true. I was just shy. I was just me! So some people didn’t like me I guess, and on January 31st, I got a call from Éric Boullier, the Renault team principal.
“Romain, I am sorry to say this, but yes, we have signed Vitaly Petrov to the seat for this season.”
I hung up the phone at around 10:30 a.m., thinking my F1 career was over.
And right away, I began to pack.
The thing about me is, I’m all or nothing. Even when I was little, if I got into something, like BMX for example, then I really got into it. Ask my mom. Ask her about all the times I launched myself off our balcony in Geneva. Ask her how many times she took me to the hospital after I pushed my BMX past it’s limits.
Courtesy of Romain Grosjean
So when I got off the phone with Éric, F1 for me was no longer all … it was just nothing. And if I didn’t have a ride in F1, then where did I go next?
I was a bit more of a dreamer, back then than I am now. But I believed in myself. And I believed in myself so much that I thought that I was going to be able to change careers that day.
At around 5 p.m., a few hours after I got off the phone with Éric, I caught a train from Geneva to Paris. The high-speed one. I was in a rush. I called my girlfriend, now my wife, to let her know that I was coming to visit her.
And that I had some news about my career.
I was going to be a chef.
Yes, a chef.
I grew up loving food. I watched my mom cook great meals in our family home. I can still remember the smells of the cheeses in our kitchen, the tastes of the chocolate for dessert. And also, chocolate is my religion. Put that on a T-shirt.
I always loved cooking, and I knew a thing or two about fine dining, so, yeah, Romain the chef. That’ll do.
Would you eat at my restaurant?
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it never got to that point. I did actually go to cooking school in Paris. Like I physically went to the building. But they didn’t even let me sign up. Can you believe that? I was told I was too old. Too old! I was 24! So that was that. No cooking.
All or nothing. And I was back to nothing.
So I lived in Paris for three months. Eating food. Wishing I could cook it. And so on. I never gave up on trying to get back into racing — the passion for our sport … it’s impossible to shake. It really is. So after awhile … I knew there was no choice for me but to return. It still stung that I wasn’t in F1, or that I had to re-climb my way up a bit, but those three months sort of lit a fire in me.
I connected with a few teams in April 2010, and over the next few years I found a love for racing that went beyond F1. I did GP2, GT1, AutoGP — all these different series, in different continents with people who weren’t there for the glamour or the fame. These people just loved to race. That was it. They wanted to show up that weekend, put their car together, and beat the other racers with raw pace. And if I could drive the car as fast the team knew it could go, I would stay in the seat. They didn’t care if I was quiet or if I didn’t have a big entourage.
When the time came for me to get a second chance in F1, I felt ready. I felt like a more complete person, and driver, than I was the first time around. I signed with Lotus in 2012, and my first few months back in F1 went really well. We had a some great qualifying results and podiums in Bahrain, Canada and Hungary.
And then Spa happened.
Luca Bruno/AP PhotoLeading up to the grand prix we had such strong results, and I wanted a win so badly. I believed it was possible, our whole team did. I was pushing too hard, too early, and I had been making a few mistakes on a couple of opening laps that year. In Spa, I needed a really good start. I drove beyond the limits. It lead to that first lap incident in Belgium, and I paid the price. It was a difficult weekend. I was all over the place, mentally, for a few days. I couldn’t think straight — I couldn’t think about getting in the car again.
Above everything else, I’m glad nobody was hurt. I learned a lesson — a big one — that day: An F1 race is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
Even though racing can feel like an individual sport for viewers, and even drivers at time, I knew I had people to lean on for help; my family has done more for me than I could ever repay, my team and friends were there for me, too. It meant a lot.
I was introduced to a sports psychologist in Paris a few months before the race in Spa, and I began meeting with her regularly after the grand prix — and I haven’t stopped since. Our sessions have changed my career and my life, without a doubt. F1 is such a heady sport. As drivers, we’re so isolated and mistakes we make impact a team that consists of hundreds of people across the world.
One of the most important things I try to take away from our meetings is the idea of the big picture. That there is so much more to a race than Lap 1. That there is so much more to a season than one race. And there is so much to who I am than my F1 career. I’m a father, a husband, a wannabe chef. All those things matter, a lot. And it’s not that I didn’t know that, but for me, it was about prioritizing my life and getting myself — my mind — right, before I could figure out how to be the quickest again.There is so much more to a race than Lap 1.
So when I moved to Haas in 2016, the big picture was so, so important. I was 30, with my third F1 team and, most important, starting a new project with Haas. My goal as a driver changed a little bit. I wanted to know, How can I make sure this team, this group of people at Haas, are better in five years than they are today?
Because we’re growing every day, and we want to keep improving every season.
But, boy … the beginning was rough.
Our first grand prix in Australia in 2016 was chaotic. We didn’t get a lot of laps in pre-season testing so we had barely any info on the car going into Melbourne. Then it rained on Friday, so no laps. We didn’t even know if the radio worked. Then Saturday, we finally got out of the garage and someone hit us in the pit lane. We had to change the floor of the car and we missed even more time. Then qualifying was a disaster because F1 had implemented that new, ridiculous elimination-style quali that ended up getting removed a few weeks later. Remember that? Anarchy, man, anarchy.
But then Sunday happened. And the race ended, and we were in sixth place.
P6. In the points. Unbelievable. Truly amazing.
Beforehand, we thought we might be lucky to finish the race. Our telemetry failed during the grand prix. Our radio failed at times. Our car hadn’t even driven a full race distance leading up to that weekend.
But P6 … what a dream.
That whole day was really, really special. I remember seeing our team principal, Guenther Steiner. His face showed how proud he was of everyone in the garage. It was just relief. Love and excitement going around the whole Haas area of the paddock.
When I look back on my career, I’ll think of that day right away. I love that story. I loved that weekend.
That’s because, often, F1 can seem like a sport where the underdogs have so little chance. And I know as much as anyone that it can be like that. But when results like Australia 2016 happen, and you can see firsthand what a group of determined individuals can do … it makes you believe in yourself even more.
In the years that have followed since our first race, our Haas team has done so much growing. From everyone at the team’s headquarters in Kannapolis, North Carolina, our bases in the United Kingdom and Italy, to Gene Haas, the owner — we’ve come a long way as a team.
Lars Baron/Getty Images
Like I said on the radio in Australia, “winning” for each team can mean different things. The realities of F1 are clear: There are two or three teams that have the personnel and the budget to have a realistic chance at winning races consistently. That’s just the way it is. It’s not good, or bad, it’s just like that. It can make life in the middle a little tricky.
But I know this: Gene Haas isn’t in F1 to finish in the middle.
And that’s why I’m so excited about our future. I’m excited for this winter, for testing, to see the new car. Because I believe in us.
And we know, at Haas, how tough the task is in the next few years if we want to be up there with the big dogs
But, if you told 10-year-old Romain that he was going to try to apply to cooking school one day, get rejected, and then try to win races for an American F1 team — he would have called you crazy.
And then he would have told you about finding gold in the desert.