Despite all the success of veteran drivers at the World Wide Technology Raceway, an intriguing subplot of this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network) is Romain Grosjean’s oval-track debut.
The 10-year veteran of Formula One’s road racing series entered his first INDYCAR season wanting to take a wait-and-see approach to the ovals. Initially, he decided to sit them out, but with World Wide Technology Raceway being a short track and Grosjean now familiar with INDYCAR’s safety elements, he decided to give oval racing a go. He said he felt comfortable during last month’s test at the track.
“I want to see how it’s going,” Grosjean said of oval racing. “Everyone (in INDYCAR) seems to be enjoying ovals. I still prefer road courses (because) I like braking late. But I’m looking forward to it and seeing what we can get out of it.”
Grosjean drives the No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR, which is basically the same entry Santino Ferrucci piloted in his INDYCAR oval-track debut in 2019. Ferrucci posted top-10 finishes in three of his four oval races that season, including a fourth-place finish at Gateway. Last year, Palou showed well with this organization in the first four short-oval races of his career, posting an average finish of 13.0 at this track and Iowa Speedway.
Point being, team owner Dale Coyne has had success bringing along oval-track newcomers. Grosjean hopes to be the latest.
“There is not much room for mistake, and that’s something you need to keep in mind rather than just trying to go (all out) straight away,” Grosjean said.
Conor Daly offered an interesting approach for Grosjean on what he needs to know for Saturday’s race and why it also will be a challenge.
“I mean, honestly for Romain, it’s going to be tough without a doubt. I think when you show up to, like, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it being your first oval, there’s so much practice, right? There’s so much testing. Romain obviously got to test, which is great.
“When you’re out there, at Indy when we practice, you get a lot of traffic, you get kind of a feel for what’s going on. Realistically there’s so little track time in Gateway, he’s going to be thrust into a very, very new situation.
“I think he’s been so good lately and so aggressive, on the podium, fighting for everything, it could be one of those situations now where it’s kind of like, hey, let’s just do all the laps, figure this out. I’m sure he’s going to be doing more of these in the long run. I could see that happening, right?
“Probably best to get experience. But again, he’s been good at everything he’s done so as far this year, might surprise some people. But ovals are hard. They’re way harder racing than people expect them to be.
“I think when he makes moves, it’s different than making moves on road course, you know what I mean? If his spotter says there’s a car to your outside, I hope he believes them. Normally on a road course, there’s a car on my outside, I’m going to move that way anyway. There’s runoff, something going on there, you’re basically trying to play a game of who’s not going to lift. On ovals you can’t really do that. That’s kind of the one thing you have to get used to, respecting the lanes, figuring out who’s there, who’s actually still there.
“I’m excited for him, though. He’s pumped about it. He texted me as soon as they finished the Gateway test last time. Funny to kind of chat with him about it.”
Daly also says that Grosjean is getting more and more comfortable already and that the comfort is allowing him to be more aggressive as a result.
“I mean, I think he’s just getting used to it, right?” Daly said. “I think he’s been getting more aggressive, which is good, because he just knows more now. You know what I mean? He knows more. He’s getting more familiar with who’s out there and who’s driving, how they drive. He’s done a great job.
“I think there’s a lot of us who are learning. I think when we look at how close the field was at the Indy GP in qualifying, we qualified eighth, but we qualified sixth in May. We’re like, we were better in May. Actually it’s not true. We were much closer to the pole over the weekend, but the field just got a lot tighter.
“It’s kind of interesting to see where we were and where we are now. Romain definitely has done a good job.”
Grosjean has scored the second most points on natural road courses this year but is now set to go outside his comfort zone this weekend.