Written by Archie O’Reilly
Following the announcement that he would be succeeding Callum Ilott in the No.77 car for Juncos Hollinger Racing (JHR) in 2024, Romain Grosjean spoke to the media in a video news conference on Tuesday. He delved into details about the move and spoke about his expectations as he returns to one of IndyCar’s ‘smaller’ outfits…
How did the move come about?
“Pretty late in the year” was the first time Grosjean started to discuss a possible move to JHR. By the time that discussions commenced during the penultimate round of the season in Portland, Grosjean was on a run of only a solitary top 10 finish in 11 races. That weekend, his race would be curtailed on the opening lap after contact with the driver he is replacing.
At this stage, it was unclear that Ilott would be the driver departing. Funding issues surrounding Agustin Canapino in the No.78 car were supposedly prevalent, hence he was only confirmed to be returning to the team in recent weeks. It was only once the season concluded that the relationship between Ilott and Ricardo Juncos seemed to become irreparable.
The closing round of the season at Laguna Seca ultimately appeared to lay a final nail in the coffin for Ilott. The response, or more aptly absence of any prompt or thorough condemnation, to abuse dealt to Ilott by teammate Canapino’s fans after contact between the drivers, for which Ilott was blameless, did not display any adequate support for the Brit.
More discussions took place between Grosjean and the team during and after Laguna Seca before an agreement was found. “It’s a new challenge, a bit different than the last two years,” Grosjean said of the opportunity. “I’m excited about trying to keep building the momentum of Juncos. I’m excited to see what we can do together.
“I think on top of joining a new team, it will be a challenge for all of us, but nothing that we’re scared of. I think in 2022 we saw that I was suffering a little bit in terms of performance to get things going on my car. By the end of the 2022 season, we finally understood what I needed in the car. ‘23 was a lot better. I think it's just fine-tuning the car to your liking.”
Setting realistic expectations for the year
Grosjean’s venture to JHR for 2024 marks a return to a team more akin to Dale Coyne Racing (DCR), with whom he picked up three podiums and a 15th-place championship finish, despite missing three oval races, in his debut year. The expectations, against which he suffered in the last two years, are inevitably lower than at a powerhouse like Andretti.
“I’m not expecting to repeat the pole position from St. Petersburg 2023,” said Grosjean, who is expected to lead the JHR team forward somewhat. “We’re going to try, but I’m not expecting that. Maybe we repeat that straight away. But also I think it’s going to be my 25th season of racing next year - professionally since 2010. That experience is valuable.
“I’m hoping to bring it in the right way, in a good way, but also to listen to what was done at Juncos. I think over the last four races of the 2023 season they did really well and they were very competitive. I’m actually excited to discover something new and maybe put a little bit of my sauce on top of it.”
There are suggestions that Grosjean could thrive under less pressure than he was under at Andretti. And his time at DCR suggests that could be the case. But when you have Grosjean’s 179-race F1 experience, there is always going to be pressure to perform, especially now he is entering his fourth season in IndyCar.
“The pressure is on, but the pressure is on for myself,” he said. “I feel like I can still win races, feel like I can still be very competitive. I want to do that. I left F1 because I felt like I just didn’t want to be on the grid to be on the grid. I wanted to be competitive. There was no option.
“Coming to IndyCar, I felt like I could be competitive with Coyne, I could be competitive with Andretti. I’m hoping we can be competitive at Juncos Hollinger and do well.”
Avoiding an explosive relationship
It is well-known that Grosjean, as genuine a character as he is off the track, can be a tricky customer to deal with. That side became all too public at the end of the 2023 season, when Grosjean had an outburst, arguing with team members, in direct view of the cameras after a poor qualifying display at Portland. It was not a great look.
This sort of incident was seemingly not uncommon and rubbed the Andretti team up the wrong way, with Michael Andretti making remarks about the situation in interviews during the season. As Grosjean continued to suffer a few too many incidents and his performance level never really consistently picked up, tensions only appeared to simmer more.
There have been issues of Grosjean maybe not taking accountability where he could, for instance. This has led to fractures that JHR became a little too familiar with in 2023, with an apparent bust-up leading to Ilott’s departure after his perceived mistreatment. There are obviously, in some quarters, questions over how Grosjean and Juncos could mix.
“I try to avoid explosion as much as I can,” Grosjean said. “We’ll see. I think time will tell. I’m aware of all the questions. I think that’s a big talking point right now. We may be surprised in good, we may be surprised in bad. I’lll do my best on my end for sure. I’ll try to improve. I think you can always improve in life.
“I also feel like it could be a different atmosphere and feeling, ongoing relationship with Juncos. So far I’ve really enjoyed the time I spent with Ricardo. I got lucky to spend quite a bit of time with him in Austin during the Formula One weekend, which was nice. I think we’re aware of that potential situation, so we’ll do our best on each end.”
Being teammates with Canapino
Grosjean joins one of 2023’s surprise packages at Juncos. Argentine touring car legend Canapino finished second in the Rookie of the Year standings, ahead of two drivers with experience on the Road to Indy, despite having no prior open-wheel experience. That has caught the eye of even the experienced likes of Grosjean.
“I was very impressed with Agustin's performance through the year, learning a lot,” he said. “We spent a lot of the last race, Laguna Seca, together, especially the beginning of the race. I was saving fuel. He was staying in my rear wing, and I thought he was not saving fuel, but he was - bad news for me. He’s done a tremendous job. I’m excited to get to discover him.
“Coming to single-seaters was not easy, and he’s done really well. I’ve had a few chats with him - a very nice and gentle guy. I’ll be able to improve my Spanish a lot, which I’m excited about, and also to learn from him. I’m excited to get to spend time with Agustin. He’s a great champion in Argentina. I’m sure he can be a great champion in the US.”
Coming onboard at a team with Spanish-speaking roots, Grosjean is keen to learn the language. But he has little hope of picking it up as quickly as Canapino acquired English last year. “I think he's going to beat me on that one,” Grosjean joked. “I’m doing Duolingo every day. I can say women are drinking milk and the kids are reading the newspaper.”
On a less bright note, there is the prospect of Canapino’s fans showing a toxic side if any on-track skirmishes do occur. This caused Ilott to have to switch his social media accounts to private this year, and it was one part of the breakdown in relationship with the team.
“Some people don’t like me,” Grosjean said. “Fine by me. I think you lose time coming to my socials if you don’t like me anyway. Hopefully everything goes well, but I’m aware of what happened with Callum. It wasn’t ideal. I felt for him. If it happens to me, yeah, I just don’t go on social media, keep doing my stuff.”
Balancing commitments with Lamborghini
If he wasn’t to return to IndyCar in 2024, which doesn’t seem like it was much of a prospect anyway, Grosjean did have sportscar commitments to fall back on as part of Lamborghini’s new entry in IMSA’s premier Grand Touring Prototype class.
“With Lamborghini, I am the third or fourth driver - the one for the endurance races,” he confirmed. “We have Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, Le Mans 24, Indianapolis and Petit Le Mans. All of those races are free from IndyCar, or IndyCar is free from those races. That's a good calendar.
“With the F1 [broadcasting] on top, I think I’m going to end up doing 30 race weekends next year. I’m still very passionate about it and like it. The day you don’t like it, you can always say I’m stopping. Right now I love it. It is time away from the family, it is consuming. I’m home right now and I miss racing. I think it’s a good sign.”
Grosjean may now be 37 years old, but he is by no means showing any signs of wanting to wind up his career. Instead, he is still chasing the elusive win in IndyCar despite achieving six podiums across his first three years. And if he could achieve that with JHR - ‘the small team that could’ - then it would be one of IndyCar’s great stories.