The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius was famous for his sage writings on human virtues. So what will Romain Grosjean learn from his visit to a Confucian temple in Shanghai?
He says he’s at the peak of his career and just waiting for his chance to finally prove himself
“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”
Confucian wisdom is mostly expressed in aphorisms. Many sayings attributed to the man himself were committed to paper only after his death. Thus one of the civilised world’s great humanists hovers somewhere out of reach – there and yet not there. So we could be heading for a culture clash today as we escort a driver well known for speaking his mind, plainly and without an f-bomb lter, to a temple devoted to the presence of this great thinker and moralist.
The Confucian temple in Jiading is in itself an unusual sight, a small oasis of tranquility and traditional architecture juxtaposed with chaotic human trafc and new-build concrete in what, up until a few years ago, was the middle of nowhere. That was before the Shanghai International Circuit was built just up the road, followed by a crashing tidal wave of construction as the city itself enveloped the neighbourhood.
In spite of the pollution, Romain is enthusiastic at this opportunity to break from the usual Chinese Grand Prix grind. He takes in his surroundings, snapping seles and even breaking into a jog for another photo opportunity. Passing a statue of Confucius reading to a group of students, Romain hails the immobile gure chummily – “Hello, friend!” – and stops for a picture. When F1 Racing enquires what wisdom the statue might have imparted to him, he smiles: “We’ve got a joke in French, but it’s maybe a bit too early for it!” “Go on…”
“‘Whoever has an itchy bum in the evening has got a smelly nger in the morning!’ We used to say Confucius said that!”
We’re prepared to bet that the teacher’s Four Books and Five Classics (the latter of which includes the seminal I Ching – The Book of Changes), don’t feature this phrase.
Perhaps his energetic mood is down to the encouraging start Haas have made to their second season in F1; our outing comes ten days after Grosjean’s outstanding – if ultimately unrewarded – performance in Australia. But he has also been cheered by a short trip back to Geneva to see his wife and two children, adding to his good spirits.
Still, if we may be permitted to express something approaching a Confucian truism, talent is no guarantee of success in F1. The combination of the right car, the right team and the right time is essential for a driver to reach the top and become champion. Fernando Alonso’s career, in which those elements have arrived and departed asynchronously, is a prime example.
A temple built in 1219, and taking as long to construct as Romain has been alive, puts the topic of age into perspective as we broach the subject of what is likely to be a crucial year for the 31-year-old.
“I think I’ve been ready to get a big seat – even to get the chance – for a few years,” Grosjean insists. “I’m 31, which is kind of old compared to the guys in their 20s we’ve got now, but I don’t feel tired; I don’t think I’ve done everything I want to do. There will be chances, I think, at the end of the year, but all I can do is the best job I can for the team.”
Walking to the nearby Fahua Pagoda, we must leave the tranquillity of the temple and cross a busy main road, dodging silent scooters and impatient taxi drivers. This is perhaps not the best spot in which to meditate upon virtue ethics, but in spite of Romain’s earlier diversion into vulgarity, there is perhaps some evidence of the Confucian spirit seeping through. Of the core Confucian teachings, the notion of Ren – meaning humaneness or benevolence – is viewed as the source of all virtues. “One should see nothing improper, hear nothing improper, say nothing improper, do nothing improper,” Confucius is reported to have instructed an acolyte.
“Politeness!” Romain calls out as he observes F1 Racing’s photographer shoo a local resident out of shot in front of the ornate pagoda anked by a murky waterway.
The Confucian principle of Li instructs students to be proactive and positive, and Grosjean certainly followed such a path in joining Haas ahead of the 2016 season. Instead of waiting to see if Renault returned to take over what seemed to be his spiritual home at Enstone, he chose to take his experience to a new team to give himself a better shot at a big seat in the future.
Ferrari are the clear target in this long game, since Kimi Räikkönen, as last year, is on a one-year deal. But Grosjean actually came closest to joining the Silver Arrows, following Nico Rosberg’s retirement. And since Valtteri Bottas is also on a short-term contract, the opportunity may come again. Don’t be fooled by his radio outbursts and emotional character; patience is a virtue Grosjean possesses in abundance.
“We may have spoken to Mercedes,” he says with a grin. “I don’t have Toto’s number but my manager lives in Vienna. There were a few names on the table and a few of them made sense. I believe I was one of the ones making sense, let’s put it that way.
“My manager contacted them. There were a few names that would have made sense, Valtteri was one of them. I think Nico Hülkenberg was another name. If you look at drivers with experience I think I was one of them as well. Things happen or don’t happen for some reason and, actually, I think I’m good where I am.”
His initial pride in stating he held talks with Merc is clearly tempered with a tinge of regret that the move didn’t happen, but Grosjean knows he has a car with which he can show further progress this season.
“Maybe other opportunities are coming in the near future. Of course, being in a Mercedes is something quite special and if you can make it happen alongside Lewis and get a good year then wonderful. But if it doesn’t happen, then it can be risky. You will tell me F1 is risky anyway, so it’s not a factor! But I’m looking for the positives in it.
“The positives are that my name has been on the table at one point, which shows that the world champion team respects what I’m doing. I guess I’ve proved in the past I could win the championship with a good car.
“It was great that my name was there, but it’s good that I am with Haas for a second year; I want to make the team stronger. I don’t feel as if I’ve done enough to move somewhere else right now, so I’m pretty pleased that I’m here and we can do more.”
A positive outlook sums up Grosjean’s approach. While the Haas team polo shirt he wears is standard attire within the circuit connes, it’s noticeable that he’s wearing it now, with a certain pride, while wandering the narrow streets around the Pagoda.
Amid the bustle, the inquisitive Romain stops at one stage to inspect a stall selling fried chicken. What’s unusual here is the presence of heads and feet alongside the array of wings. Despite F1 Racing’s offer to purchase some, he politely declines.
“I THINK I’VE BEEN READY TO GET A BIG SEAT – EVEN TO GET THE CHANCE – FOR A FEW YEARS. I’M 31, WHICH IS KIND OF OLD COMPARED TO THE GUYS IN THEIR 20S WE’VE GOT NOW, BUT I DON’T FEEL TIRED; I DON’T THINK I’VE DONE EVERYTHING I WANT TO DO”
“THE DRIVER MARKET AT THE END OF THE YEAR IS GOING TO BE PRETTY OPEN. NEXT YEAR COULD BE A CHANCE, BUT THINGS THAT MUST HAPPEN, WILL HAPPEN. IF THEY DON’T THERE’S A REASON. HOPEFULLY ONE DAY WE GET A NICE PHONE CALL!”
He might not quite have the stomach for the street food, but Grosjean is up for a ght this season, working with a sports psychologist to maximise his potential.
“It’s an important year. And the driver market at the end of the year is going to be pretty open. Next year could be a chance, but things that must happen will happen. If they don’t there’s a reason, and I’m trying to improve in a lot of areas, to keep learning about F1, to keep delivering, and hopefully one day we get a nice phone call!”
This philosophical approach is paying off. He’s mellowed a lot on the track since his crash-strewn return with Lotus in 2012, coinciding with the growth of his family.
“I think I’m living the best time of my life and I don’t think I’m yet at the peak of everything I can do. So it’s actually very positive because I look to the future, and I don’t think I’m 31 and one of the old guys. I’m 31 but I’m getting better and better.
“I don’t have to ask myself the questions I was asking initially. You still wonder at winter testing: ‘Am I still good? Did I lose it or not?’ Then you get to the rst qualifying session of the year, take on that gladiator mentality, go for it and nd things are working! As long as I can tell myself I am the best, and I want to be the best – and I think I can be the best – then ne, I’ll keep on going and enjoy it. The day I start to not enjoy it, I’ll stop because it’s too much dedication for not having that extra pleasure.
“Just going away from the kids and so on, it’s hard for them. I dropped my son off at school on Tuesday morning and he knew I was leaving and he wouldn’t let me go; he was sad. But on the other hand, he knows that when I come back I’m happy because I’m doing what I love. So as long as I’m enjoying it as much as I do today, I can have fun driving the car. Hopefully I can ght for some wins and that’s what I want. I want to win more than anything else, but we’re not in a sport like tennis or running where if you’ve got the best legs then you win it.
“You have to start with a wooden racquet sometimes – or sometimes the court is not the same size for everyone!”
That’s an aphorism worthy of Confucius himself. As Romain invites us to squeeze into his car for the short ride back to his hotel, we make a note to look up whether racquet sports existed in the fth century BC…