Grosjean, driving a Dale Coyne Racing with RWR-Honda, beat Josef Newgarden of Team Penske-Chevrolet to pole by almost 0.13sec on a 69sec lap of the 2.439-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It was his first pole since 2011, when he competed in the GP2 (now Formula 2) championship. Although he scored 10 podium finishes in his nine-year Formula 1 career, they were packed into the first four seasons of his career with the Lotus F1 team. The last five he spent with Haas F1, where he took pleasure in the smaller ‘victories’ but admitted he didn’t feel the same exhilaration as when competing for wins, as he had throughout his outstanding junior formula career.
“You know, even through the last few years that have been tough in terms of results, I take the example of Germany last year where I finished ninth, with the Haas car, that was quite special.
“I think Germany 2018 as well, we were like 12th after the last safety car. I came back finishing sixth or something in the last 10 laps. That was quite cool. Even though you’re not winning, you’ve got that feeling.
“The days that I completely forgot about is when you get to race weekend, you got those butterflies because you know if you do everything right, you may end up on pole or trying to win the race. That’s definitely something I had no chance to do over the last few years.”
The Swiss-born Frenchman was astounded to hear it had been 3361 days since his last pole, describing himself as “speechless!” and stating that “10 years sounds better!”
He went on to say: “You know, if you’ve won in every category that you competed in before, but you know when you get to Formula 1 if you don’t have the best car, it’s going to be very unlikely that you get to win races.
“I was lucky early in my career to get in some good Lotuses and be in the front row, third spot quite a bit, which was great.
“But obviously there was the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel at the time and just on another level. It feels really good to be in IndyCar on a field that everyone got a chance to go for it. I think the whole team did a great job today, even with Ed Jones doing a good quallie [eight fastest in the DCR-with Vasser Sullivan car]. I’m happy with that.”
Asked bluntly how it felt to be competitive once more, Grosjean said sincerely, “It’s like being alive again… A lot of people are asking how I felt watching the first Formula 1 race of the season, and I wasn’t there. I said, ‘Guys, the chapter is closed for me. I’ve had a good time, now I want something else. That’s what I came looking for.’
“I love the atmosphere between the drivers, I love the tracks. The cars are fun to drive. We can go for some good stuff. I’m really happy.
“Family-wise it’s a bit of a tough year because I’m away from them quite a bit. We knew what was going to happen this year before deciding for the future. I’m happier, I’ve said it a few times; I’m happier than I’ve been for a very long time.”
Grosjean admitted that the IMS roadcourse was the track on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule that he felt was most similar to what he’d experienced in Europe.
“Of all the tracks I’ve been racing in the U.S., that’s the one that feels the most familiar. I can tell it was actually designed for Formula 1, the way the curbs are, the layout and the corners. I knew I was going to feel OK on the track quite quickly, whereas St. Pete takes a little bit more time to learn. Barber, a few tricks there that you need to understand. Here for me it’s a bit more straightforward.”
Explaining how he prevailed in qualifying, he stated: “Going into the weekend, we obviously did a lot of work to be good and also just learning about it. Our first segment of quali wasn’t so good. Second one felt much better.
“Going into the Fast Six I never ran scrubbed red tires, so I didn’t know what to expect from the car. It behaved really well.
“The first lap I had a mistake. It was a fast lap, but I had a mistake. I knew I had more pace in the second lap. It went really, really good. I thought that could be it. That was it.”
Grosjean went on to Firestone, but also the amount of feel that an IndyCar has through its steering, whereby even a rookie can detect how much grip there is in reserve.
“I think if I’m being fully honest, Firestone does an incredible job on the tires. I’ve been enjoying them a lot since I came in the series, the way you can push and slide, the way they recover.
“I believe we’re faster on scrub than new tires. That shows how good the tires are. If you put the lap together, the balance is there, it’s really good… When you nail it and you’ve got the grip and the balance, you can really feel through the steering wheel that you’re there, you’ve got the grip.
“Obviously in Formula 1 with the power steering wheel, you lose a little bit that feeling. The tire is quite different. I don’t know. I just feel like here you put the red and you kind of know what to expect, that’s what’s happening most of the time.”
Regarding the start of the race, Grosjean had said he was inexperienced at leading a two-abreast field to the green flag. Josef Newgarden, who will start alongside him, was asked if he would seek to exploit the polesitter’s inexperience.
“No way!” interjected Grosjean, before Newgarden said: “We haven’t talked about it, but he’s seen a couple starts now. I think he’s going to be just fine rolling into this.
“The idea of the start… obviously the polesitter sets the pace. He wants to maintain his advantage, which he has the right to do. I think for the rest of us, for me, I want to get through the start.
“I’ve seen enough starts here gone bad in Turn 1. Let’s get through the start and then we can start hammering on each other, figuring out where the pace is, our strengths and weaknesses.
“He’ll be just fine. He’s seen a couple, he knows the rules. He’s plenty experienced. I’m sure we’ll get through OK and get racing.”