Formula 1 cannot be blamed for feeling disappointed following the confirmation of Robert Kubica‘s failure to finalize a remarkable return to the sport. Critics of Williams Martini Racing‘s decision to sign Russian rookie Sergey Sirotkin have been quick to lambast the team for choosing what many perceive to be a ‘pay driver’.
However, mired in this toxic cauldron of politics and disappointment it can all too easily be forgotten that Kubica spent six months in genuine contention for competitive midfield seats, and thanks to his new reserve role with Williams, is a very credible candidate for any team needing an experienced driver in the future.
That is the paradox of Kubica’s return to the paddock. For all that it is an irrefutably outstanding parable of human endeavour, it has for the most part been a cumbersome discussion of driver market politics and physical limitations. Similarly, a once legendary team struggling to attract a star driver – and rapidly slipping back into the midfield having been in contention for regular podiums only two years ago – was by no means the ideal pretext for Kubica’s comeback. Whilst the paddock, Williams included, would have loved to have seen the Pole on the grid, the team simply would not have considered Kubica had they been able to attract less risky candidates.
The human fable underpinning Kubica’s return is naturally more palatable: an apparent champion in-waiting sidelined by a horrific rally accident which not only looked to cost the Pole his career but came within a fraction of amputating his right-arm. His tragic account would descend further into despair when he broke his leg after slipping on an icy pavement during his rehabilitation. For the first year of Kubica’s recovery, it looked like he might never drive a car again, let alone an F1 car. However, the Pole not only drove again, he did this:
In 2014 Kubica won the Jännerrallye – a round of the European Rally Championship – with a famous victory in the final stage. He was some fifty seconds faster than his nearest rival in the pouring rain of the evening finale – despite having almost zero visibility with flickering headlights. For a pithy snapshot of the Pole’s skill and dedication, look no further.
He would return to circuit racing in 2016, with GT outings in the Mugello 12 Hours and the Belgian round of the Renault Sport Trophy. But Robert’s attention would soon turn to single-seaters, with tests in Formula E and GP3 machinery laying the foundations for his remarkable Valencian test with the Renault Sport F1 Team. This was already a landmark achievement – before outings at Paul Ricard and the Hungaroring opened up the prospect that Renault might actually be evaluating him for a race seat – a successful and pacey return to an F1 cockpit was already a sign of what a plainly remarkable individual Kubica is.
After his second drive in Renault’s reliveried Lotus E20, the purity of Kubica’s miraculous recovery made way for something rather less poetic: driver market politics. Indeed, had the Pole set his sights lower, and wished only for a return to the paddock in some capacity, he would not have been subjected to the scrutiny he experienced in the subsequent months. However, Robert’s ambitiousness is also a marker of the mindset that could have made him world champion.
That withstanding, it is a shame that recognition of Kubica’s remarkable return so quickly gave way to an analysis of his limitations. Could he drive at Monaco? Does he have the necessary dexterity to use all the steering wheel functions? Would he have to drive by up-shifting and down-shifting with only his left hand? Whilst the mid-season driver market rumour mill rather tends to take a life force of its own, the repercussions of life-changing injuries was not a tasteful subject for conjecture. The summer-break news vacuum following the Pole’s Hungarian test only made the coverage more speculative and tangential.
But for Robert, you could sense it was water off a duck’s back. He was a man wanting a miraculous F1 comeback, and a man asking to be judged purely on merit. And F1 did judge the Pole, extensively; over no less than six individual tests. Very few drivers have had the luxury of so many opportunities to impress when vying for a seat. In that respect, Kubica’s failure to apprehend the Williams seat is certainly not the stinging injustice that most tweets and comment threads would have you believe.
His Hungarian outing for Renault saw him run alongside Canadian F2 racer Nicholas Latifi – not a man vying for F1 promotion anytime soon. That said, his long-run pace looked good enough to keep him in the running for Jolyon Palmer‘s seat, or at least until Carlos Sainz Jnr became available. Encouragingly, a pair of shootout tests for Williams appeared to push Kubica’s name to the top of their list, with Paul di Resta‘s candidacy all but evaporating at that point. Ultimately the Pole would be comprehensively outperformed by Sirotkin in what many anticipated would be his confirmation outing in Abu Dhabi.
It is something of a testament to Kubica’s remarkable physical recovery that he would lose out, not directly due to any physical shortcomings, but on pace. Yes, it is probable that even if he had shone in Hungary, Renault still would have plumped for the rising star of Sainz, but compared with Sirotkin, Kubica has nowhere to hide. The fact that Robert so decisively trailed the young Russian on short runs especially, completely undermines the suggestion that SMP Racing was allowed to buy the seat at Kubica’s cost. If anything, the fact that Williams chose the apparently faster, more lucrative driver rather vindicates the rationality of the team’s judgment.
As I discussed last week, there are good reasons to be confused by Sirotkin’s appointment. Unfortunately, Kubica’s snub is not one of them. In Pascal Wehrlein, Williams could have signed a driver with the speed to give the engineers a read on the development of the car, but also a young driver with the headroom to grow with the team. In the absence of any drivers with the experience to take up Felipe Massa‘s baton, it made sense for Williams to reset its driver line-up, and field a pair of hungry youngsters.
But not a rookie. Especially not one who had suffered a ham-fisted attempt at a title assault in GP2 in 2016. But whilst there is great scope to be critical of Williams’ decision to sign Sirotkin, their failure to take Kubica is, begrudgingly, completely understandable. The Pole’s physical limitations arguably presented an even greater risk to the team than a rookie, a risk that, unfortunately, was not shining quite as brightly on-track as many had hoped.
There was always a danger that his return may have wrongly encouraged some to expect a natural resumption of the flair and speed he enjoyed in 2010. Much as Massa arguably lost some of the natural fluidity from his driving style in the wake of his accident, it is only natural to expect Kubica not be the same driver after an absence from an F1 cockpit of more than six years. However, as his Jännerrallye heroics prove, the fire still burns brightly.
Kubica has already proven every seasoned pundit wrong. Whilst casual discussions of the Pole’s recovery have previously been a staple of lighter news weeks, even the most glowing reviews of his rallying exploits have invariably been dusted with subtle pessimism about his chances of returning to the F1 paddock.
And yet, in 2018, Kubica will again be a paddock regular, having salvaged an official reserve role from his Williams defeat. This is an ideal scenario for both driver and team. Williams will have the benefit of an ultra-motivated, race-winning reserve driver, and Kubica will have an excellent platform to further acclimatize to his F1 return. It is even a platform that could see Robert emerge as a candidate for race drives in the future.
Kubica’s fans have great cause to be optimistic, not that they have already had much scope to be enamoured by the coverage of his partial 2017 comeback. F1’s talent for negative spin is truly commendable. The final disappointment has just been another greyscale lens through which to view the Pole’s increasingly sour-tasting return to the F1 news agenda. For the most part, Kubica’s 2017 marvel has been a story of physical weaknesses, paddock politics, Polish oil and a stalwart team on an alarming downward ebb. For a season that almost saw the comeback F1 dared not dream of, Kubica’s comeback hasn’t been the heart-warming fable it should have been.
But this is immaterial to the man himself. The Pole knows that his comeback crusade could yet find a happy ending, and whilst Robert’s innately ambitious mindset unquestionably leaves him disappointed not to be on the grid in 2018, none gave a more frank and realistic review of his chances than Kubica himself. Speaking in the wake of his Abu Dhabi test, the Pole stated, “[I]n the end I know how is reality. And the reality is like this: once I’m in the car there is no story anymore, it is me myself with the car, with the team and the job has to be done. Formula 1 is a special world. But once you have a helmet everything disappears, so you have to be in a position to deliver”.
If there have ever been any negative vibes throughout the last six months, they have certainly not come from the Pole himself. Robert’s candid and pragmatic attitude is just another dimension of the truly remarkable resolve and determination Kubica showcased in 2017. In 2018, with more team access and more test mileage, who knows what this truly extraordinary sportsman can achieve.