Guest colum­nist Pr. Vic­tor Haight

It’s been a dark and be­wil­der­ing six years for Robert Kubica, since his near-fa­tal ral­ly­ing ac­ci­dent in 2011. But in daz­zling Span­ish sun­shine, he made a much longed-for F1 re­turn. We were there to wit­ness it…

F1 Racing - - CONTENTS -


That’s how an F1 race car sounds, right? Not this one. Not this ash-yel­low Re­nault be­ing caned by Robert Kubica around Va­len­cia’s Ri­cardo Tormo cir­cuit.

This one’s go­ing: “YYYEEEEEEEHHHAAAA!” as ev­ery cell in Kubica’s cru­elly tor­tured body screams with de­light at nally – af­ter six years – be­ing re­leased once again to do the thing they were born to do: drive a For­mula 1 car to its very limit.

Kubica’s rst ying lap of the track, which came shortly af­ter 9am on 6 June 2017, is a truly ec­static mo­ment – not least be­cause it seems scarcely imag­in­able that it is even hap­pen­ing. Just over six years ago, on Sun­day 6 Fe­bru­ary 2011, Kubica’s ca­reer – and, it seemed pos­si­ble, his life – had come to a sick­en­ing halt in a ghastly crash on the Ronde di An­dora rally in north­ern Italy. He’d been com­pet­ing ‘for fun’ and to keep him­self prickle-sharp in prepa­ra­tion for the 2011 F1 sea­son, his sec­ond year with Re­nault F1.

Just three days be­fore his crash, he’d set the fastest time of the For­mula 1 sea­son’s rst test at this very cir­cuit and he looked cer­tain to play a ma­jor role in the grand prix year ahead. Mas­sively re­spected by his peers (Fer­nando Alonso de­scribed him as “the best of all of us”) and emerg­ing as a cult hero thanks to his re­lent­less, ham­mer-hard speed, Robert Kubica seemed to be a world cham­pion in wait­ing. Fer­rari were ru­moured to have se­cured his ser­vices for 2012.

All of this, though, was sav­agely ar­rested on the rally’s rst stage as his Skoda Fabia clipped a metal guard rail, which, not hav­ing been prop­erly bolted to­gether, ‘un­peeled’ against the car’s for­ward move­ment, cut­ting through its nose and bon­net and pass­ing the engine to en­ter the cabin and slice into Kubica. The bar­rier al­most sev­ered his right arm, inicted mul­ti­ple frac­tures on his right leg and pelvis and ren­dered him help­less, bleed­ing to death.

While the ac­ci­dent was un­doubt­edly the most des­per­ate mis­for­tune, Kubica was nonethe­less lucky that swift med­i­cal at­ten­tion kept him alive. Then, fur­ther, that a de­ci­sion was made not to am­pu­tate his arm and al­low him in­stead the chance of a long, painstak­ing re­cu­per­a­tion.

That back-story and the images as­so­ci­ated with the ac­ci­dent are im­pos­si­ble to rec­on­cile with the speed­ing yel­low vi­sion out on track to­day. Kubica, make no mis­take, is on it from the getgo, back in a 2012 F1 car that might have been his to race ve sea­sons ago and pow­ered by a 2.4-litre Re­nault V8 sim­i­lar to the one that sat be­hind his shoul­der blades when he was last here, driv­ing a grand prix car.

The still elec­tri­fy­ing howl of an old-school F1 engine comes surg­ing along the pit straight, build­ing, ris­ing, ex­plod­ing past, be­fore Kubica guides the E20 to the right edge of the track, brush­ing the pit-exit mark­ings with the right wheels, and then stands on the brakes for the fast-left Turn 1. Two dropped gears, and then he cat­a­pults the car to­wards the apex, load­ing up the right rear be­fore – half a beat – get­ting back on the gas and shift­ing up for the sprint to Turn 2. He isn’t here to feel his way, or nd out whether or not he can drive an F1 car again. He knows he’s ready, but he needs to prove it to him­self and the wider world. There’s a wrong to be righted.

Then you re­mem­ber, be­cause it’s so easy to for­get: Robert Kubica is a man with a weak­ened right arm and hand. The ex­tent of the in­juries is vis­i­ble only later when he un­zips his race suit to re­veal a grisly to­pog­ra­phy of scars and lac­er­a­tions, legacy both of the orig­i­nal ac­ci­dent and many sub­se­quent op­er­a­tions. His hand re­mains with­ered, ow­ing to deep ten­don and tis­sue dam­age and the ro­ta­tional move­ment of his wrist is limited. But it’s still strong enough to grip and guide a For­mula 1 steer­ing wheel; sufciently dex­ter­ous to per­form other steer­ing-wheel con­trol func­tions. The only cock­pit modication needed to ac­com­mo­date his in­juries is a left­hand pad­dle that con­trols both up­shifts and down­shifts.

In garage num­ber 40, which has been taken over by Re­nault F1’s race-sup­port team for this pri­vate test, it’s im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent that all emo­tion at­tached to Kubica’s For­mula 1 re­turn has been parked while their man is in the car: a full day’s test sched­ule has to be worked through. Led by race en­gi­neer Josh Peckitt, they will run 115 laps with Kubica through morn­ing and af­ter­noon ses­sions, with th­ese bro­ken down into long and short runs in­volv­ing vary­ing fuel loads, qual­i­fy­ing sim­u­la­tions and prac­tice starts. It’s equiv­a­lent to one-and-a-half grand prix dis­tances, or roughly a full race week­end’s run­ning packed into a sin­gle day.

“It’s the sort of pro­gramme we would run with any of our driv­ers,” says Re­nault F1 sport­ing di­rec­tor Alan Permane, one of the key gures be­hind Kubica’s re­turn to the cock­pit. His mat­ter-of-fact ex­pla­na­tion dis­guises what’s felt but un­spo­ken by all those present, most of whom are team per­son­nel, but whose num­ber also in­cludes a hand­ful of Kubica’s close friends. They’re all des­per­ate for this test to go well and want Kubica to be quick – maybe as quick as ever. He was held in ab­so­lutely the high­est re­gard by Re­nault and the mem­ory of his dra­matic speed and fear­less ap­proach, haven’t faded.

“It’s very clear that Robert was des­tined for great­ness,” says Permane. “A few times I saw some­thing ab­so­lutely ex­cep­tional from him. Suzuka qual­i­fy­ing in 2010 was a lap like I’ve never seen from any­one else, ever. He came in ab­so­lutely white, hav­ing scared the life out of him­self. It was un­be­liev­able.” [He qualied third, be­hind both Red Bulls.]

The vis­ual ref­er­ence track­side gives one clue; the stop­watch an­other. A day ear­lier, Re­nault re­serve driver Sergey Sirotkin lapped a sim­i­lar E20 (the car with which, in Lo­tus liv­ery, Kimi Räikkö­nen won the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix) here in 1min 14.6s. Kubica pops in a 1min 14.27s at one point dur­ing

his morn­ing run with­out ap­par­ent ef­fort. He’s back do­ing the thing he does best and once the ini­tial fris­son of con­cern as to his phys­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties has passed, it’s back down to busi­ness for team and driver. Unnished busi­ness.

Kubica’s ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions with his team are specic, clear and an­a­lyt­i­cal, de­tail­ing his con­cerns about un­der­steer, bal­ance and brake ap­pli­ca­tion. “I went back­wards one click on brake bal­ance,” he says over the in­ter­com dur­ing a pause af­ter his third eight-lap morn­ing run, “and there was front­lock­ing un­der brak­ing into turn 11. It was al­ways on the edge of lock­ing and not lock­ing. There’s a thin line be­tween hav­ing good brak­ing and hav­ing lock­ing. Also, I strug­gled over the ini­tial bite. For the rst 20 per cent of ap­pli­ca­tion the car does not de-ac­cel­er­ate like in the later phase. I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s a char­ac­ter­is­tic of the brakes?” He’s re­as­sured that pedal pres­sures are “com­pa­ra­ble with Sergey’s”.

Tyre prepa­ra­tion be­comes an­other bug­bear for Kubica through­out the day as he’s driv­ing on Pirelli’s ‘Academy’ tyres, which are non-race-spec sets cre­ated specically for oc­ca­sions such as this: unofcial test­ing and demo runs. There’s also mi­nor cock­pit dis­com­fort: the seat-t isn’t per­fect, so he’s strapped in tighter than he would like. But he’s de­mand­ing – of him­self, his equip­ment and of those around him – and he re­mains driven to suc­ceed in his cho­sen goal.

“He was al­ways like this,” notes Permane. “In­volved in ev­ery­thing and al­ways push­ing. When he qualied P2 at Monaco in 2010 be­tween the Red Bulls, he hated it, be­cause he felt pole was pos­si­ble.”

It’s very ap­par­ent that th­ese pro­fes­sional qual­i­ties, lay­ered on top of the ex­cep­tional driv­ing skills that helped Kubica,


now 32, rise to ‘ace’ sta­tus, are undimmed by his time away. And like ev­ery rac­ing driver ever he’s soon ask­ing for more power, be­cause his V8 engine is run­ning in a soft ‘show’ mode, and not a full-beam ‘race’ set­ting.

“Hon­estly, it’s like we’re turn­ing back the clock,” says Permane, with a glim­mer that gives away a very real sense of plea­sure at see­ing such a seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble dream nally made real. “Robert is denitely much more re­laxed than he was when he was driv­ing for us be­fore, but he’s not see­ing this as a fun day. He has done a huge amount of train­ing, sim­u­la­tor work and driv­ing other rac­ing cars to be as ready as he pos­si­bly can be. And the pace was there straight away. I didn’t ever have any doubt about that, so long as he was phys­i­cally able to drive.”

Kubica in­deed, looks ev­ery inch the whip­pet-thin mod­ern F1 pi­lot he was back in his pomp, be­rat­ing BMW for not chas­ing the 2008 world ti­tles harder when he could see they were there to be fought for.

“My over­alls are Ital­ian-cut,” he laughs dur­ing his lunch break as he wrig­gles out of them, us­ing his left arm to pull them over his right shoul­der. His lanky six-foot-one-inch frame now weighs a mere 72kg: “I’ve lost 10kg since Jan­uary,” he twin­kles. “It’s a bit dif­fer­ent from when I was 87kg!”

It is, in­deed, as if he has never been away… as if some timeshift has oc­curred that whisked Kubica from view six years ago, then just as deftly slipped him right back be­fore our eyes.

One of his clutch of friends in at­ten­dance, com­pa­triot Cezary Gu­towski, says he hasn’t seen Kubica so en­er­gised, so in­tent, since he was last in an F1 garage. “Look at him,” he says. “Look at his body lan­guage.” It’s true: Kubica has a prize-ghter’s strut and a set to his ex­pres­sion that tells you he’s at work. This is his do­main, his ring. But look closer, lis­ten harder… “He has been through much darker times than this,” condes an­other friend, “times when we felt it was im­por­tant for us to be with him so that he was not alone, think­ing con­stantly about rac­ing and what he lost with the ac­ci­dent. Then we could see how things started to get bet­ter for Robert, how he started to work out a way to re­turn and how For­mula 1 might be pos­si­ble for him again.”

Kubica never lost sight of that goal. F1 Rac­ing in­ter­viewed him on the Ral­lye du Var at the end of 2012 and he ad­mit­ted: “If I have luck and keep work­ing and the puz­zle comes to­gether, maybe one day I will drive an F1 car.”

How un­likely it seemed though, even as we watched him com­pete in ral­lies and one-off track events, then heard of his more re­cent pri­vate GP3 tests. But th­ese, it now emerges, may have been the last ‘piece in the puz­zle’ as Kubica pre­pared him­self to reach for F1 once more.

GP3 cars lack power-as­sisted steer­ing, so they’re heav­ier at the helm than an F1 ma­chine. Ex­tended lap­ping would ex­pose any mus­cu­lar weak­ness or lack of en­durance. In ad­di­tion, one of the cir­cuits cho­sen for a test ear­lier this year was the 1.5-mile Fran­ci­a­corta track near Mi­lan. Its lay­out in­cludes two tight hair­pins – one left-han­der and one right-han­der – and th­ese again were in­tended to ex­pose weak­ness: namely the limited ro­ta­tion of Kubica’s right wrist. The tests passed with­out prob­lems, de­spite Kubica’s dis­ap­point­ment that a ri­val driver, who’d been due to at­tend to set a tar­get time, failed to show when he learned he was the nom­i­nated ‘stooge’.

Those GP3 runs and this F1 out­ing ap­pear to quash any resid­ual doubts as to Kubica’s driv­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, al­though Permane sounds one note of cau­tion: “He has clearly got phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, but only he knows how much they would re­strict him. I don’t know if he can drive at-out through Eau Rouge. But I do know that in 2010 he was driv­ing through there one-handed when we had an F-duct on the car, so…”

Per­haps un­wit­tingly, per­haps by de­sign, Re­nault now ap­pear to have some­thing of a prob­lem on their hands. They have helped to prove that Robert Kubica, one of the great­est driv­ing tal­ents of this gen­er­a­tion, and one whose rac­ing ca­reer was in­ter­rupted while he was still in their em­ploy, is sufciently re­cov­ered from a near-fa­tal ac­ci­dent to be com­pet­ing in For­mula 1 once again. And while the Va­len­cia test was em­bossed with ‘it’s only about to­day’, how can Re­nault team prin­ci­pal Cyril Abite­boul (who gave this test the nal go-ahead) not now be think­ing: “What if…?”

A condant of Kubica’s, Alessan­dro Alunni Bravi, who acted as an in­ter­me­di­ary ahead of this Va­len­cia F1 test, reck­ons that if noth­ing else Kubica has proven that he de­serves an­other shot at For­mula 1: “The test was a spe­cial gift for him,” he says, “be­cause no one knows how much he has suf­fered and how hard he has worked for th­ese past six years. He showed that he is ca­pa­ble of driv­ing an F1 car and of do­ing a race. For me, he de­serves an­other chance. He is ready to come back. What a story for For­mula 1…”

What a story in­deed. And one whose most dra­matic chap­ter is still to be writ­ten.


There’s been a long, slow buildup to his re­turn, but Kubica fi­nally climbs back into an F1 car’s cock­pit af­ter six years of re­cu­per­a­tion

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