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…
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, inicted 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; sufciently dexterous to perform other steering-wheel control functions. The only cockpit modication 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 qualied 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. Unnished business.
Kubica’s radio communications with his team are specic, 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 specically for occasions such as this: unofcial 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 qualied 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,
IT’S VERY CLEAR THAT ROBERT WAS DESTINED FOR GREATNESS. A FEW TIMES I SAW SOMETHING EXCEPTIONAL FROM HIM. SUZUKA QUALIFYING IN 2010 WAS A LAP LIKE I’VE NEVER SEEN… EVER ALAN PERMANE, RENAULT F1 SPORTING DIRECTOR
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 denitely 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,” condes 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 sufciently 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 condant 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.
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… ALESSANDRO ALUNNI BRAVI, FRIEND
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