KUBICA RIDES AGAIN

A glit­ter­ing F1 ca­reer was brought to a bru­tal halt by a near-fatal rally crash in 2011. There fol­lowed some of the dark­est days of Robert Kubica’s life, yet he never gave up hope. In Va­len­cia, in June, F1 Rac­ing was priv­i­leged enough to at­tend his first

F1 Racing - - CONTENTS - IN­TER­VIEW AN­THONY ROWLINSON POR­TRAITS MAL­COLM GRIF­FITHS

WHERE else to in­ter­view Robert Kubica than in the back of a garage? Not for this guy the glitz and tin­sel of the F1 cir­cus. Kubica was al­ways and only about the rac­ing. To­day we’ll sit on a chas­sis pack­ing case to talk. Of course we will.

“Give me a fast car, a bed and a roof over my head – that’s all I need,” he once said to me, a life­time ago.

A decade later, af­ter an ac­ci­dent that nearly killed him and hav­ing charted an emo­tional odyssey none would choose to un­der­take, he’s back driv­ing a Lo­tus (now Re­nault) E20 F1 car around Va­len­cia’s Ri­cardo Tormo cir­cuit the only way he knows how: as fast as hu­manly pos­si­ble.

His re­turn to the cock­pit with the team for whom he was driv­ing back in 2011, just three days be­fore the rally ac­ci­dent that briefly left him clin­i­cally dead, has been a soul-stir­ring mix of high emo­tion and shop-floor prac­ti­cal­i­ties. Yes, there was a 115-lap test-day pro­gramme to be worked through, but – pinch your­self – this was Robert Kubica back in an F1 car, ham­mer­ing in laps like he’d never been away.

If it seemed scarcely imag­in­able that he could be back at the wheel, pow­ers ap­par­ently undimmed and per­form­ing in a com­mand­ing, yet busi­ness-as-usual-man­ner, the mag­ni­tude of what he’d achieved and the pain en­dured to pre­pare for this day were not lost on him. Af­ter thank­ing the Re­nault race-sup­port team for their labours and then chang­ing out of his over­alls, Kubica took him­self away to a quiet cor­ner of a nearby garage for ten still min­utes of soli­tary re­flec­tion. His per­for­mance had sur­passed all ex­pec­ta­tions. Now, we all knew, the only per­ti­nent ques­tion was: “What’s next?” F1 Rac­ing: You look as if you want to get straight back in the car and do it all again…

Robert Kubica: Well, for sure, my goal was not to do one test and go home. This test was very im­por­tant for me and prob­a­bly also for Re­nault to see what I could do and if I could drive the car. I don’t know what the fu­ture will bring, but I have been work­ing hard for this and now I know that in some way – in a good way – I am able to do it. So now I have to keep work­ing to be ready for wher­ever the op­por­tu­nity might be.

If you asked me to­day [we’re speak­ing on 6 June 2017] to do a grand prix, I would say no. But not ‘no’ be­cause I think I can­not do it. It would be ‘no’ be­cause I need more time to un­der­stand bet­ter the tyres and stuff like this. The big thing in F1 now – and I’ve been able to tell this even watch­ing from the out­side, on tele­vi­sion – is tyre man­age­ment. And that’s some­thing you learn only by test­ing. To­day, here, we had ex­tremely high tem­per­a­tures; the track tem­per­a­ture was more than 60°C and that def­i­nitely makes it even more dif­fi­cult.

That’s prob­a­bly a good thing be­cause I’ve al­ways said to the Re­nault guys that I’m not here to hide my dif­fi­cul­ties and I’m not here to prove any­thing. The test was only to see if I was able to do it. I think I’m in­tel­li­gent enough to know where my limit is and prob­a­bly I was putting my lim­its much lower than they re­ally are. So the test gave me a good boost and con­fi­dence, and prob­a­bly even more en­ergy and more mo­ti­va­tion to go for­ward and work for some­thing. F1R: You look very happy…

RK: [He gives an ‘aw, shucks’ look, with a half-down­turned smile, al­most em­bar­rassed that he has be­trayed his feel­ings.] Well, yeah. I’m not an emo­tional guy, but to­day was an emo­tional day. Not while I was driv­ing, but when I stopped. To be hon­est, there were mixed emo­tions. It’s not that I felt one hun­dred per cent happy, but I do have to be happy. But on the other hand, you know, there are mem­o­ries.

Peo­ple will say to me ‘you have to think about the fu­ture, not the past’, which is true. But we are hu­man be­ings and it’s nor­mal that some­times when you love some­thing and you lose some­thing, it still comes to your brain, into your head. So when I jumped out of the car I was very happy about the day. But at the same time I know that the ac­ci­dent took a re­ally big part out of my life. To­day was a con­fir­ma­tion that I lost a big part of, let’s say, what I was liv­ing for. And it is not easy to find new goals or new tar­gets and a new way of liv­ing.

Prob­a­bly I was search­ing too far away from where my life was and to­day showed that maybe there is some­thing closer to what I was do­ing, where I can still have good sat­is­fac­tion, good fun, and I can set some new goals.

Kubica is wear­ing a T-shirt and shorts and makes no at­tempt to hide the ex­ten­sive scar­ring that runs al­most the length of his right arm – le­gacy of his ac­ci­dent and the mul­ti­ple op­er­a­tions re­quired to re­store the arm’s func­tion. Sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief is nec­es­sary to rec­on­cile the ex­tent of the in­juries with the speed he’s dis­played to­day. In one early run he set times faster than those posted a day ear­lier by Re­nault re­serve driver Sergey Sirotkin. F1R: Is your arm still pain­ful?

RK: No, I don’t feel pain. I know peo­ple who’ve had metal plates in­serted for frac­tures who feel pain when they go to high ground or what­ever. But I don’t. Okay, I have lim­ited move­ment and I can­not train the arm a lot, but this is a con­se­quence of the ac­ci­dent and there are some things that I just can­not change.

TO COME HERE AF­TER SIX YEARS AWAY AND DO LONG RUNS, THIS SHOWS NOT EV­ERY­THING IS DONE BY MUS­CLES AND POWER. IT MAKES ME WON­DER IF LIM­ITS ARE PLACED BY MY BRAIN AND MY REAL LIM­ITS ARE BE­YOND WHAT I THINK

To come here af­ter six years away from F1 and do long runs, this shows not ev­ery­thing is done by mus­cles and power. It makes me won­der if lim­its are placed by my brain and my real lim­its are be­yond what I think – but I am yet to dis­cover them. In my sit­u­a­tion, the most im­por­tant thing is to dis­cover my lim­its and to get to know my­self bet­ter in this con­di­tion. Hon­estly, I think to­mor­row I could do a race dis­tance.

F1R: A huge amount has changed for you, hasn’t it, since we last spoke to you a few years ago when you were do­ing a few ral­lies with Citroën?

RK: It has, yes. But the rally thing… maybe peo­ple don’t un­der­stand why I was do­ing that. The rea­son was ac­tu­ally very sim­ple: I re­alised that any­thing I did that re­minded me about F1 and what I was do­ing be­fore the ac­ci­dent, was hurt­ing me. So I de­cided to change the en­vi­ron­ment. It was maybe a harsh way of do­ing things, but I re­ally felt it was nec­es­sary. It wasn’t that I went crazy af­ter the ac­ci­dent – I had many in­juries, but the brain is still fine!

Do­ing For­mula 1 again, for sure this is more what I’m used to, but if I had done this two or three years ago, it would have been too early and I didn’t want to hurt my­self even more. I could have done it and I knew I would en­joy it but I also knew, then, that I wasn’t ready to do any­thing more. So that’s why I kept it very quiet – stop­ping ral­ly­ing and do­ing just sin­gle races, here and there. These were all kind of check-ups and tests for my­self be­cause my se­cret goal was al­ways to jump back into an F1 car. All the small tests were to raise the dif­fi­culty and phys­i­cal stress for my lim­i­ta­tions step by step.

And I pre­pared very well for to­day, so I think it has been the right ap­proach for me. Maybe it was not the most com­mon ap­proach, but my sit­u­a­tion was very un­usual. For some­one else, maybe some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent would have been right, but the only per­son who re­ally knows how I feel and what I can do is me. I’ve al­ways been very cau­tious by na­ture, do­ing things step by step and qui­etly. If it works, there’s sat­is­fac­tion; if it doesn’t work, well, at least I’ve tried. So this was the kind of ap­proach I took here.

I felt for a cou­ple of months or more that I was ready; it was just a ques­tion of pre­par­ing for it and, for­tu­nately, the op­por­tu­nity came – thanks to Re­nault. Some­how they have al­ways been there for me: my first F1 test was with Re­nault in 2005, so there’s quite a strong link be­tween us. I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate that the op­por­tu­nity came. I’m not the kind of per­son to knock on doors for a drive, but I guess some peo­ple had good mem­o­ries from when we raced to­gether in 2010. F1R: For­mula 1 is a kind of a drug, isn’t it?

RK: For me, it’s very sim­ple: For­mula 1 is the most pro­fes­sional and high­est-level cat­e­gory, not only the car, but the whole en­vi­ron­ment and the peo­ple who work in it.

My big­gest dif­fi­culty was that I missed the peo­ple I worked with and the ex­pe­ri­ence of al­ways try­ing to max­imise the po­ten­tial of the car, work­ing on every sin­gle de­tail with all our fo­cus. Okay, I missed rac­ing, I missed driv­ing, but I missed as well the high­est pro­fes­sional level of mo­tor­sport.

F1R: Is your men­tal read­just­ment the big­gest break­through you’ve made, re­al­is­ing that you’re ready to drive F1 again?

RK: Yes, for sure. On the phys­i­cal side there are some things that I can­not change, but there are other things that I can work on to im­prove my phys­i­cal level. I know I’ve never been as fit as I am build­ing up for this test! And there are other ways I have to com­pen­sate for my lim­i­ta­tions: I can­not com­pen­sate for a lack of ‘force’, or a lack of move­ment of the right arm [the ro­ta­tional abil­ity of Kubica’s right wrist is lim­ited], so my brain has had to read­just and find tweaks.

I know this will sound strange, but in some ways I feel I’m a bet­ter driver now than I was in the past. That may be partly the ral­ly­ing giv­ing me a dif­fer­ent sen­si­tiv­ity, but I also think that the head and the brain have had to dis­cover new ways of do­ing things. In some ar­eas I’ve be­come more sen­si­tive, which is pos­i­tive. Of course I would pre­fer to have two arms work­ing at 100 per cent, but this is not the case, which is why I have to work harder than be­fore. I have to make sure that what­ever I try to do I’m able to do it, and that’s why I am very cau­tious.

I’ve had many re­quests to race in dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories, and I’ve al­ways asked to have a day of driv­ing be­fore go­ing to the race. Some­times that wasn’t pos­si­ble and I got the feel­ing peo­ple thought it was an ex­cuse for me not to go. The truth is that it was just for my­self – to see if I’d be able to get a good re­sult. I don’t race to make up num­bers, you know?

Kubica’s driv­ing re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gramme has in­cluded For­mula E, sportscars, F3, WRC, sim­u­la­tor ses­sions and one-make sa­loons. Each cat­e­gory has al­lowed him to eval­u­ate dif­fer­ent as­pects of his phys­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

RK: This may sound strange but an F1 car is prob­a­bly the eas­i­est one for me to drive, be­cause of the power steer­ing. On the one hand you have less re­ac­tion time in an F1 car be­cause things are go­ing quick and a spe­cial level of con­cen­tra­tion is re­quired. But, as I con­firmed to my­self to­day, I’ve not lost ev­ery­thing – even though when I wake up every morn­ing and I look in the mir­ror I see my hand, and even af­ter six years it still re­minds me of what has hap­pened.

This was an­other rea­son why I chose to do some ral­ly­ing, be­cause I’ve driven at the high­est level in cir­cuit rac­ing when I was 100 per cent fit. But I’d never done a lot of ral­ly­ing in the past, so I didn’t know how much I was los­ing; it didn’t re­mind me that I might have dif­fi­cul­ties, be­cause I wasn’t mak­ing a com­par­i­son. That helped me.

What­ever tar­gets you have, you try to achieve them. And that’s the best thing, you know? The worst times for me are wak­ing up in the morn­ing and hav­ing noth­ing to do. Then you start think­ing… maybe you watch a grand prix and then maybe you think about the races you miss more than oth­ers… F1R: Which are the ones you re­ally missed?

RK: The week be­fore the sea­son starts has al­ways been the worst. Then, for sure, Mel­bourne, Monaco, Monza… Those three I would say. And Canada is very spe­cial.

Now, for­tu­nately, that feel­ing is over: it’s true that some­times the best medicine is time. I think it shows that some­times be­ing pa­tient and tak­ing your time is not the worst thing and ac­tu­ally it can work. Okay, I know I’ve lost a few more hairs and that the years I’ve lost won’t come back – I won’t be cred­ited – but it’s also part of my life. Af­ter what hap­pened to me I had to set up a few tar­gets, and def­i­nitely this was my big goal. I’m very pos­i­tive about to­day. F1R: So what made you feel ready for F1? How could you tell that you were ready?

RK: I’d say 80 per cent is the brain. Once you start be­liev­ing you can achieve it, it’s half of the suc­cess. Then, for sure, I had to work hard, I had to pre­pare hard. This goal was in my head for a long time, but I didn’t talk with any­one about it.

I started slowly, los­ing weight – I weighed 14kg more than now! – so step by step I started im­prov­ing my phys­i­cal side. Then I started work­ing also on my brain, again in small steps, and when I could see an im­prove­ment I started to be­lieve that it might be pos­si­ble. In my sit­u­a­tion there was a high risk of burn­ing my­self, es­pe­cially men­tally, and this was the last thing I wanted – to men­tally de­stroy my­self.

Then, of course, you have to be given an op­por­tu­nity. Be­fore I came here, I al­ready knew that this would be a very emo­tional day for me, but I also knew that the only way that it could work would be for me to ar­rive re­laxed and con­fi­dent so that I would be able to do the job. That’s why I worked so hard. I could have done this a cou­ple of months ear­lier, maybe even last year, but I wasn’t sure. Like this, I was com­ing here with con­fi­dence to­day – not 100 per cent, but I was nearly sure. My only ques­tion was whether it would take ten laps or 100 laps for the feel­ing to come back. It took only one…

F1R: What was it like this morn­ing when you were putting on your race suit?

RK: Ac­tu­ally I didn’t have a lot of sleep last night. I woke up at 4.30am and then I was in the gym at six o’ clock, do­ing nearly one hour of bik­ing just to warm up a bit and to try not to think too much – to chill out.

Things change, you know? In the past I would al­ways sleep un­til the last minute – ten hours a night! But to­day was even big­ger than my first test in For­mula 1: there were more emo­tions, more un­knowns. That’s a very strange feel­ing when you al­ready have ex­pe­ri­ence and you al­ready know that you can drive the car. I knew what to ex­pect and prob­a­bly how it would feel, but there were a lot of emo­tions there for me be­cause of the past six years.

But I was able to re­lax. When I saw the time of the first lap, I knew I would be okay. I felt com­fort­able in the car. Ac­tu­ally, I kept in my mind that it would be more dif­fi­cult than in re­al­ity. So that I could have a pos­i­tive sur­prise. Like this: I am well sur­prised, you know? Sur­prised in a pos­i­tive way. I made sure I didn’t come here think­ing that I could def­i­nitely do it, no prob­lem. I came here with re­spect for what I had to do; with re­spect for the car; re­spect for the chal­lenge and re­spect for my­self – but still con­fi­dent and re­laxed. Al­ways telling my­self that if I stayed calm and quiet and just waited for the right mo­ment, the feel­ing would come back: I can do it. It hap­pened sur­pris­ingly fast. F1R: How much set-up work did you have to do with the car be­fore the test?

RK: Well, there is a funny story from when I was do­ing the seat fit. I jumped into the car and they started do­ing the seat mould­ing, and while we were do­ing it the guys asked me how was the steer­ing wheel, what do we have to change? I said: “Noth­ing.” They looked at me and asked: “Why noth­ing?”

It was be­cause it al­ready felt like home to me. This car [a 2012 chas­sis] was ex­actly what I wanted for 2010 or 2011. It’s still ex­actly how I like the cock­pit. The pedal an­gle is ex­actly what I had asked for, the steer­ing wheel is in just the right place – it’s what I was used to, prac­ti­cally made for me. This gave me a lot of con­fi­dence be­cause I knew that I didn’t even have to think about the an­gle of the brake pedal or the stiff­ness – or the length of throt­tle travel. I al­ready knew ex­actly how it was go­ing to feel. And that took away some of the things that I’d nor­mally have to think about or adapt to. It put me more quickly into a ‘com­fort zone’ with the car. F1R: The gearshift pad­dles al­low you to change up and down with your left hand, don’t they? RK: Yes, I use the pull and push pad­dle for up­shift and down­shift, and I do ev­ery­thing with the left hand. That’s the only dif­fer­ence. F1R: You looked com­fort­able im­me­di­ately out on track. RK: Yeah, I was sur­prised with that. When you’re driv­ing, you think

about a tar­get lap time and you know that you’ll be happy when you hit it. I was happy when I saw the time of the first lap. In a way it doesn’t mean any­thing, be­cause I know that tak­ing a car to 90 per cent is quite easy, and the last ten per cent, the last cou­ple of tenths, is where it gets tricky.

The big­gest dif­fer­ence I found was with the tyres and tyre man­age­ment. Prac­ti­cally every run was like some­thing new for me – a dif­fer­ent com­pound or used tyres – and that can make life dif­fi­cult. But it’s very pro­duc­tive and you learn a lot. For sure, if I have the op­por­tu­nity to do this again I now have much more knowl­edge about how the car is chang­ing – bal­ance, per­for­mance, grip level and so on – with dif­fer­ent tyres and dif­fer­ent fuel loads over dif­fer­ent lengths of stint. The most im­por­tant thing is that I felt very com­fort­able. F1R: When you were do­ing qual­i­fy­ing runs, how hard were you push­ing? Ten tenths? Nine tenths?

RK: When you are driv­ing some­thing that you haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore, it’s like driv­ing blind. I didn’t know what to ex­pect from the tyres, or the fuel load.

But I think I can be happy with the lap times and with my driv­ing. I know I can im­prove be­cause I didn’t have all the knowl­edge I need. Apart from one set of tyres I would say I was happy what­ever fuel loads we were run­ning, and on the long runs the pace and tyre man­age­ment were con­sis­tent. That’s the stuff you need to get ‘the feel­ing’ and it was there. That’s the most im­por­tant thing.

TO­DAY WAS EVEN BIG­GER THAN MY FIRST TEST IN F1… I KNEW WHAT TO EX­PECT AND HOW IT WOULD FEEL, BUT THERE WERE A LOT OF EMO­TIONS THERE FOR ME

Kubica is back where he be­longs at last – and on daz­zling form

Friends re­united: the Re­nault me­chan­ics talk Kubica through the steer­ing wheel con­trols. They’re every bit as keen for him to suc­ceed at this test ses­sion as he is

F1 Rac­ing has kept a close eye on Kubica’s ca­reer ups and downs, putting him on the front cover in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2013

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