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
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