Williams Martini Racing’s reserve driver Robert Kubica finds himself on the team’s shortlist for a race seat for next year.
Along with Esteban Ocon, current Williams driver Sergey Sirotkin and bookies’ outsider Artem Markelov, he is one of the four drivers currently being weighed up by the team with a view to announcing one of them as George Russell’s team-mate for 2019.
But is it realistic to expect Kubica to start the new season as a Williams race driver?
There is little doubt that in his prime, Robert Kubica was one of the quicker of a generation of drivers that included multiple World Champions Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.
After claiming a podium at the Italian Grand Prix in 2008 in only his third F1 start, talk began of Kubica becoming Poland’s first ever Formula 1 World Champion. (HIs team-mate Nick Heidfeld also scored a third-place finish that season, but talk of him becoming ‘Germany’s next World Champion’ was a lot more muted).
Kubica and Heidfeld remained together for the next three seasons, where, during the course of 57 races as team-mates, Heidfeld outscored (150 points vs 137 points) and outqualified (29 to 28) Kubica.
Robert registered his first and only win at the Canadian Grand Prix of 2008 in a 1-2 for the BMW Sauber Team, in a race of high attrition that saw the two main protagonists: Hamilton and Raikkonen collide in the pitlane causing their instant retirements.
Heidfeld would be Kubica’s last comparable team-mate in Formula 1.
With 2010 came a move to Renault for Kubica, where he was paired with Vitaly Petrov, the Russian having landed the drive via substantial financial support and who Kubica predictably trounced.
A solitary podium was his reward for an unremarkable season at Renault – a team who scored podiums the season before with Alonso, and the season after with Kubica’s once team-mate Petrov at the wheel.
Kubica’s accident and the aftermath
And then came Kubica’s horiffic accident on first stage of the Ronde di Andora rally, where he lost part of his forearm and broke his shoulder, elbow and leg when he crashed and an armco barrier penetrated the cockpit.
While his injuries ruled him out of the 2011, it was uncertain whether he’d be fit in time for the start of the 2012 season. When it became clear that he would not, Renault recruited Kimi Raikkonen to replace him and it seemed like Kubica’s F1 dream was over.
With the demands of F1 seemingly intolerable to a driver with the injuries he was carrying Robert Kubica returned to rallying, and dabbled in other series in an effort to prolong his motorsport career.
Return fo Formula 1
And then came the announcement in 2017 that Robert Kubica would be testing an old Renault E20 in a private test in Valencia, Spain.
A further drive in a 2017 spec car followed in the official F1 test directly after that year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, after which, team boss Eric Boullier would evaluate Robert’s performance and assess his suitability for a full F1 campaign in 2018.
For whatever reason, and though looking for a driver to replace the underperforming (according to Renault) Jolyon Palmer mid-season, Renault decided not to pursue it, and instead replaced Palmer with Carlos Sainz, despite the young Spaniard being under contract to Red Bull.
Perhaps evaluating Kubica’s capabilities with a view to employing him in 2018 was what that prompted Renault to put him in the car in the first place. Or maybe there was a degree of sentimentality in that he was their driver when his accident took place and they wanted to give him another shot in an F1 car. Or the cynic in me wonders if they knew it was going to be difficult for Robert to cope with the physical stresses of piloting a modern day F1 car, even when compared to Kubica’s last season in F1 in 2010, but knew that the media interest that it’d generate would make their effort worthwhile.
Whichever it was, nothing came of it.
Williams then decided they’d like to give him a crack behind the wheel of one of their cars.
Not entirely dissimilar to his Renault experience, Kubica tested and again posted respectable times. Williams publicly stated that they didn’t think there was any physical barriers to him driving a full campaign in F1.
But just when it looked like he was in the box seat to replace the retiring Felipe Massa at Williams for the 2018 season, the team announced Lance Stroll would be partnered by Russian Rookie Sergey Sirotkin.
There was, though, a glimmer of hope. Kubica agreed to be Williams’ reserve driver for the 2018 season which would mean he’d compete in FP1 for a number of Grands Prix and would be called upon should anything happen to either of their race drivers.
Nothing did, and so Kubica’s return to F1 PROPER was put on hold for another year.
Kubica and Williams in 2019
At the time of writing, Williams Deputy Principal Claire Williams has publicly stated that the team are evaluating a small number of drivers to partner George Russell for 2019. It would appear that two of those are ‘pay drivers’ (Markelov and Sirotkin) and the other two (Kubica and Ocon) would require additional funding from a third party for the team to even consider them.
All the talk at the USGP is that Williams want Esteban Ocon, and are looking into sourcing the funds to be able to afford him. There is very little mention of them doing the same to secure Kubica’s signature, and it would appear that rather than the Pole being Williams’ plan-B, plan-B would be to sit one of the two Russians in their second car, their financial backing compensating for the funding they missed out on resulting in Ocon taking a sabbatical.
How good was Kubica?
Fernando Alonso once described Kubica as the ‘best of the group’ (Himself, Hamilton, Vettel & Kubica). Can this really be true: That Kubica was the best of the collective that won ten championships (and counting) between them? Or was he being generous to his friend?
It’s alleged that Kubica has signed an agreement to partner Alonso at Ferrari in 2012 at the time of his crash while rallying in Andorra, something that has been acknowledged by Kubica himself.
But would Alonso have sanctioned this if he had the slightest doubt that Kubica would have been able to beat him? As you will recall, this was a time where Alonso and Ferrari were very much in contention for the F1 World Championship, and so the likelihood is that any team-mate of Alonso who finished ahead of him in races would not only be depriving the Spaniard of vital World Championship points compromising his aspirations of becoming a three-time F1 world champion (Alonso finished runner-up to Vettel in the WDC of 2012), but would also have a very real chance of the title themselves.
Alonso was then considered the best driver in the world and held quite a bit of sway at the Scuderia.
Additionally, the agreement that was made between Kubica and Ferrari was done so during the 2010 season – a season that will long be remembered for the ‘Fernando is faster than you…’ radio message that obliged Ferrari’s #2 driver Felipe Massa to stand down from the lead of the German Grand Prix and allow Alonso by to win.
Are we to believe that the lead and backup driver setup that Ferrari have long-favoured since the all-conquering Schumacher era in the late nineties was to be torn up and thrown away to allow two world class drivers to fight for the title. And not only that, but Fernando Alonso was happy with this?
No, I think sentimentality played a part in Alonso’s assessment of Kubica’s abilities.
Who knows – given the right opportunity Kubica could have found himself as a multiple Grand Prix winner or even a World Champion, but as soon as he was partnered with an Alonso, Vettel or Hamilton people’s assessment of a driver outscored by team-mate Nick Heidfeld over their two seasons together might not have been quite as generous.
Robert Kubica’s last Grand Prix was on the 14th November 2010. If he were to make his Williams debut at the Australian Grand Prix next year, 3045 days will have passed between Grands Prix.
At the time of said Grand Prix, Kubica will be 34, and he’ll have been out of a full-time Formula 1 drive for twice as long as he was a full-time F1 driver.
Nobody has returned to Formula 1 after such a long time in-absentia to enjoy any kind of success.
In fact, of the five drivers to return to F1 after absences longer than Kubica’s, none of them scored a single point.
During his first retirement Michael Schumacher’s break from F1 was half as long away as Kubica’s, and the most successful driver in the history of the sport managed just a single podium in the three seasons following his return. He was outscored by team-mate Nico Rosberg in all three seasons.
Michael Schumacher is the only man in the last 20 years to be world champion over the age of 34, and he only managed that feat once.
So the odds are stacked against Kubica in terms of time out and age.
But what about his ability to drive a 2019 Formula 1 car? There is absolutely no precedent for a successful driver in Formula 1 carrying a physical disability as serious as Kubica’s.
One suitable comparison would be that of Alessandro Nannini.
In 1990 the Italian, with one win and a handful of podiums to his name and with a potential future Ferrari drive in the offing (eerily similar to Kubica, eh?), severed his forearm in a helicopter crash, and though surgically repaired, and despite competing in other motorsports never raced in Formula 1 again.
That being said, following his Renault test, Cyril Abiteboul said of Kubica: ‘he was still quick, still consistent and more importantly he still has the enthusiasm he always carried to the team’.
Paddy Lowe added that ‘there are no issues around (his injury)’ during his time working with Williams.
So it would seem that those in the know think that Kubica’s injury is no blocker to his entry back into Formula 1.
So why did neither give him a race-seat?
And would simply getting a race-seat be considered a success? Or does he have that desire to win championships that seems to drive other top sportsmen forward?
If it’s the former, then why would anyone opt for him over a young, hungry, potential world champion like Esteban Ocon?
And if it’s the latter, is it too ambitious to think he’s going to achieve that at 34+, and in a Williams that’s currently at the tail end of the field?
From a team perspective, despite apparently no ill-effects of his injury being revealed in the odd test here and practice day there, would it be too much of a risk to launch him into a season where he’ll be required to do three three-day weekends in three weeks? (France/Austria/Silverstone).
If, in his short spell in F1, Kubica had blitzed the competition like Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher or Ayrton Senna in their F1 infancies, or shown the proven championship-winning pedigree that Sebastian Vettel has done in the last decade, and was then injured, I think the risk would have been tempting.
But he was bested by Heidfeld at BMW-Sauber and achieved 8th in the World Championship with Renault. And Alonso’s praise notwithstanding, that’s just not enough to justify the risk.
So sadly for Robert, for Poland and for his scores of fans and well-wishers worldwide I can see many reasons why it won’t happen, and very few that make me think he’ll be in a Williams next or any other year.
One one side, there are drivers queuing up to pay for a Williams seat. On the other there’s Esteban Ocon: who has such promise that his exclusion from F1 is being used as an example of why Formula 1 is broken.
How do you feel about Electric cars Robert?