For the love of Racing: The remarkable story of Robert Kubica

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Robert Jozef Kubica was born on 7 December 1984 in Krakow, Poland. After his interest for cars became apparent, his father bought him a small off-road car when he was just four years old. He started practicing his driving skills driving around plastic bottles. A couple years later, his father realised Robert needed something better so he bought him his first go kart.

When he turned 10, he started racing in the Polish karting championship and immediately started racking up titles. Such was his advantage when racing in Poland, he moved to Italy when he was just 14 years old, looking for a more competitive racing environment. His success continued in Italy and he also competed in the German championship. He signed off his karting career in 2000 with 4th place in both the European and World Championships, having established himself as a star of the future, competing against the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and many others.

In 2001, as he had reached the minimum age for car racing in Europe, Kubica switched to cars, starting with Formula Renault 2.0, where he competed in the Italian and European championships. In 2002, he was 2nd in FR 2.0 Italy. For 2003, he moved up to Formula 3, regarded as one of the most important junior categories for young drivers, racing in the Euro F3 championship, the most competitive F3 championship. He ranked 12th in 2003 and the year after that he placed 7th in the championship after a winless year. However, in the season-ending blue riband Macau Grand Prix, he was 2nd. The Macau GP is the most prestigious F3 race the world, with past winners including Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard, Takuma Sato and Lucas di Grassi.

For 2005, Robert moved to the World Series by Renault and he won the championship that same year, which earned him a test with the Renault Formula 1 Team, which were world champions at the time. He raced in the Macau GP and was 2nd once again.

In 2006, Kubica became test driver for the BMW Sauber Team, performing testing duties and driving the car on Friday’s practice sessions at the Grand Prix weekends. His performances were impressing the team and that, combined with poor showings by Jacques Villeneuve, led to Robert being promoted to race driver for the Hungarian GP. There, he beat his experienced teammate Nick Heidfeld and finished in the points in a wet race, but was later disqualified for being underweight. In just his third F1 race, at the Italian GP in Monza, he would get his first podium, again beating his teammate in the process.

2007, his first full year in F1, Robert was 6th in the final standings, but he failed to make the podium and was beaten by his teammate, who was 5th overall. It was a hard year for him as the newly introduced control tires had much less grip than the year before and that didn’t suit his driving stile.

In 2008, BMW Sauber produced a good car and that allowed Robert to get his first win in the Canadian GP. He led the standings at that point and was affirming himself as a title contender. However, BMW had set its targets to get their first win in 2008 and to aim for the world title in 2009, so they decided to basically stop car development for that year and focus for the year after that. Robert did not agree with this and was at times publicly critical of the team. Still, he got six other podiums besides his win and finished 4th that year, getting the better of his teammate. 2009 was massively disappointing, the team starting the year with very high hopes, only to realize their car was rather uncompetitive. Heidfeld was 13th and Robert 14th in the final standings.

For 2010, Kubica moved to Renault. Although he only finished 8th that year, he produced some eye-catching performances throughout the year.

In 2011’s F1 pre-season winter testing, Robert was fastest in Valencia. The signs were encouraging for the upcoming season. And then…his life changed. Whilst competing in a rally in Ronde di Andorra, Kubica crashed and sustained heavy injuries after an Armco barrier penetrated his side of the car. Such was the extent of his injuries, he suffered partial amputation of his forearm, compound fractures to his right elbow, shoulder and leg, as well as a significant loss of blood. At the time, the condition of his hand was not clear so he was forced to miss the 2011 F1 season but set his target on coming back the year after. It was the beginning of a long road to recovery. He was released from the hospital on 24 April 2011. After this, little was known about Robert’s condition and the severity of his injuries. In November 2011, it was confirmed he would not be taking part in the 2012 F1 season and, to top it all off, in January 2012, little under a year after his accident, he fell on ice near his home in Italy and re-broke his leg. He was regularly praised by Hamilton and Alonso as one of the best drivers of his generation and highly regarded in general. He left a void in the F1 grid after he left.

Towards the end of 2012, Robert started competing in rally, with some small changes on the steering to adapt to his limitations. In 2013, he competed in the World Rally Championship in the WRC2 category and won.

For 2014, he competed in the WRC. He was fast on several occasions, but had a tendency to crash too often. He finished the season 16th. In 2015, he stayed in the WRC, finishing 12th in the championship.

In 2016, his sole WRC rally was the Monte Carlo. He competed in the Mugello 12 Hours and in the penultimate round of the Renault Sport Trophy in Spa, where he got a podium.

Come 2017, he really started pushing towards a return to F1. In April 2017, his old team Renault offered him a test in Valencia in a 2012-spec car alongside the team’s test driver Sergey Sirotkin. Although the test was held behind closed doors, it was widely believed that Kubica outpaced Sirotkin. At the time, Renault’s Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul suggested that the test offered to Kubica was merely an act of courtesy from the team, a way to say thank you to a driver that had served it so well in the past. But Kubica’s performance impressed the team and he was offered a second test in Paul Ricard, France. Abiteboul said after the test that there were “no obvious roadblocks” preventing the Pole’s return to F1. As his assessment continued, it was confirmed he would take part in the official in-season test at the Hungaroring, right after the Hungarian GP. It would be his first time in a 2017-spec car. He did a race weekend simulation on that test, completing 142 laps. His performance raised expectations about an eventual promotion to a race seat for 2018 or even the end of ’17, but that didn’t materialise, as Renault released Jolyon Palmer from their line-up and got Carlos Sainz Jr. to replace him.

In October, he did two tests for Williams with their 2014 car, one in Silverstone and one at the Hungaroring. With very few seats on the grid available for 2018, after Renault and Sauber confirmed their line-ups and Felipe Massa (Williams) confirmed his retirement, it became clear that the second seat at Williams would be the only seat left. Up to five drivers were believed to be in the frame for that seat: Paul di Resta, Pascal Wehrlein, Daniil Kvyat, Sergey Sirotkin and Kubica, with the last two the strongest candidates.

So in the post-season test in Abu Dhabi, Williams chose to run Kubica and Sirotkin, this time in their 2017 car. This was supposed to be make-or-break to Robert’s aspirations of a sensational F1 return. As it turned out, Sirotkin slightly outperformed Kubica, especially in terms of one lap pace. Both drivers brought substantial financial backing, Kubica reportedly 8M€ and Sirotkin a mammoth 15M€. A lot has been said and written about it, but in the end, the team chose to go with Sirotkin, appointing Kubica as their reserve driver.

It feels like he came ever so close to finally returning to F1, only to miss out in the end. While it would have certainly been one of the most remarkable comebacks ever in the world of sport, I believe there is still hope. Being a reserve driver will allow him drive on Fridays in GP weekends, work closely with the team, while they can evaluate his progress and input towards developing the car. If he works well, he might be promoted to race driver. Anyway, being where he is right now is nothing short of a miracle. After fighting for his life in hospital seven years ago, 18 operations to the right side of his body and a partially severed arm, here he is on the brink of a return to F1.

But it’s not all a fairy tale, though. In F1, every split-second counts, performance is paramount. That and money, of course. But one thing is for sure, if Robert is not up to the task, he won’t be given the race seat, so only time will tell if we’ll see one of the most exciting talents of the last decade return to the sport he loves so much.

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