Pole On The Sideline

Two of his younger racing contemporaries are world champions, both Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have achieved the goal of being world champion. At 27, Robert Kubica should be around the stage where he enters the prime of his talents. Instead, he is recovering from injuries sustained in a rally accident during the pre-season of 2011. Much has been said about the Pole’s ability and he himself has proved that after all the talk, he is able to walk the walk.

Happy to get a race-drive in 2006

The  youngster entered Formula One as official reserve driver for the BMW team in 2006. Taking part in several Friday practice sessions and private tests, his progress was at such a rate that he was seen as due a race-drive. The position of reserve driver is important as they are the driver who will step in if one of the two regular race-drivers are unable to race. The team’s second driver and former world champion Jacques Villeneuve found himself in this situation and despite his protests, was deemed unfit to drive over the 2006 Hungarian GP weekend. Kubica took his place and qualified above his vastly-more experienced team-mate Nick Heidfeld. He finished the race in 7th position and in doing so, got points on his debut. Villeneuve decided to leave the team, saying he did not want to continue as he felt he was in direct competition with Kubica over who would race and who would not.

His first podium was at Michael Schumacher's last Italian GP for Ferrari

The first Polish F1 driver performed even better two races later at Monza, Italy. Finishing the race in 3rd, he finished on the podium for the first time in his career, and became the first driver since Alex Wurz in 1997 to get on the podium within his first three race starts. While he finished the final three races of 2006 outside of the points, the potential was clearly there for the following season.

By the end of 2006, the name of Kubica was seen as being capable of strong results in cars which were not necessarily strong on speed. Three points finishes in the first five races were a good opening to the season, but race six was to bring with it a significant moment in his career. On lap 27 of the Canadian GP, Kubica’s BMW made contact with the Toyota of Jarno Trulli. With his front wing partially broken, his BMW was lifted off the ground and sent spearing into the barrier at over 180mph.

http://youtu.be/0VynFZa_vzY

The vehicle’s on-board accident data recorder measured showed the G-forces at their peak to be 75G. Death or serious injury is likely if the g-force suffered is above 50G. Remarkably, Kubica got away with a sprained ankle and some concussion. When asked a few days later if he had seen the accident on tv, he quipped “Yes, I saw it live”.  He was instructed by the team to sit out at the following event at the United States Grand Prix. In his place, then-reserve driver Sebastian Vettel scored points on his F1 race debut at the Indianapolis track. Showing no ill-effects, the Pole came back at the next Grand Prix in France to finish fourth. He went on to score points finishes in seven of the season’s remaining nine races – and one of the two in which he registered blank was down to a race retirement.

Setting laptimes at 2008 pre-season testing

2008 began with promise after he hauled his competitive car up to 2nd position in qualifying. The race however ended prematurely due to a collision with the Williams of Kazuki Nakajima on lap 47. Races two and three in Malaysia and Bahrain respectively brought consecutive podiums and a first pole position in the career of Kubica at the Bahrain GP. Two fourth-placed finishes in a row at the next two events, and a 2nd place at a wet Monaco were showing that the Polish driver was a consistent strong points scorer, in a car which was showing to be reliable and unlikely to fail on either driver.

Number one for Kubica and BMW

In a strange sort of poetic justice, Robert took the first victory at the 2008 Canadian GP – the same venue where he had suffered a heavy accident just 12 months before. He was helped by championship contender Lewis Hamilton bizarrely running into the back of Kimi Raikkonen at the end of the pit-lane, forcing both into early retirement from the race. Nevertheless, it was no easy drive as he maintained:

“I was stuck behind slower cars and couldn’t overtake them, but when the last one went in I had eight laps to make a 16 second margin to come back out ahead of Nick,” Kubica said. “It was like several laps of qualifying, I never had to push so much, but it was a great race.”

Team-mate Nick Heidfeld finished in second position to give BMW their first 1-2 finish in their brief history as a full team. A 1-2 of Polish and German driver nationality with a Swiss team was an amusing sporting story considering on the very same evening, a reversal of the same fortunes was won on the football pitch as German defeated Poland 2-0 at the Euro 2008 tournament – one of the two countries which co-hosted the month-long football festival being Switzerland.

At this point, Kubica was leading the championship, but he was not to be at the top for much longer. A lack of car development saw just two podiums from the season’s remaining eleven races. This was something he was displeased with as he felt the squad had a shot at challenging for the title. Instead, they stated loud and clear that their aim was for the championship in the following season.

Kubica and Vettel had a race-ending collision in the closing stages of the 2009 Australian GP

That was to be something which the Hinwil-based team would regret. Qualifying fourth but retiring after a collision ruined his chances of finishing on the podium at race one in Melbourne, Australia, the opening stage of the season was to mirror the rest as the car proved vastly uncompetitive compared to the front-runners of Brawn GP and Red Bull. A few finishes in the lower end of the points along with a sole podium at the Japanese GP was a miserable return for a manufacturer which had promised so much of 2009. A few days after the Hungarian GP, BMW made the shock announcement that they would be withdrawing from Formula One at the end of the 2009 season. Nick Heidfeld would stay with the team, which was taken over by former team owner Peter Sauber, and Kubica left to join Renault.

New team for 2010 at Renault

After registering a non-points finish in the season opener, he scored points at the next eight Grand Prix, including a podium at Monaco,at a track which he had marked himself down as a star performer. The Renault car was decent and even though he went through mixed results over the rest of the season, he finished in 5th place in two of the last three races. He was the driver with whom Renault were pinning their hopes on to lead them to the former glories of their 2005-2006 championship wins that they had achieved with Fernando Alonso.

Such hopes were to be put on hold as the Pole was serious injury on February 6th, 2011. Competing in a rally, a favoured racing discipline of Kubica’s, his Skoda car left the road travelling at a high speed and careered into a crash barrier. The barrier protruded into the car’s cockpit, severing the tendons in his right hand and leaving him with multiple arm and leg fractures.

The wreckage of Kubica's Skoda rally car

Among many operations which were needed, the first was the most important as surgeons rushed to stop the immediate danger of possible amputation of the right hand.  One of the specialist surgeons, Professor Mario Igor Rossello said:  “The danger is, in five-seven days you can have vascular problems, and we could do surgery again to solve these problems.” When asked what the best prognosis for recovery would be, Rossello replied: “One year. One year is the best provision.The doctor said he expected the driver to recover “enough functionality for him to resume his activity.”

It is one thing being able to regain the use of a hand for daily life, but another completely to regain the fine motor control and dexterity needed to race a car to a high level. In January 2012, he suffered a further setback as he slipped on ice at his home in Italy and broke his right leg – the same leg he broke less than 12 months previously. He is now out of contract, after having been released by the Lotus-Renault team when it was known that the Polish driver would not be able to drive for the 2012 season. Persistent rumours link Kubica to Ferrari, with the Italians potentially having a seat available for 2013 if Felipe Massa does not improve. When asked about these rumours, Ferrari team boss Stefnao Domenicali replied:

“Robert is a great driver, but he had very severe injuries and he is still working to get back to normal living. We need to wait to see. That kind of injury takes a long time to recover from.”

He is seen as one of the biggest talents in the sport. He is laid-back, relaxed and approachable. He is Hamilton without the ego or bravado, he is Raikkonen without the eccentricities. His rivals such as Fernando Alonso and Hamilton have hailed him as a future world champion, but it remains to be seen whether he will be strong enough to drive a racing a car in anger again.

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