He has already finished up on the rostrum twice in F1 2010 – in Melbourne and Monaco – and Robert Kubica was left wondering what might have been after a third podium potentially slipped his grasp in the European Grand Prix in Valencia when a delay during his pit-stop meant Renault failed to 'take maximum advantage' of the early safety car appearance.
Having qualified sixth, Kubica duelled energetically with defending F1 World Champion Jenson Button and erstwhile 2010 world championship leader Mark Webber during the opening lap around the harbourside streets of the Spanish city before getting the better of both for P5, and he would go on to track Williams rival Rubens Barrichello all the way to the chequered flag, ultimately coming up just one-and-a-half seconds shy of snatching fourth place. It could, the Pole mused afterwards, have been even better still.
“I got a pretty good start and managed to keep my position, and then I had a really nice, clean fight with Jenson – I think we spent about half a lap side-by-side,” related the 25-year-old. “In fact, we both managed to overtake Webber going into turn eight; I was on the inside, Jenson was on the outside and we both squeezed Mark to get past. Jenson and I then went through the next two corners side-by-side as well, so it was a pretty fun first lap and I came out on top of the battle.
“After that, we got lucky when the safety car came out; I was already braking for the last corner when the message came on the steering wheel, so I decided to head straight to the pits. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to take maximum advantage of the opportunity – I was the first car into the pits, but the third car to leave. If everything had gone smoothly, we could have finished on the podium, but we didn't manage to do so.”
Still, the Kraków native wound up some 21 seconds and nine positions ahead of young Russian team-mate Vitaly Petrov, who struggled to match the former Canadian Grand Prix-winner's pace on race day following a promising qualifying showing, and slipped back from eleventh to 14th in the final reckoning after being handed down – like Kubica and seven other drivers – a retrospective five-second time penalty for having exceeded the safety car-in lap time.
“I'm disappointed with my result,” confessed the 'Vyborg Rocket', the first of his countrymen ever to compete at the highest level. “When you start the race in tenth, the minimum you expect is to keep your position. My problems began at the start, because I got big wheelspin and lost a lot of places.
“After that I tried to keep up good pace and tried to attack [Pedro] de la Rosa, but he had very good speed on the straight and it's very difficult to overtake here so I couldn't get by. As a rookie, it's good experience for me to finish the race and we know what we need to do for the coming races.”
Indeed, Kubica's ten points for fifth place helped Renault to close the gap on chief rival Mercedes Grand Prix ahead in fourth spot in the constructors' standings, with the reigning double F1 World Champions failing to score at all, meaning the deficit has been reduced to just 20 markers heading next to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix. The goal now, team principal Eric Boullier affirms, is clear – keep on pushing.
“To finish fifth with Robert is a good result, and we've made up some ground on Mercedes in the championship,” acknowledged the Frenchman. “We managed to react quickly to the safety car and adapt the strategy, but I still feel we could have come away with a better result. It's disappointing to see Vitaly miss out on points, especially after his good performance in qualifying. When you are in P15 after the first lap it's very difficult to get back into the points, but at least he had pretty strong pace.”