F1 » Robert Kubica
Sometimes a driver finds himself a seat in a Formula 1 car more because of his nationality and or commercial viability than any outright talent. Not so the case of Robert Kubica who has shown all the attributes of a front-line racer who just happens to be the first Polish driver to compete in Grand Prix Racing.
Robert began running around in a little off-road vehicle when just four years old and had spent time practicing a go-kart long under the tutelage of his father before he was able to take part in any official competition. So at ten years of age, Kubica began his racing career in the Polish Karting Championship, winning six titles in three years before heading to Italy where he soon showed his considerable talent, emerging as both the Italian and German Champion with the added bonus prestigious wins at Monaco in both 1998 and 1989.
After taking fourth place overall in the both the World and European Karting championships the following season, Kubica finally gradated to Formula Renault in 2001 and was soon a pacesetter in this discipline. Four wins helped him to finish runner-up in the 2002 Italian Championship and a planned assault on the Euro Series F3 championship the following year. Unfortunately, Robert's F3 debut was delayed when he sustained a badly broken arm, as a passenger in a road accident, but upon his return in mid-season he won at Norisring and finished a creditable twelfth overall.
In 2004 Kubica was again front-runner, but outright victory was to elude him and he had to settle for seventh in the final standings.
A crucial decision to opt for World Series by Renault rather than GP2 in 2005 proved to be an astute one, as the Polish driver quickly took control of proceedings against more experienced campaigners. Four wins wrapped up the Championship and guaranteed him an end of season test at Barcelona in the F1 Renault. His lap times were so impressive, that Mario Thiessen of BMW immediately signed him up as the BMW-Sauber team's test driver for 2006.
After excelling in his duties as third driver in Friday testing throughout the first half of season, Kubica was unexpectedly pitched into action in place of the indisposed Jacques Villeneuve for the Hungarian Grand Prix. What a baptism it proved to be for the Pole, who out-qualified his team-mate Heidfeld in practice, and then survived two spins in a rain-hit race to claim a plucky seventh place. Sadly his BMW-Sauber was found to be underweight after post race scrutineering and his points-scoring debut was wiped out.
Nevertheless Robert kept the seat at the expense of Villeneuve and went on to prove to Formula 1 that Poland at last has a potential grand prix star in the making. Indeed he took third on only his third outing in the sport at Monza and then backed that up with three more finishes in China, Japan and Brazil - taking two ninth place finishes in the latter two events.
His outstanding end to the season unsurprisingly earned him a full-time drive in 2007 and, despite the pressure of hype, Kubica didn’t disappoint.
Making the most of the competitive package put together by BMW over the winter, Kubica defied his lack of experience around many of the tracks on the calendar to run his more coveted team-mate close.
Although Kubica was not quite on the same terms as Heidfeld for much part of the year, it was very easy to forget that this was technically his rookie season. Scoring seven top five finishes, Kubica was comfortably classified sixth in the standings, a wonderful achievement in his first season, even if it was overshadowed by the parallels with Lewis Hamilton.
He also survived a massive accident in the Canadian GP with only bruising and, despite having to sit out the following Indianapolis race, was back in harness by France. Unlike Heidfeld, there were no podium finishes en route to sixth overall, but Kubica did rack up three fourth places, in Spain, France and Britain.
As far as maiden seasons go, Kubica’s demonstrated that he is an exciting new talent for the sport, and it was widely expected that with the benefit of his extra experience, in 2008 he – like Heidfeld – would challenge for victories if his machine allowed and if he could prove able to get to grips with the loss of traction control.
It would indeed be so, and if 2007 was the season in which Robert truly arrived
in the top flight, then 2008 was the year in which he staked his claim as a future world champion in-waiting.
That world championship, in fact, threatened to come in what was only his second full campaign at the highest level, as Kubica and BMW headed both title chases following his breakthrough triumph in the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal in early June – a result that came just twelve months on from his horrifying somersault in the very same race.
The victory was the crowning moment of an opening half of the season that quite literally went from strength-to-strength, with the Pole never once qualifying outside the top five on the starting grid for the first eight races in succession, four times standing up on the podium – and, perhaps most tellingly of all, thoroughly dominating experienced team-mate Nick Heidfeld, a driver who is not dubbed ‘Quick Nick’ for nothing.
For a fleeting moment, it looked like Kubica and BMW might – just might – cause a major upset, as McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari and their respective drivers continued to trip up over both each other and themselves while the man in the white car made no mistakes at all. Ultimately, of course, it was not to be, as the Bavarian outfit proved unable to maintain front-running pace season-long, after going in the wrong direction on development mid-year and – in Robert’s contention at least – spending too much time on attempting to resolve Heidfeld’s qualifying issues and not enough on backing his own challenge for the crown.
That he would miss out on third place in the final standings to Kimi Raikkonen – who he roundly out-performed throughout – was cruel indeed, but then, for Kubica, any position lower than first is really irrelevant in any case. The relationship with his team may not always have been an easy one, but it was hoped that, if the tools at his disposal proved to be up to the job in 2009, he would have another chance. Sadly, it was not to be.
Despite its early focus on the new breed of F1 car and pushing for the inclusion of KERS, BMW Sauber failed to come up with a competitive proposition for either Kubica or Heidfeld. Podium pace in Melbourne - where the Pole was chasing down leader Jenson Button before being taken out by Sebastian Vettel in sight of the flag - proved to be a mirage, and he would not score until taking seventh in Turkey. Four races passed before he added to his tally and, even though he was a more regular scorer over the final third of the year, BMW's performance yielded only 14th overall in the standings, with 17 points.
Worse was to come, however, and, even though Kubica intimated that he would remain loyal, he had no option but to move on after BMW pulled the plug on its F1 operation. Not short of alternative offers, he eventually plumped for Renault - only to find the regie
's own future in doubt before it was 'rescued' by Genii Capital.
Now de facto
number one with Russian rookie Vitaly Petrov as his team-mate, Kubica was hoping the Enstone equipe
could return to former glories, and initial testing form showed that the R30 - complete with its throwback yellow-and-black livery - appeared promising. However, aware of false dawns from his time at BMW, the Pole waited for racing to begin. He need not have worried for, despite not being a racewinner, the car proved to be a competent challenger, good enough to allow Kubica to three top five finishes in the opening four flyaways - including second in Melbourne - and return to the podium in Monaco, where he qualified on the front row, and Belgium. He eventually finished eighth overall, with a creditable 136 points, after posting just three DNFs.
With Group Lotus buying into the Renault programme, Kubica was hoping for another improvement in 2011, when he would form an unchanged line-up with Petrov, and early testing performances suggested that the radical R31 may indeed be a contender. The Pole, however, would not be around to continue his pace-setting form as, following an accident while contesting the Ronde di Andora rally between F1 tests, he suffered serious arm and leg injuries that sidelined him for the entire year. Former BMW team-mate Heidfeld was signed as replacement by the Lotus Renault team after also topping the times in testing on his first day in the R31, but was later replaced by Bruno Senna, while Kubica held out for a possible return in 2012.
His recovery, after five separate surgeries on leg, arm and hand injuries, took longer than anticipated and the Pole was never in contention for the test on offer to prove his fitness. Unable to wait any longer, the renamed Lotus F1 team signed Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, leaving Kubica out in the cold. It was in just such conditions that the Pole then suffered a domestic fall, rebreaking his right leg and setting his rehabilitation back even further, but he recovered sufficiently to resume his affair with rallying midway through 2012, winning several Italian national events and starring on the Rallye du Var, attracting the attention of, amongst others, Citroen.
Although he continues to be linked to a possible F1 return, Kubica's immediate future lies on the stages, as he is due to join the revamped 2013 European Rally Championship with an M-Sport Ford Fiesta.