Will they? Won’t they? Or maybe even: Have they?
Usually when almost all the seats are filled on the F1 grid, excitement surrounding the driver market starts to die down. With fewer permutations, it’s less of an unknown what a team is likely to do, and the pecking order of competitive cars means it tends to be the least competitive seats that are last to be confirmed.
While you could argue that’s the case at Sauber – where Charles Leclerc looks set to partner Marcus Ericsson in 2018, but a slight surprise would be to see Antonio Giovinazzi join Leclerc – it is certainly not the case with Williams.
Fifth in the constructors’ championship this year and with Paddy Lowe’s influence set to be felt with its new car, Williams has the ingredients to be a competitive midfield runner once again next season. It’s an attractive seat, but after consecutive top three constructors’ finishes gave way to back-to-back defeats in its fight against Force India for best of the rest, the team is in need of a boost.
Attracting top-level talent is not easy. A year ago, Claire Williams mentioned Jenson Button as a driver she would like to have involved. This year, Fernando Alonso was a reported target. Both proved to be unrealistic, but it shows what Williams thinks the team needs alongside Lance Stroll as part of its driver line-up.
There are solid young options around for Williams, but there is only one driver who can previously boast having matched the level of world champions such as Alonso and Button who is currently chasing a seat: Robert Kubica.
It has been no secret that Kubica is looking for a return to F1 some six years after he was left with severe injuries in a rally crash in Italy. Kubica (at left, above) still bears the scars and limitations of those injuries, most notably on his right arm, but they have not stopped him pushing on in search of a return that would go down as one of the most remarkable sporting comebacks in history.
On the face of it, it seems like a no-brainer for Williams. Put Kubica in the car alongside Stroll and you’ve got a world class talent who would bring massive interest even if he is unable to quite replicate his performance level from before his accident. The natural gravitation toward the Pole would make him the perfect focal point for the team – and he’s experienced enough to deal with such a role – while also giving Stroll a fresh benchmark.
But there is always so much more to life than what we see “on the face of it.” Tests and talks have been ongoing for a number of months, and the buzz among fans is huge, so why the lack of commitment so far?
Kubica has tested old cars for both Renault and Williams this year and even made a high-profile appearance at the Hungaroring in this year’s Renault (above). That wasn’t enough to convince the team to opt for the Pole over Red Bull youngster Carlos Sainz, leading to the recent evaluations with Williams.
While they have not been made public by Renault, there were obviously some doubts. Kubica had them too before driving the car, insisting he would not chase a full-time return unless he was sure he could perform at the level required. While he appears to have that confidence in himself, those doubts could still extend to Williams as the team says it is unlikely to have made a final decision on its driver line-up before it has seen how Kubica performs in a 2017 car during one morning at the Pirelli tire test next week.
Williams has maintained that it primarily makes its driver decisions based on driving ability, and to take such approach means removing the romance from the situation.
After an initial report in Brazil that was denied by the team, rumors again started to circulate on social media this week that Kubica had agreed a two-year deal to partner Stroll, something that again led to a statement. With more than one option, Williams would need to make clear to other potential drivers that any negotiations are worth continuing with, but the latest team quote suggests a clear favorite.
“Although conversations are ongoing with Kubica, it is still yet to be finally decided who will replace Massa,” a team spokesperson said. “We will make an announcement when we have something to announce but nothing is planned this weekend in Abu Dhabi.”
Even if Kubica is the team’s preference, there are a number of hurdles to overcome. This week Mark Hughes reported in Motorsport magazine that Kubica will need to pay back an insurance payout activated by what had appeared to be the end of his F1 career over six years ago. Those sort of financial implications make it a complex deal to pursue regardless of his driving performance, especially if there’s risk attached.
Without a deal in place, next week’s test could still prove crucial to Kubica’s hopes. While Williams chief technical officer Paddy Lowe has insisted the Pirelli test is “not the place for a shootout” – shootout being a word the team has jokingly banned from its media sessions this year – the fact that he will run one morning session before handing over to Stroll allows a potential comparison between the two. Add in Sergey Sirotkin following the same schedule the following day, and the opportunities are there to gauge Kubica’s performance against two different quantities.
Realistically, it will be difficult for Kubica to completely convince Williams during a test that is run by Pirelli, but if he faces any difficulties or performs inconsistently then the test could lead to further seeds of doubt.
I admit, it’s a negative way of looking at it, but that’s due to the caution both Renault and now Williams are having to treat Kubica’s attempted return. This is a driver who retains the massive respect of the likes of Lewis Hamilton (pictured at left, above, dueling Kubica at Monaco in 2009) and Fernando Alonso, having been one of the standout talents of F1 during his first time in the sport, but his last race start was at the same circuit he’ll test next week some seven years ago.
A comeback would be a brilliant story, but only if it’s done because his pure performance and ability remains good enough at this point in time. To bring Kubica back and have him struggle before being replaced would be heartbreaking for all involved, as well as hugely costly to both the driver and team.
With Stroll showing flashes of potential but still hugely inconsistent as he gains experience – he is only 19, after all – Williams needs to get this driver decision right. If not Kubica, then Pascal Wehrlein is an attractive proposition if Mercedes wants to progress its young driver up the grid, but that would result in a line-up short on experience and less attractive to sponsors.
It will be a gamble whatever Williams chooses to do, but the team has given itself every chance to evaluate the different options in depth and come to as informed a decision as possible.
If after all that it is Kubica, feel free to get excited…