Seven years in the making, Robert Kubica’s Formula 1 return is just one step short of a race seat – and the journey continues. By Chris Medland
Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011, Robert Kubica was debriefing with his Renault team at Jerez, having just set the fastest time of the first Formula 1 pre-season test. Expectations were growing that the R31 could be a real challenger, and the Pole was the man expected to lead the charge.
Three days later, Kubica was fighting for his life in Santa Corona Hospital on Italy’s Mediterranean coast. Competing in the Ronde di Andora Rally – a fun diversion from the pressure-filled world of F1 – his Skoda Fabia left the road at high speed and was impaled on a steel barrier.
Now, seven years after the accident that left him with a partially severed right forearm, as well as multiple elbow, leg and shoulder fractures, RACER is talking with Kubica in his new home at Williams Martini Racing as he currently sits just one step away from an F1 race seat.
It’s been some journey…
As the sun streams through the temporary hospitality structure in Melbourne’s Albert Park, we apologize to Kubica for taking him back to darker times to tell his story.
“Oh don’t worry, it’s your job,” he smiles warmly. “And this is mine now!” he adds, referencing the media commitments he has to do in his role as 2018 test and reserve driver. Kubica admits that imagining himself here would have been almost impossible as he lay in hospital for 10 weeks back in 2011. In the aftermath of his crash, returning to F1 was something he didn’t even allow himself to contemplate.
“There’s so much going through your mind,” he says. “First of all you want to recover as much as you can. Then you realize that you have some limitations and your recovery will be more complicated than you thought, because these were quite complex injuries and nobody really knew how well I would recover.
“One thing was sure: I wanted to go back racing. Then I actually ended up rallying, not racing. Not too many people understood, but the reason was very simple. I realized that if I stayed close to racing, but wouldn’t be able to do F1 again, I would enjoy it but there would also be emotions that I don’t necessarily like. To be reminded of F1, everything was still too fresh. So I decided to go rallying because it would keep me very busy; it’s a very time-consuming category and I’d never experienced it before.
“In rallying I was not in a situation where I could say, ‘I’m different, I’m driving in a different way and five years ago I was better,’ because I didn’t really do all that much of it before the accident,” he explains. “Everything was new and rallying was kind of my rehabilitation period. I enjoyed it and was committed 100 percent; it was a very special period of my life.”
Driving a rally car, Kubica concedes he wasn’t really pushing himself physically, so the journey to an F1 return only started in earnest a little over two years ago.
“The switch point was around the end of 2015,” he says. “I stopped rallying and I decided I wanted to go back racing at the highest level possible, but of course I didn’t know then that I would be able to drive Formula 1 cars. I thought I would be able to, but I wasn’t sure until I tried it.
“When I was rallying I wasn’t really in good shape, so I actually used this opportunity as a challenge for me to get back in proper shape. I started training seriously again and preparing myself.
“Slowly I could start to understand what my limitations are and what I could achieve with them. I started testing and, step by step, I ended up back in an F1 car with Renault in Valencia in June 2017, six and a half years after the last time.”
While Kubica tried a number of different cars – “many times I did much more than actually came out,” he says – a test in a GP3 car in April 2017 gave him the challenge, and the confirmation, he needed. Its lack of power steering made the feeder-series car a physical workout, and afterward he felt ready for an F1 return – Renault obliging with that Valencia test in a 2012-spec car.
“Once I knew that I could probably do it from a physical point of view, I had some question marks about my brain,” he recalls. “Driving GP3 is one thing; driving Formula 1 is quite another. Because I hadn’t done it for six years, I didn’t know what to expect. But I realized after just a couple of laps in Valencia that we have a very powerful tool, which is our brain. It’s an amazing thing and we probably underestimate how important and powerful it is.”
Kubica describes that first day testing the 2012 Renault as “more like a winter break than a six-year break” due to its similarities to the R31 he’d last driven. It was a comfort zone of sorts, but Kubica now had to figure out how to drive it as quickly as possible, given the lack of mobility in his right hand.
“I had to start learning myself again,” he smiles. “Not from zero, but it’s like having a new body. I have some functionality limitations; I have movement limitations. So it’s normal that I have to develop some other resources for doing things.”
Get the full version of this story in the 2018 Heroes Issue of RACER magazine, on sale now.
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