Robert Kubica’s return to Formula 1 has been one of the most compelling stories of the past 12 months. To go from not having driven a current car for years to securing a reserve and development role at Williams is rapid, encouraging progress.
So while Kubica continues to target that final step to a race seat – a quest that has captured the interest of the paddock even more this past weekend as the Pole made his first FP1 appearance in over seven years – what’s it like being the man in his shadow?
While Kubica was lapping the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya during testing on Wednesday, the driver who had handed the car over to him on Tuesday night was reflecting on a first proper F1 test appearance that had gone largely under the radar.
“I was obviously here for the weekend, and actually within this team it’s going really well for me,” Oliver Rowland told RACER. “They’ve made me feel like I’m part of the team, so I didn’t feel so much like that.
“Obviously in the press everyone’s mad keen about Robert’s comeback so I suppose it does overshadow me a little bit, but it’s not [the press] that I have to persuade to give me a good chance, it’s the team. I‘m having a good relationship with everybody here so I will keep doing my job.”
The job Rowland did was described as “absolutely superb” by the team in its press release, and the former World Series by Renault champion was left satisfied by the impression he made.
“It went very well. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, obviously they didn’t have the easiest weekend as a team in terms of the car balance and things like that, but I got up to speed quite quickly. Within ten laps I was feeling fairly comfortable, and from then on we had a pretty good day. Things ran smoothly.
“We had quite an intense program in terms of what I needed to test and it didn’t really involve any performance running, but at the same time I need to show that I can do the job when they need me, so that was the most important thing. In the end I felt good, and I think everybody was pretty happy.
“I knew that 80-90 percent of it was that I needed to be consistent and do a good job. The speed comes quite naturally, so that came and I didn’t try pushing over the limit too much. Maybe three or four years ago I would have had a good go, but I realize now that I’m older I need to take a mature approach and that’s more likely to get me a good chance rather than [being] a bit of a hothead that can do a quick lap.”
Age is a topic that has been visited numerous times when it comes to Williams, with Lance Stroll just 19 and rookie Sergey Sirotkin 22. At three years Sirotkin’s senior, does Rowland see his age as an issue when trying to break into F1 for the first time?
“No, not really,” he says. “If anything, it’s not a bad thing to be a bit older. I assume they’re looking for someone who can do a good job, and the risk you take with a young person is they don’t bring the points and the feedback. They may well be fast, but the risk you take with someone younger is they can make more mistakes, so I don’t see that as an issue.
“Sergey’s younger than me, but came out of karting very young and we literally did the same car racing background. I did Formula Renault and then he did Formula Abarth or something like that, and he moved quickly to World Series, and then we met there and raced that. His second year was my first year, so he was actually a bit ahead of me.”
Such an outlook explains why Rowland is not more frustrated to be on the sidelines while Sirotkin races, with the Russian’s late emergence as a race candidate coming after Rowland was already in talks with Williams.
“I wasn’t involved in the details, but [talks started] a bit before Sergey came on the scene, so initially there was a little bit more to it than what I’m doing now. But I had to settle for a factory-based [role].
“I had that hope at that point, but I’m realistic. I knew it was never really going to materialize. At the time Robert was heavily linked to having the seat and then I was going to slot in around that, and then obviously Sergey came along and did a good test and we kind of all got bumped down a little bit.”
Having missed out on a more visible role, Rowland is wary of slipping more off the F1 radar: his racing focus this season is a World Endurance Championship campaign with Manor. And even the start of that was pushed back in Spa due to cashflow issues for the team.
“It’s difficult, you almost feel like sometimes you’re drifting away and then you come back and you’re back in the paddock,” he says. “It’s also difficult for motivation in terms of, I’ve always done a full-on program in like F2 or World Series and there was a pressure of always having to perform. It’s kind of gone a little bit, so I’m having to motivate myself in different ways.
“But it also allows me to be a bit more flexible with the team, and start to understand more areas of the team like the car and engineering. Where [in the past] it has always been full-on competition, now I can start to get interested in other things and do other things as well.”
Rowland is likely to get another opportunity to impress Williams during the in-season test in Hungary, but he is starting to turn his attentions to what else he can do off the track as well as on it to enter the conversation for a 2019 seat.
“I need to learn to play the game a bit better,” he admits. “You know, like putting yourself in the right places and creating the relationships and all that sort of stuff. That’s the important bits that you kind of miss when you’re just young and trying to win.
“Yesterday, balancing the performance and doing a good job, I understand that if I go and do a fast lap in the morning but then I ended up in the gravel at Turn 4, then that just goes down as a big red cross.”
Williams is the main focus for the Briton, who sees a number of other doors as being closed due to his lack of significant sponsorship. Having previously been associated with Renault, and before that McLaren, he concedes that his F1 eggs are very much in one basket.
“At the moment it seems a bit like that,” he says. “It’s difficult, I didn’t stay with Renault because it was quite closed there, and they made that quite clear so fair enough. McLaren was a long time ago now, and everybody there is completely different. When I was there it was Martin Whitmarsh and Ron Dennis and now I don’t know any of them, so it’s completely different. So I don’t really have that link anymore.
“Red Bull occupy two team,s so I won’t be going there. Ferrari and Mercedes – I won’t be going there – and then also Sauber with their relationship with Ferrari, so people would be above you…”
But even at Williams, Rowland has to deal with Kubica being his biggest roadblock to a race seat. The Pole is first in line to replace either of the current drivers, something Rowland acknowledges but doesn’t see as negative, even if it limits his on-track opportunities.
“We get along well, and we share a little bit of the same views and we work in the same way,” he says. “Robert’s actually a really good asset to have. It’s nice to learn from him and see how he reacts around the team and other people because he’s got a lot of experience. It’s quite eye-opening, actually.
“Robert is the official reserve driver, so I’m below him in the ladder. I can only do so much to prove myself, and when I get my chance hopefully do a good job.
“It’s a tricky one … I’ve just been thinking about maximizing myself. It’s quite clear from working with him that he did a really good job, and I can learn a lot from him as well. So I’m not really thinking about jumping him, I’m more thinking about learning what I can from him and taking his experience and putting it into my game.
“There’s no doubt that I’m fast enough, in my opinion. Even Pierre [Gasly] and everybody like that, I’ve raced [against] and been as fast as – or beaten – quite a lot of them on the grid, so that’s not in my mind. I think you just need to prove that you’re there in terms of everything else.”