Twelve months ago, Robert Kubica was in the frame for a Williams race seat, and when he didn’t get it, it was largely viewed as a negative. Sergey Sirotkin got the ride instead, and many observers called it a decision based on money over talent. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
While it’s true that Kubica had incredible talent behind the wheel in the original phase of his Formula 1 career, this was a new Kubica who was finding his way in the sport again. After the horrific rallying accident that almost cost him his life, Kubica had to learn how to do so many day-to-day things again – hampered by limited mobility in his right arm – let alone drive an F1 car.
Eighteen months ago, he was just starting on the path back to F1. There was a long way to go. Could he still drive such a machine at all, let alone quickly? The answer was yes, but he needed to drive it differently. He was starting not quite from square one, but from very close to it.
“From a human point of view, yeah I understand and I see the point that it’s a story which probably nobody has believed,” Kubica says. “The only one who probably never gave up was myself and people who were around me, who I’d like to thank. But we all knew that it might be something not achievable.
“This day shows that somehow nothing is impossible. Of course a lot of things had to come together and a lot of work has been included, not only from my side, to be here. But from a driving point of view, the point is very simple. You don’t need to wait too much and you will see! I think if I will not be able to drive competitively fast, I will not be here.
“It’s more and more the way of thinking that people see my limitations and they are asking how it’s possible I can do it. I know it’s hard to believe, but I think Williams have seen it this year and I have seen it in the last 16 or 18 months, since I first drove an F1 car in Valencia last year, that I can do it thanks to work, but also [that] my limitations are not limiting as most people are thinking.”
When Sirotkin got the nod over Kubica for this season, the Pole was handed the reserve and development driver role by Williams. Looking back now, it clearly wasn’t a token gesture, but a further step toward a full return that allowed him to test the current car but also prove himself as a valuable asset when not behind the wheel.
“Last year we probably were quite close but it didn’t work out,” he said. “Many people see it as a kind of loss from my side, but I don’t see it like that; I [saw] it as a very useful year for myself, with having the opportunity to work with the team and the opportunity to drive the car.
“Everyone remembers me from the old days, but when I joined [Williams] last year and when I came [to Abu Dhabi] for the test, it was only the second time I had driven the new generation of F1 cars. This (year) gave me the opportunity to understand a bit more about the car from a technical point of view and gave me the opportunity to understand from a different perspective how the team works, because when you are a race driver you are focused on your job. Actually, the things you see are very limited.
“I have been an active part of the team this year. I haven’t been racing, so it gave me a lot of time to see different things. I think it was very useful, maybe not from a driving perspective, but from a teamwork perspective, how to do it, how it works and what we can do better.”
This year’s role has also allowed Kubica to get in the ear of deputy team principal Claire Williams. There have been limited opportunities on the track, but off it he has been able to show the value of his experience.
“It has been quite a challenging year for everyone and we are going to be ending the season in last place in the championship, which isn’t what we were hoping or expecting,” Williams admits. “We have done a thorough analysis into what’s gone wrong this year. Robert has played an instrumental part into the development of the FW41 and he is going to be a big part of helping us develop the 42 and beyond that.
“He has an extraordinary understanding of engineering and is a real pusher as well — he helps drive the engineers in what they’re doing and he pushes me. He talks to me at 2 a.m. in airport lounges around the world around what has gone wrong, what we need to be doing. That’s great to see, as we really need a driver pairing that can deliver that for us next year.”
It’s a fairytale story, but it isn’t at the end yet. Williams and her team have put their faith in Kubica to deliver, and the 33-year-old knows he still needs to go out and prove he can perform at the highest level.
“From my side, I started getting very confident that I can do it in the end of the last year, but of course it takes much more than just my side. So there’s a lot of things involved. As you can hear, and I heard it for many years, people struggled to believe that I could do it.
“Probably something in favor of Claire (is her belief) but all team managers, all team principals… if I was a team principal I would also have doubts. But that’s the reason why I said this year has been very useful, because the first meeting I remember I said that if you have any doubts, we shouldn’t be doing it. Because in difficult times it’s easy to point fingers [at] my arm, but I want to make sure that you are sure that I can do it.
“First of all, I have to be sure I can do it, and that’s why I’m here. But second of all, all the team has to be convinced that I’m able to do the job. We talked a lot about driving, but I think I can give a lot to the team away from the car, and in the position I think the team is, we will gain much more also on work away of the car than only by driving.”
Just as 12 months ago wasn’t the end of the story, neither is today. It’s an incredible achievement for Kubica to be back on the grid, now it remains to be seen if he can write further captivating chapters by performing at elite level once again.