In Good Conscience

Kubica's courageous bid to return to F1 is no accident

None of us can know the inner drive that has put Robert Kubica back behind the wheel of a 300kmh racing car.

But we can admire it.

None of us knows where this is leading the man who has limited use of his right arm following a rally car crash in February 2011.

But we share the wonder of what took place on Wednesday, when he drove the Renault RS17 around the Hungarian Grand Prix circuit for 142 laps.

An F1 return, despite a withered right arm with partial movement? Don't rule it out, because the 32-year- old Kubica is certainly not giving up on what he calls the "nearly impossible dream".

Kubica is fast, still. He is brave, beyond doubt. And he has the tunnel vision of a man who in 2011 was regarded as a future world champion.

Who says that? Try Lewis Hamilton. "Robert is one of the quickest drivers I've ever raced against," says Hamilton who, along with Sebastian Vettel (and for one season Nico Rosberg) has dominated the era since Kubica's accident.

Fans cheering former F1 driver Robert Kubica during a test session for Team Renault on the Hungaroring circuit on Wednesday.
Fans cheering former F1 driver Robert Kubica during a test session for Team Renault on the Hungaroring circuit on Wednesday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Hamilton and Vettel have won roughly three-quarters of the 128 races since the start of 2011. During Wednesday's Formula One training, Kubica posted the fourth-fastest lap - 1.4 seconds behind Vettel - on a hot and humid day around one of the world's most demanding, switchback tracks.

Fourth fastest in testing is not the real thing. The leading manufacturers used this last day of the first half of the 2017 season to test new data, to run their cars under new stresses, new weight-speed balances, new strain on tyre degradation that they would not share with friend or foe.

They race on the edge, and test up to and beyond the limits. But heed the rest of what Hamilton said about Kubica. "He's one of the best," said Hamilton. "Just raw, natural talent. Not a lot of great, great drivers come through, not real special drivers like him."

Hamilton's generosity of praise might seem easy, almost inconsequential until or unless Kubica returns to duel with him in Grands Prix. The men who might make that possible are employed by Renault.

An F1 return, despite a withered right arm with partial movement? Don't rule it out, because the 32-year- old Kubica is certainly not giving up on what he calls 'the nearly impossible dream'.

"He's still quick and still very consistent," observed the team's managing director Cyril Abiteboul a month ago. "More importantly, Robert still has this energy, this drive and enthusiasm that he always had."

Renault sporting director Alan Permane, a man who worked in the past with Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, told reporters of the time in 2010 when Kubica drove a qualifying lap at Suzuka in Japan.

"It was a lap like I've never seen from anyone else, ever," recalled Permane. "Robert came in absolutely white. He scared the life out of himself."

Not quite. Kubica, the Pole from Krakow, still has that hunger, that internal drive, to go to the limits.

"In the end," Kubica said this week, "the one who is risking all that I have is myself. If I come back, I don't want to do it just to be back. I need to be sure I am able to at least come as close as possible to the level I was before my accident.

"Just testing, the last three months are probably the best three months of my life in motorsport."

Three months after six lost years. The crash that almost killed him happened at the Ronde di Andora rally in northern Italy. A minuscule driving error, a catastrophic outcome when a metal barrier pierced the Skoda Fabia and penetrated Kubica's right side.

Not just the arm, but fractures from his foot to his shoulder. Had he not been a racing driver, the surgeons at the hospital he was helicoptered to might not have concentrated first and foremost on saving the right arm.

Seven surgeons spent seven hours trying to restore function in the arm and hand rather than amputate. "I was lucky I was a sportsman and driving F1," he said. "That's probably why my arm is still there."

The limitations he still has influence his daily life more than they do his ability to steer the car. Later there would be 18 operations in all to fix all of his fractures.

Two years later, in 2013, he tried his hand (his choice of phrase) in the Mercedes F1 simulator. He could not then, and cannot now, fully rotate the wrist. He must improvise by lifting the elbow to turn the wheel.

But surely the greater challenge is the mental side, overcoming fear, obeying the compulsion to drive to the edge of what the car is capable of doing and not simply what the driver might dare?

And then there is the adjustment. The cars today are heavier and wider, but quicker than anything he drove in 2011. Nothing, he said on Wednesday, is even similar to what he has been testing between February and today.

"When I last drove Formula One," he said, "the car's minimum weight was 620kg. Having 100kg extra is a big difference."

Bulkier cars put extra concentration on drivers managing tyres. The Pirelli tyres used today are different from what he raced on before. DRS (Drag Reduction System) to facilitate overtaking came in after he last raced. The engine specifications have changed, drastically.

And from next year there will be the halo cockpit protector that some drivers appreciate as a safety necessity and others regard as a monstrous and ugly imposition.

Renault, not Kubica, will determine whether he races again. In his eyes, the 142 laps (double the race distance) around Hungaroring amount to a demonstration that he has the ability.

"I didn't have pain, I actually feel well," he said. "I'm tired, it has been a hot day, and eight hours of running. But I'm happy, and I feel that, physically, I could go again tomorrow."

Renault will be assessing their options. After lunch in Hungary, when Kubica downloaded and processed all the information garnered in the morning session, he was quicker than both Jolyon Palmer and Niko Hulkenberg in the Renaults.

Palmer is sweating on being allowed to complete this season, let alone being retained for next. Kubica didn't say it, but there is a seat up for grabs, and a driver who has not given up on the "nearly impossible dream".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2017, with the headline 'Kubica's courageous bid to return to F1 is no accident'. Print Edition | Subscribe