F1 frontline: February 2018

What could’ve been one of the greatest sporting comebacks ever, in Robert Kubica’s push to return to F1, may have foundered

The dream of Robert Kubica’s comeback has been dashed against the unforgiving rocks of time and finance, as Williams has opted instead for Sergey Sirotkin as 2018 partner to Lance Stroll. What could have been one of the greatest sporting comeback stories of all time is therefore on the backburner, quite possibly forever.

The time element has three components – the seven-year gap between his catastrophic injury in a rally car and his attempt at an F1 comeback, the lap times he delivered in the Abu Dhabi Williams test and the time needed to adapt to tyre traits he struggled to get his head around.

Looking at each in turn, seven years is a vastly longer gap than that preceding any previously successful F1 comeback. Niki Lauda returned after two seasons away, won on his third race back and a couple of years later took a third world title. That has to go down as the most successful of all F1 returns, but by the time of that 1984 championship he no longer had the cutting edge of speed of his best years – and was invariably whole chunks off the qualifying pace of McLaren team-mate Alain Prost. He essentially won that year through being one of two guys in a car way faster than anyone else’s and suffering fewer mechanical breakdowns than Prost. His best stuff was back in 1974-78.

Kimi Raikkonen came back to win Grands Prix for Lotus in 2012-13 after his two-year rallying sabbatical, but returned looking like the measured Ferrari pro of 2007-09 rather than the devastating speed monster of his earlier McLaren years.

Michael Schumacher came back after three years away and only rarely looked anything more than a pale shadow of the driver he once was. Personally, I believe his motorcycle accident, and the damaged neurons from a neck injury that in 90 per cent of cases is fatal, was probably more responsible for his lack of form second time around than age or length of absence. But still, even Schumacher didn’t manage it – and seven years is a huge amount of time to be away, even without the injury effects.

As for the lap times in Abu Dhabi, they were difficult to interpret, but Williams read them and came to the conclusion that Sirotkin actually tested slightly better.

The 2018 tyres were different from the 2017 Pirellis used in the preceding Grand Prix, the high-mileage engine was turned down for reliability and the track grip in the heat of the desert day was less than during the dusk of the race. Nonetheless, Kubica’s 14-lap race stint on Tuesday averaged about 0.6sec faster than the first 14 laps of Felipe Massa’s race. How much did that mean, given the variables? The consensus was that it was a very solid stint, probably slightly better than Massa’s. He asked for changes to the car but these weren’t made until the following day – when Sirotkin did his race stint. This averaged slightly faster than Kubica’s from the day before, but how much of that was the car improvement?

Muddying the waters further, Sirotkin was slowed by a niggling gearbox problem that prevented the most aggressive upshift settings. But it was Kubica’s low-fuel qualifying simulation laps later that day that probably sealed his fate. His had two runs on the new hyper-soft. On the first of them he got traffic on his first lap and, by the time he tried for another, the tyres were overheated. On his second run he put together a scrappy 1min 39.4sec lap that didn’t join up his best sector times – and which compared to Massa’s qualifying time of 1min 38.5sec (but again with provisos that only the team could realistically evaluate).

Afterwards Kubica was apparently talking of how difficult understanding the tyre was – how much to conserve through the first sector in order for it not to be too hot at the end. Abu Dhabi is a notoriously difficult track for the Pirelli and for a measure of the outright, full-attack pace of a driver, was probably a poor choice of venue. The track’s very smooth surface means that the tyre is responsible for much more of the total grip than on tracks where the roughness allows it to penetrate a greater depth into the tyre’s tread. So the surface of the tyre gets overworked and overheated quite easily. It’s similar at Sochi and Monaco. Kubica felt too much understeer in the car and so changed the set up before his short runs.

This contributed to him overheating the rears in the first two sectors. A more conventional track surface would not have brought this complicating variable into the assessment equation. But it’s all that was available. So with a few months and a few race weekends of learning, might Kubica have been at something much closer to his best? Would that time have healed his problems? Williams decided it couldn’t afford to find out.

Although Kubica would have brought sponsorship, it was rather dwarfed by Sirotkin’s budget (which informed rumours put at something in the region of 15-20 million euros). The technical team went into the Abu Dhabi test believing that Kubica could probably deliver a performance that would allow them to convince the commercial team not just to take the driver with the biggest budget. But he didn’t, for whatever reason – and Sirotkin tested well.

It gives Williams its least experienced driver line-up since back in the mid-70s, days when Frank Williams was struggling as a one-man band and ready to run whichever budgeted driver could keep him in business. The numbers are rather higher now, but the same principle applies. Besides, occasionally one of those budgeted drivers turns out to be fast. Not as romantic as the greatest comeback of all time. Just hard-headed realism.

Since he began covering Grand Prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation