"Some of the diffcult times made me stronger"

From a land where F1 was a minority sport to a team that missed its title chance, Robert Kubica has faced challenges in his career. But at Renault he has a good feeling

Droll’ is the word always in my mind when I’m talking to Robert Kubica, perhaps the most understated driver in contemporary Formula 1. He doesn’t travel with a huge entourage, isn’t one for showing his face at high-profile events, has no interest in ‘bling’. “Driving,” he says at once, when asked what he considers the best perk of his job.

Some say he is obsessive about the job, in a Senna sort of way, thinking constantly about improving the car, improving himself, chivvying the engineers, working. If so, you can point out that such as Prost and Senna and Schumacher achieved all they did not only with heaven-sent skill, but also because they worked harder than their contemporaries. “Yes, Robert pushes the team,” says Eric Boullier, the Renault team principal, “because he wants to win. He is committed to the team, and everyone feels that – and that’s when you get the best out of people.”

Thus far, Kubica has won only one Grand Prix, but there are those who think him perhaps the best driver out there. Lewis Hamilton, indeed, has privately confided that he fears Kubica more than anyone, and he should know whereof he speaks, having competed against him since karting days.

Certainly Robert hasn’t had it easy. I first met him over breakfast at BMW in the Barcelona paddock in 2006, the year in which he was appointed the team’s test driver. And what sticks most in my mind – apart from a pleasingly dry sense of humour – was his response when I asked how much support, in his quest to be a Grand Prix driver, he had received from Poland, his native land: “None at all…”

I reminded him of that when we spoke recently. “Well, it was true,” he says. “I know it sounds a bit hard to say that, but that’s more or less how it was. On the other hand, I’m quite sure that some of the difficult times I had in the past made me stronger – as a driver and as a person. One thing I absolutely believe is that there are always positive things about a situation which seems negative.”

The big motorised sport in Poland was – and still is – speedway, and Tomasz Gollob, the most naturally talented rider of his generation, is a national hero. Since Robert swiftly began making his name, however, the country’s interest in F1 has been properly stirred, and now at every Grand Prix Polish flags and Kubica banners abound.

“Well, of course it depends on the results!” says Robert. “But there’s quite a big increase in interest in F1 in Poland – which is normal I think, because it’s always nicer, when you’re watching a sport, to have your country represented by someone.”

As was the case a few years ago in Spain, when Fernando Alonso came along? “Yes, sure – although I think Spain was a bit different, because they had always had F1, and in the past there had been Spanish drivers. In Poland it really was zero, but now there’s quite a healthy number of fans there, and the knowledge of F1 – the awareness of it, and what it is – has increased a lot. They don’t just switch on the TV at two o’clock on Sunday afternoon – quite a lot of them now follow it deeply.”

It wasn’t easy to be that way when Kubica was a kid, for Formula 1 was absolutely a minority sport, and the Grands Prix were never televised. “All I remember,” he says, “is that there was one channel which showed the British Touring Car Championship – but not of the current year! I mean, in 1996 they’d be showing the ’93 championship! Of course things eventually began to change quite a lot, but there was… big room for improvement…”

By the time he was into his teens, though, Kubica was living in Italy, making his name in top-flight karting. “I started very early – when I was four and a half – and when you do that, and it’s still with you when you are 10, 12, 14, it’s because you have passion. But even when I was… bigger in karting, when I was 16 or 17, I wasn’t really thinking about F1. I think my parents, and others around me, were hoping I might become an F1 driver, but they never created expectations. By then I used to watch a few F1 races, but I’ve always been someone who doesn’t really think about the future, who concentrates more on today. When I was karting, or even starting to race in single-seaters, I wasn’t really thinking about what might happen in three or four years.”

In the karting days, Kubica competed against many others later resident in F1. Among them was Hamilton, who has spoken often of his idol, Ayrton Senna; Kubica, though, never had a hero, as such. “No. I was a fan of [Giancarlo] Fisichella, and then, for the same reason, of course I was interested when Fernando [Alonso] began driving for Minardi – I was working with people who had worked with them previously, and so of course I always heard good stories about them and therefore felt closer to them than to the others.”

In 2006, when Kubica arrived in F1 as BMW’s test driver, it was the custom for a reserve to take part in Friday practice, and Robert’s times were frequently startling. One of the race drivers, Jacques Villeneuve, was not producing much, and when he complained of headaches after an accident at Hockenheim, Mario Theissen seized the opportunity and put Kubica in the car at the Hungaroring. First time out, Robert out-qualified team-mate Nick Heidfeld, and Villeneuve’s F1 career was over.

At Monza, in only his third Grand Prix, Kubica finished third, beaten only by Michael Schumacher and Kimi Räikkönen, and it wasn’t by attrition, either. After qualifying sixth, Robert made up three places immediately and stayed there for the duration. We took due note.

We did the same at Indianapolis the following year, when Kubica had a press conference to discuss the events of the weekend before, in Montréal. There, at the flat-out approach to the kink before the hairpin, his BMW hit the back of Jarno Trulli’s Toyota, rode over it and began a terrifying series of impacts and rolls, finally coming to rest – on its side – against a barrier.

It was one of those accidents to make you feel queasy, so violent was it, but in the inverted cockpit there was soon some movement, and later in the day it was announced that Robert had a bruised ankle and was a bit knocked about, but otherwise all was well with him. It seemed like a miraculous deliverance.

The medical advice was that Kubica should skip the race at Indy (which put new BMW reserve driver Sebastian Vettel into a Grand Prix for the first time), but still he turned up at the Speedway, and impressed us with his sang froid. Had he seen the accident on TV? “Yes,” he said, deadpan, “but I’d already seen it live, because I was there…”

Three years on, Robert remembers every detail of the accident. “I lost consciousness at one point afterwards, but only for a very short time. I have to say I was very lucky that on the Monday I was able to walk out of the hospital. I think that when something like this happens – whether you are injured or not – during the time you are away from racing you are not the same person: you become much more motivated, you are so looking forward to coming back.

“It was the same when I had a road accident [in 2003], and I badly broke my arm and wasn’t able to race. It was incredible: I was training seven or eight hours a day – it was like I was a different person! I would like to be so motivated every day of my life…”

“After the crash in Montréal, I watched it on video, just to be able to understand better exactly what happened, and why. It’s impressive, I would say…”

Impressive, I would say, too. Professor Sid Watkins, watching the race on TV in the paddock, said that he wasn’t especially worried for Robert, because the accident went on a long time, each impact dissipating energy, gradually taking off speed.

“Well,” says Kubica, “it looked smooth, but actually it was quite violent. The problem was that all four wheels were in the air, so there was no deceleration at all. The first wall, which I hit with the right front suspension, I just shaved really – the suspension just flew away – but then the second impact was quite big, believe me. I was still travelling at 260kph (162mph) – so from 260 to zero into the wall was not ideal…”

Droll, as I said.

“Honestly, I feel lucky to be here, and discussing it with you – but on the other hand I have been through it, and so I absolutely know how safe the cars are. When I’m driving, or even talking about it like we are, I’m not thinking that it’s something that might happen again. To be honest, it was as if nothing had happened – two or three weeks later I drove again, and nothing was different. Honestly, I’m much more impressed by watching it than by surviving it!”

One year on, at the same Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Kubica won his first Grand Prix, but the wait for a second has proved longer than most – Robert included – expected. At that stage, seven races into the 2008 season, he led the point standings from Hamilton, Felipe Massa and Räikkönen, and folk began seriously to talk him up as a possible World Champion in only his second full year in F1.

BMW, though , always tended to think of precise targets. In Bahrain Kubica had taken the first pole position for the team (tick), and now its first victory (tick), and those had been the aims for 2008. Next item on the agenda, of course, was the World Championship, but the date set for that was 2009, and it seemed never to cross anyone’s mind that perhaps it might now be brought forward a year. To Kubica’s intense frustration, serious development of the BMW F1.08 was abandoned, and the team’s focus was switched to the car for ’09, when the F1 rules were due substantially to change.

Robert laughs, more than a touch ironically. “I don’t think anyone was concentrating on trying to win the championship – I don’t think anyone believed there was a possibility, quite honestly. BMW was a very well organised team, always targeting things, and I think that once we achieved our target – I don’t like using that word – that was OK. That year the target was to win a race – the year to target the championship was 2009. But it seemed to me that if you’re able to win a race – and to do it well, not just by luck – then surely you are able to fight for the championship. I thought it was strange that to win in Canada, which we did, was kind of enough for that year…”

Kubica has learned, he says, not to put too much store by pre-season testing. “Before that ’08 season we were very bad – about the slowest car on the track. In the second test we were two seconds off the pace, but the guys in the factory did an amazing job – and suddenly our pace, going into the first race, was a surprise for everybody, and then in Bahrain I managed to qualify on pole.

“Those two months really showed how quickly things can change in F1. Even in Australia, the first race, I qualified second, and if I hadn’t made a mistake – in turn 12 – I would have been on pole there, too. I don’t think most people were expecting that of us, as a team – actually, I don’t think most people in the team were expecting it, either…”

In 2009 the very opposite was true. BMW, having abandoned development of the ’08 car to concentrate on the next one, was expected to be in fine shape for the beginning of ’09, and Kubica, fourth in the ’08 World Championship, was seen as a title contender.

Another ironic laugh. “Well, ideally you would put together the first half of the ’08 season and the second half of ’09, and then it would be a good mix! This was completely the opposite of the previous year. Testing went well this time, but in the early races we were nowhere. Then, of course, at the end of July BMW announced they were going to pull out…”

To Kubica, like everyone else, this came as a complete surprise. He well knew that the company had spent hugely, that the outlay on KERS had been wasted (BMW’s system never worked satisfactorily), that the company wasn’t seeing a return for its investment, but still he believed in its long-term commitment.

“Anyway, the BMW board decided to pull out, and that was it. I thought it was quite harsh for everyone in the team and in the factory – it was a ‘big company’ attitude, I would say. BMW were very keen to be in F1 – and to win – but they wanted to do everything either at 100 per cent or zero.

“Looking back, I learned a lot from those years, and I’m still proud to have had the possibility to start F1 with BMW. It gave me a lot of good moments – sometimes hard moments, too – but overall it was a good experience.

“The strange thing was that, after the decision to pull out, I thought we would just cruise to the end of the season – spend as little money as possible, and then stop. In fact, though, it was amazing how people were pushing, how they were still developing the car and improving it. Strange, isn’t it? When we were in good shape for the championship, in the middle of ’08, the effort wasn’t as big as when the team was closing!”

Once it became known that Kubica was ‘available’ for 2010, there was no shortage of job offers, one of which was from Toyota – who would later, of course, pull out like BMW. Had there been any interest, though, from the major teams? Robert shrugs: “Maybe if I’d gone knocking on a few doors, but I’m not that kind of person…”

From the beginning, he believed that his best hopes lay with Renault, who knew Alonso was off to Ferrari and needed a team leader. Flavio Briatore was still the man in charge, and Kubica was his first choice.

“Flavio was very keen for me to sign, and I felt that if I did I would be treated well. The whole team believed in me, and that was very important. All the early negotiations were with Flavio, but it was on the edge because… you know, things happen quickly in F1. At the time we didn’t know about the Singapore thing, so… all these things were kind of disturbing…”

After the ‘Singapore thing’ came to light, Renault – already not in the greatest financial shape – seriously contemplated joining BMW and Toyota in retirement from F1, but ultimately announced that the team would continue. A chunk of it, though, had been sold off, and that gave Kubica pause for thought.

“In the end, we are human beings – and you have to be convinced of what you are doing. I’d been convinced I should sign for Renault, but then they sold some of the shares in the team and I needed to have some idea of how the team was going to proceed – now I had a different boss, for example. It was normal that I had some doubts, but they were able to convince me.”

The evidence is that Robert’s choice was a sound one. Renault is not currently a front-tier team, but – after a lacklustre 2009 season – the car is proving more competitive than many expected. Kubica has driven beautifully, consistently getting the best from the car, frequently flattering it and – as ever – making astonishingly few mistakes. In that respect, I said, he reminded me so much of Alain Prost.

“Well, I’m very happy to hear that,” Robert smiles. “Of course speed is important, but I was always the type of person who liked consistency. For example, I love rallying, and I always remember Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae – who unfortunately is not any more here. Most of the people were impressed by Colin, and I was too when I was young – but once I started racing at a high level I was much more impressed by Sainz. OK, the way he drove was not as spectacular as Colin – but he was delivering.

“When I made mistakes in the past, and lost places, I was always harsh on myself. I put pressure on myself to be consistent – and to deliver. That was my only way to F1 – I had very few chances, and I had to deliver. And if I didn’t do it in half a year, I was gone, because I didn’t have any big sponsors – I was coming from nowhere. And, to be honest, I’m proud.

“In 2008 with BMW, for example, the only way to stay near the top of the point standings was to be consistent – I didn’t have a title-contending car, and so I had to take the maximum profit from everything I could. If you have the best car, you can afford to be more aggressive, because you think, ‘OK, even if I screw up today, I’ll probably win the next two races…’ Of course it’s important to be aggressive, but somehow you have to get the balance right – so you push, but you don’t go over the limit.”

There were times, during the BMW years, when Kubica seemed tense, frustrated perhaps by the company’s ‘target’ philosophy, by its inability sometimes to respond as quickly as the top level of F1 requires. Now, at Renault, he has found a working environment more in keeping with his temperament. After a decidedly uncertain winter, and with a budget far from such as McLaren and Ferrari, the team has progressed remarkably in 2010.

“It’s a completely different attitude and atmosphere in the team here, that’s true. As I said before, I had good times at BMW, but also tough times – and sometimes, you know, fresh air gives you something more. I’m happy to be at Renault. When I was deciding what to do, most people thought I was making a huge mistake, because Renault had such a difficult year in ’09: even though they still had Fernando, one of the best drivers – if not the best – in F1, the team was clearly having big problems…”

Kubica and Alonso are buddies, sharing among other things an enthusiasm for poker, and I wondered if Fernando had played a part in Robert’s decision to go with Renault. “Not really,” he says. “Fernando and I get on very well, but I’m someone who… takes decisions by feeling, and I had a good feeling about coming here. I had a talk with some of the technical guys before signing – although you always have to watch out, because normally when you speak to teams you might sign for, their cars will always be winning the next year…

“In the end, I just had a good feeling about this team, this group of people. I’m happy I came here – and happy that we’ve done a new contract for the next two years. There are still many jobs to be done and there’s a really long way to go, but I’m sure we’re proceeding in the right direction, and that’s always a nice feeling.

“I went to BMW as a rookie, a driver who had to learn, so this was a bit different. I came to Renault as a replacement for Fernando – not that I think I can replace Fernando, who won the World Championship twice – and as a driver who could help the team to go back to their… right level of performance, let’s say. To be honest, I liked the idea of this challenge.”

Very much his own man, Robert Kubica. Only 25 he may be, but there is something in his face that has seen everything.