All the world's a stage
A devastating accident in a minor rally derailed Robert Kubica's promising Formula 1 career, but the Pole is fighting back to full fitness and underlining his versatility in the process
By Robert Kubica's standards the answer was short, albeit tinged with the Pole's slightly off-beat humour, which has endeared him to the rallying fraternity since he took up the sport full-time in 2013. The Acropolis Rally, Kubica's third start on gravel, began with a brutal, 48-kilometre stage. Grilling the one-time Grand Prix winner at the entry to first service in Loutraki, a German journalist wanted to know how Kubica's right arm, partially severed in a terrifying accident on a club-level rally in Italy more than two years ago, had stood up to the terrain. "Well, it's still here, isn't it?" said Kubica, somewhat perturbed by the latest enquiry about his wellbeing.
What the former BMW and Renault F1 racer was itching to discuss — in his customarily exhaustive detail — was the time he reckoned had been lost when, caught out by low-lying sun, he'd slid off the road at high speed.
His dislike of butter in sandwiches and a penchant for barbecue cooking are on the agenda for later.
"We had a long, fast corner over a crest into a left corner, but suddenly we couldn't see anything and half of the car was in the ditch," Kubica said at the time. "It's a big shame because we had very good split times and we lost half a minute in the dust. But this is part of rallying and it's part of the lesson. As a warm-up stage, 48 kilometres in very twisty conditions is not easy."
Despite his perceived tardiness, Kubica actually topped his class, WRC 2 — which accepts Regional Rally Cars, Super 2000s and showroom-spec machines — to take a lead he would never relinquish for his maiden win in the division. And it would get better on the next round in Sardinia three weeks later, where he dominated to make it two wins out of two and finish an impressive ninth overall, his first World Rally Championship points.
Kubica is already being discussed as a WRC 2 title contender. Yes, he really is that good.
"There is still a long way to go," the 28-year-old says. "I came to Portugal for the first WRC rally in my life, for the first time on gravel and after doing two days of tests lasting only 300 kilometres. We had good pace and I am definitely learning new things every day. "Maybe I am not quicker, but I am safer and I have more control of the car and understand better the conditions. Every rally is new to me this year, so first I am discovering roads on the recce, secondly I have to prepare good pace notes, which is not easy, and third of all I have to drive consistently and learn many new things on gravel."
He continues: "Rallying is complex when you come to it for the first time. In order to achieve things I want to improve my pace. I realise that in rallying one needs to promote experience and I don't yet have any experience, so it's important to compete in as many rallies as I can in order to improve."
The thing Robert Kubica wants to improve most is his fitness, which he rates as being at "80 per cent" following his crash on Rally Ronde di Andora in Italy in February 2011. Kubica needed life-saving surgery after an Armco barrier plunged through the middle of his Skoda Fabia Super 2000, causing sickening injuries to the right side of his body, "starting from my feet and ending up on my shoulder", as he puts it. Kubica's right arm was partially severed and he suffered breaks to his right leg, elbow and shoulder. He also lost a substantial amount of blood and required several operations, not only to achieve a degree of mobility in his right hand, which he still struggles to open, but also just to stay alive.
"For sure it has been the biggest challenge of my life," Kubica says of the period following the accident and his ongoing recovery. "I had big damage, especially to my arm but to practically all of the right side of my body. I think 80 per cent is fixed, 20 per cent is what restricts me — it's my arm and hand, which has a big limitation."
A hydraulic gearshift mechanism — permitted by the FIA under special licence — has been developed for his works-supported Citroen. It allows Kubica to change gear without taking his right hand from the wheel, otherwise he'd be unable to compete.
"Unfortunately my biggest limitations are movement and not strength," he says. "We had a problem with the system in Portugal and when it fails it's much harder than normal on manual upshift, so it was quite a good test for my arm. I was very keen to see what happened. I realise I am able to do long stages and that I am able to put quite a lot of force on my arm. It's positive, but somehow it's only confirmation of what I have experienced so far. My rehabilitation is a big challenge."
Indeed, it was that desire to regain something approaching full fitness that prompted a switch to rallying rather than the DTM touring car series, where he had an option to drive for Mercedes following a successful test. "Choosing rallying and not DTM might look a bit strange, but I was attracted to the big challenge," he says. "The DTM was definitely a good opportunity and might have been easier, because it is more natural to me, but my first priority this year was to recover as quickly as possible and rallying gives me this possibility because I am in the car for much longer, always driving. I can also improve and become a more complete driver because of the extra bits you learn, the different characteristics such as performing on gravel."
Given the severity of his accident and the injuries sustained, surely rallying is the last area of the sport in which to ply his trade?
"Unfortunately in motor sport accidents can happen," he says. "This is my case. I don't wish something similar to happen to others. We have seen worse accidents, unfortunately. My big passion for motor sport overall has helped me a lot in these past two years, to keep focused and to carry on working to improve. Of course I would prefer still to be a Formula 1 driver, but if somebody told me one and a half years ago that I would be doing a big programme in the European championship and the WRC, I would not believe it. This focus, this passion led me to this result and I have to continue to take advantage of this opportunity, to try to recover some more with my fitness and learn as much as I can."
Despite the recent highs in Greece and Sardinia, things haven't always worked out so well for Kubica during his rallying transition. Although he was by no means a newcomer to the sport when he began his 11-event campaign in a Citroen D53 Regional Rally Car on Rally Islas Canarias back in March, he was certainly lacking experience, which contributed to a tough start.
A sizeable accident on this Tarmac event, a round of the European Rally Championship, put him out of the lead on the final morning. A double puncture in Portugal, where he was making his WRC debut in April, forced him to retire from the first leg after he ran out of spare rubber on a road section before the evening superspecial in Lisbon. Although he subsequently continued under the WRC's restart rules, a fault with his D53's special hydraulic gearshift put him out for the second day on the trot. But he persevered and eventually finished sixth in class.
There were more problems in the Azores, his second start in the ERC, where he was leading until he encountered thick fog on a stage and had to slow, losing top spot in the process before rolling after clipping a bank. "The crash was not a visibility issue — I was not expecting the car to react how it did," he says. "I was not pushing because of the bad luck we had with the fog, but even at normal speed there was very poor grip. We nearly managed to get it back, but the bank was big and we rolled. It was a mistake.”
And mistakes are something that can but make Kubica a better driver, according to his engineer Kevin Struyf of PH Sport, the team responsible for running his D53 RRC. "It's quite normal for any driver to make a mistake in rallying," Struyf says. "In fact, it's impossible to arrive in rallying and achieve a very good pace without making mistakes. Robert has very impressive pace. He is winning stages and leading rallies. He has to work a little bit to be more consistent, but it's all part of the learning curve."
While Kubica eventually made the finish in the Azores, he wasn't quite so fortunate on the Tour de Corse, his third of four planned appearances in this year's ERC, where fuel pump failure put him out of the lead. "It's a pity we retired because I felt very good behind the wheel," he says. "I was in the lead without having made any mistakes and I was satisfied with this and our tyre choices, which were very complicated with the changeable weather conditions. There can be problems with the car, but I can make mistakes, too, as we have seen. Although the rally was short for me, I gained more important experience."
This kind of talk is typical Kubica — he is humble, modest, engaging and a decent chap. At the launch of his rally campaign in Warsaw on March 14, he sat through 18 television and radio interviews in Polish. When it came to his one and only slot in English, for which just seven minutes were allowed before he dashed off for a live TV interview, Kubica began by apologising for keeping us waiting. His willingness to talk — in contrast to former Fl rival Kimi Raikkonen, who spent two seasons in the WRC and barely spoke — stems from the fact he's a rally fan first, competitor second. He's often spotted holding court in service parks, flanked by several admiring rivals, while he's struck up a close friendship with current European championship leader Jan Kopeck. He first spotted the Czech touring the German GP paddock in 2006: "I had seen him on Eurosport, so I said, 'You are Kopeck, I like what you do'." He's also formed a close bond with Irish ERC driver Craig Breen, whose co-driver and best friend Gareth Roberts was killed last year in an accident similar to Kubica's. A stretch of Armco penetrated their Peugeot 207 on a rally in Sicily.
Kubica and Irishman Breen have been evenly matched in this year's ERC and will lock horns again on the all-gravel Rally Poland, Kubica's home event, from September 13-15. Citroen Racing boss Yves Matton will be expecting big things from his charge.
"Maybe gravel is easier for him because it is far away from what he was doing before," says Matton, who fought off opposition from M-Sport to sign Kubica for 2013. "When he's on Tarmac, due to the fact it's close to Formula 1, he's too close to the limit without knowing it and without being able to read the road perfectly. On gravel he's a rookie and he's driving in a rookie way by learning all the time. But the biggest thing he's learned, for me, is that since the beginning of the season he's understood that rallying is not a succession of qualifying laps and that there are a lot of things he doesn't know. I will not say it's easy for him, but he's driving in a very impressive way. He's clearly very talented and can only get better."
And the better he gets, so the likelihood of progressing to a World Rally Car increases. "For the moment we don't think about it," Matton says, "but I will say that if he continues like this then there's no reason why he won't be able to drive a World Rally Car, which has only a bit more power. I don't know for this year, we will first continue what he is doing, but why not? There's no clear plan for the moment. The only objective is to take his experience in the WRC to try to improve his knowledge of rallying, and after that we will see." Robert Kubica doesn't believe in heroes, but when pushed on the subject says his late compatriot Pope John Paul II comes closest. Having fought back from life-threatening injuries and the loss of his flourishing Fl career to star in rallying, however, Kubica's own performances have been the very essence of heroism.
F1 DESIRE STILL BURNS
The odds might be stacked against him, but Kubica won't rule out a return to his roots OBERT KUBICA'S STINT in rallying might be short-lived. Despite his instant success and the respect he's earned from within the ranks at Citroen, not to mention the fact he's clearly relishing his new life, a return to circuit racing remains on the cards. The Pole will assist Citroen as it hones its nascent World Touring Car racer ahead of its series debut in 2014. A race drive is complicated by two factors, however: the French company wants somebody with extensive WTCC experience to partner team leader and nine-times world rally champion Sebastien Loeb, while Kubica isn't keen on driving anything sub-DTM in terms of performance. But there is talk of a third car being made available as Citroen looks to bolster its title chances. Kubica, with his racing prowess, high profile and close relationship with Citroen bosses could be the ideal candidate.
And then of course there's Formula 1, to which he still hopes one day to return. "I would pay all the money I have to be back in the cockpit of an Fl car he says. "In Barcelona, for instance, it would already be possible, in Monaco not. Every few months I'm moving forward. I've still got a very long way to go and maybe it will never happen, but until it is 100 per cent that I cannot come back I will try my best and do everything I can!'