At the time of writing, the early stages of what could be the most remarkable sporting comeback story of all time were unfolding. Robert Kubica could be returning to F1, after an absence of almost seven seasons, despite an atrophied right arm from his horrific rallying accident in January 2011. During an initial test with Renault at Valencia – the same venue at which he’d emerged quickest in pre-season testing in 2011 – he delivered a truly remarkable performance; so good, in fact, that it made the possibility of a comeback seem real. For both himself and the team. A subsequent series of physical and acuity tests at Renault’s chosen sports performance centre in France allowed the team to assess that aspect in direct comparison to the data held on current drivers. As a result of that, there was a further in-car test in the team’s 2012 Lotus E20 – this time at Paul Ricard. There he covered a full qualifying and race simulation, with no physical problems whatsoever. He also did the cockpit evacuation test, whereby a driver must vacate in less than 5sec – and passed it at the first attempt. He also tried a left-handed hairpin that was mocked up – and again experienced no particular difficulty, thereby ticking another box that might have proved a barrier to his return. Speculation was then rife that he would be in the current Renault at the post-GP test at the Hungaroring. Might he then be in the car, as a bone-fide F1 driver once more, from the Belgian Grand Prix? That was the buzz.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, for he is a truly remarkable individual. His immersion in motor sport and cars is so total it makes even the most dedicated of all the others look like dilettantes. He has nothing else in his life – nor does he want it. As he once said to me in an interview: “All I need is a roof over my head, enough money to buy food and a competitive car.” That quote could not have come with sincerity from any other driver on the grid. He has always pushed himself incredibly hard, striven to understand every aspect of his own and his car’s performance – and pushed those around him just as hard. He’s a tough taskmaster, but hugely popular with team members all the same, for they recognise where it’s coming from and how he’s trying to do something from which they will all benefit.
In 2010 his Renault R30 was no match for the Red Bull RB6, McLaren MP4-25 or Ferrari F10, but after going fastest in Monaco morning practice and being quickest man virtually every time he ran, Kubica was actually disappointed to qualify only second to Mark Webber’s Red Bull. He was giving the team a hard time about certain operational details that could have been done better, feeling he should have been on pole. That said everything about the talent and mentality of the man. At the three premier driver’s tracks that year – Monaco, Spa and Suzuka – he qualified that lower-order Q3 car second, third and third respectively. He was immense, and it was difficult to disagree with Fernando Alonso when he said he believed Kubica was the best of them all.
Can he be so again?
He’s 32 years old, so time is still on his side. He was quicker than Renault’s third driver Sergey Sirotkin in that first test, and by a handy margin. He was fast and consistent on the Ricard race simulation, the changes he made to the car translated into immediate lap time improvements.
His times in the Renault simulator are said to be better than anyone else’s on the tracks he has run. He’s also been in a Red Bull simulator (at Renault’s request) and while everyone there is sworn to silence about that, his times were said to have been the fastest ever recorded for the track in question… But that’s all outside the white heat of actual competition.
He says he feels absolutely at the level he was before. Everything he has done recently suggests he might be right. Many – both outside the sport and in – have suggested that there is “no way” he will return, that his chances are “zero”. Well, it looks like we might be about to find out. Kubica has reportedly offered to race the remaining races this year for free. If he was in the car currently raced by Jolyon Palmer from Spa, that would give him and Renault 10 races in which to assess whether he is, in fact, back where he once was. If he is, Renault has its own plug-in Alonso/Hamilton/Vettel-level driver for 2018. And the sport has one of the greatest stories ever told.