22 November 2018

Williams confirms Kubica

There will be a lot of happy Polish people around today with the news that Williams has confirmed Robert Kubica alongside George Russell for 2019.

The news is a great story of human triumph over adversity, but it is odd for a number of reasons: firstly, the timing of the decision makes no real sense as Williams is in a buyer's market and unless it needs cash urgently (which is always possible) there is no obvious reason why the team would fill the last available 2019 seat immediately.

It might have been a better idea to wait to see what other options emerged in the course of the winter. Esteban Ocon and his supporters have been looking for money in recent weeks and keeping that option open would have made more sense. Having said that, if Ocon and his people have said no to Williams, which might be the case given the team's poor performances this year, then perhaps it makes more sense.

Secondly, while Kubica is clearly still operating at a high level as a driver, it is hard to believe that he will be as good as a young charger, notably Ocon. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that Williams has made the decision based on the money on offer rather than on what would be the best real choice for the team. Claire Williams denies that this is the case, but it is clear from the numbers that Williams needs to top up its budgets with the disappearance of a big chunk of prize money (the drop from fifth to 10th in the Constructors' Championship means around $20 million less). The combined loss of revenues is in the region of $27 million.

Having said that there is no doubt that the Stroll family has paid out big time to get Lance Stroll released from his contract to go to Force India. Normally Williams contracts are for five years and thus the Strolls will have to pay for three years, as per the likely deal agreed. As no-one knows the numbers in that case, it is not clear what that sum would be, but it is not likely to be less than $20 million. Having said that, getting all the money at one go (an old Williams strategy that has served the team well in the cases of Jenson Button, Pastor Maldonado and, most recently Valtteri Bottas), means that finding the budget in 2020 will require more work.

Will Kubica's backers be willing to pay more in 2020? We don't know. Thus if Robert's sponsors bring $17 million (as the rumours suggest), then the team should have about the same budget as this year. Mercedes is understood to have been willing to pay some money (or reduce its engine fees) for Ocon, but Williams likes to do five-year deals with young drivers, something that Mercedes would not have agreed to for its rising star. That was OK in the case of Russell, as he is younger and needs time to learn and will probably not be required by Mercedes for some time, as Ocon must be fitted in before there is room for George.

The key question is whether or not the Kubica decision will damage the Williams relationship with Mercedes. The team is last in the World Championship and that is not something that Mercedes would want to see. Force India has done a much better job this year. Williams needs a good car in 2019. If the new car is not good then one can imagine Mercedes looking around for alternatives that would better highlight the brands prowess as an engine manufacturer. There are other choices out there. Still, the decision is the decision and as a story it is great for Formula 1 to have someone come back from such a nasty accident to win his place all these years later. We will see how he does in 2019. He has not raced regularly in any series since he injured himself in 2011, his major activity having been rallying. He will return to F1 as the second oldest driver behind only Kimi Raikkonen and while this, in itself, may not impact on his hunger, the fact remains that motivations often change over time.

Perhaps in Robert's case he is as keen and hungry as ever he was. His injuries were very serious and the damage done cannot be undone. Having said that, Robert has found a way to go fast enough to have Williams behind him. He was a super talent before the crash but his reputation suffered somewhat when Renault decided not to take him after a series of tests in 2017. There are plenty of conspiracy theories that this was because of engine deals, but no serious F1 team makes decision based on anything other than who is the faster driver. I'd love to see Robert do well and I hope he does. His fans are constantly banging on about how highly-rated Kubica was, but they generally forget to say that these quotes came mostly before the accident. Time will tell...

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