Feature: Robert Kubica's return to Formula 1 test action
Last Wednesday was a hugely symbolic day in Formula 1 as, 11 years after his race debut at the same venue, Robert Kubica carried out 142 laps in the Renault R.S.17 at the Hungaroring.
It marked the latest development in an unexpected sequence of events, following on from the Pole feeling ready to drive a 2012-spec car in June.
Kubica’s journey has been well documented, with the 32-year-old widely regarded as one of the sport’s greatest talents before his career was cut short when he suffered life-changing injuries in a horrific rally crash in February 2011. Kubica returned to competitive action in the rallying arena before dabbling in sportscars, and conducted private running in junior single-seater cars before feeling ready to try a Formula 1 car once more.
Renault organised the test at Valencia’s Ricardo Tormo Circuit as a gesture to an old friend but was so impressed by his ability that a second outing was arranged, this time at Paul Ricard, where a more serious evaluation was undertaken.
The upwards momentum led to Renault handing Kubica a day’s worth of running in its 2017 car, with the post-race test at the Hungaroring falling at the perfect moment. Kubica was present at the circuit as early as Monday, and he followed Nicholas Latifi’s programme from the garage and the pit wall on Tuesday, before climbing into the cockpit on Wednesday morning.
Kubica’s arrival was greeted with rapturous cheers and chanting from fans, who had flocked to witness the moment, with 1,500 additional spectators present compared to the opening test day.
It was an inauspicious start, though, after Kubica misjudged the wider nature of the 2017 Formula 1 cars and clipped the garage wall. The impact caused Nico Hülkenberg’s sign from the race weekend to fall down, as journalists and photographers scattered in avoidance. However, thereafter it was a smooth affair for Kubica, who set a sequence of eye-catching lap times over shorter runs, before embarking on a longer run prior to lunch, at quick and impressively consistent pace.
From trackside, he looked at ease, as he gradually ramped up his pace and displayed a more attacking nature. Kubica improved during the afternoon on Ultrasoft tyres to set a best time of 1:18.572, and wound up fourth overall on the leaderboard, having completed 142 laps in extremely hot conditions in Hungary, equivalent to just over two race distances. Kubica’s pace, on both short and long runs, was encouraging – considering his inexperience of the car and tyres – though from the outside, direct comparisons with Renault’s race drivers are difficult at best, flaky at worst.
Renault arranged for Kubica’s post-session media gathering to take place in the press conference room and his arrival was greeted with a hearty round of applause, before he took his place centre stage, clad in a yellow Renault shirt and cap.
“The start of the day was not so easy, it was probably one of the biggest fuck ups in F1,” joked Kubica. “To be honest, I was so concentrated on people in front of my garage, I forgot the cars are longer and wider. That was the only mistake I did so that’s positive.”
Kubica labelled himself as “happy, but not 100 per cent happy” and felt that the one-hour lunch break was influential in how his session progressed.
“There was a turning point of the day actually,” he said. “The first time I jumped out of the car was in the lunch break; I got in the car before 9 o’clock and I drove until 1 o’clock and I didn’t have time to think about what’s going on, to reshuffle everything, to give priority to things, I was just collecting information and picking up feelings, but I didn’t have the time to sort them out.
"Once I jumped out of the car I had a big break and I jumped back at 2 o’clock and I felt like a different driver, the car felt much more familiar, it’s a good sign. A lot of people think you improve only by driving but you can improve also by thinking, and thinking where you can improve and this is what happened and for sure if I was driving tomorrow I’d have some idea where I can improve, and for sure I can feel more familiar with the car and everything will come easier and more natural which is the target.”
The elephant in the room was Kubica’s physical predicament, the angle and mobility of his right arm clearly compromised, and he expanded on his situation.
“Nothing is impossible,” he said. “Of course I have been the last six years through different periods and stages of my life mainly dedicated to my physical issues and injuries, then of course there was a lot going on in my head, which is normal I think,” he said. “So my approach was very simple, anything can happen.”
Kubica has gone from being in the wilderness to the fringes of the most extraordinary sporting comeback of all time in the space of a couple of months – though accepts that he would not be downbeat if matters did not progress further.
“If we see where I was four months ago compared to where I am now it is a big change and it happened very quickly,” he said. “I think if in three months I did improve a lot and moved forward quite a lot, everything can happen in the future but we have to be realistic, nothing will be easy. For sure, my target is to get the kind of role in F1 if I can and if I will have a chance but I don’t know. One thing is sure, if it doesn’t happen, I will not be disappointed because I am looking at this chance, this situation very, very realistically.
"I appreciate Renault and what they did, I think when we met for the first time I don’t think anybody was thinking to let me drive in the Hungaroring official day but it happened. It shows the last two-and-a-half-months were quite important, not only for myself, but from this to move forward. There is a lot to go, but it is far, far ahead so I would like to enjoy the moment and to have a think about what has happened because a lot of things happened whilst I was driving and if I get the chance to jump again in the car I will find it much easier, more familiar and come more naturally. For a driver the best feeling you can have is everything comes so easily you don’t think about it.”
When pressed further on what had changed in order to permit Kubica to return to a Formula 1 cockpit for the first time in six years, he replied: “I am the same guy which was 10 months ago, four months ago, one week ago - my limitations are the same. From that point of view nothing has changed. From a physical point of view and preparation let’s say a lot has changed, because I’ve started preparing… I was not targeting to come back but I knew that if I would get the chance I have to be ready and F1 is a very demanding sport.”
Kubica was also in a unique situation in terms of being able to assess the direction Formula 1 has taken across the past half-decade, and was taken aback by the increased weight of the cars.
“The current cars are even more demanding that previous cars, those cars are the fastest cars of the last 20 years,” he said. “In the end the cars are even heavier, and this is the biggest difference and probably no-one is talking about it because they got used to it because every year or every two years there was minimum weight increments.
"For my side, when I last time drove the car the minimum weight was 620kg, to have 100kg [extra] bringing around the track… it makes a big difference. In a rally car when you put a 20kg spare wheel in a car which is weighing 1,300kg, you feel it. Imagine in a 600kg car adding 100kg! So there were quite big changes for me from what I knew and what I learned in the past so there was a lot of things to learn. But from physical point of view, inside the car it is much better than it looks outside the car. That’s what’s most important.”
Kubica, while understandably tired after such exertion in hot weather, said he felt no pain, and commented on the modifications made to accommodate his frame.
“There is some adaptations on the gear shift leaver, but it’s something that’s been used in the past, it’s still been used lately with some other teams which I know, which I used in the simulators. There is nothing that’s been done strictly for myself, this steering wheel was adapted the past two days, it’s just to reshuffle the button positions to give the highest priorities which I can operate easier, and the lower priority buttons which you never use, or when you use them it’s once in a while in the positions that are more difficult to reach but apart from this everything is standard.”
Kubica even getting to this stage is a remarkable story that transcends Formula 1; on the evidence of last Wednesday, the Hungaroring test will simply be another chapter in an incredible journey which has yet to reach its destination.