SPOTLIGHT SERIES: ROBERT KUBICA
Updated: Jul 17, 2020
This article was originally published on March 20th, 2019.
The 2019 Formula One season kicked into full throttle, with the Australian Grand Prix. While most fans were eager to watch how the new cars compete, for Polish fans there was an added incentive to watch: the return of Poland’s first F1 driver, Robert Kubica (@R_Kubica), making his second debut in the sport.
However, any hope of a good result in his first F1 race since the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was dashed at the first corner when a collision, with Red Bull Racing's Pierre Gasly (@PierreGASLY), broke his front wing.
Despite a difficult weekend, where he would finish three laps down in 17th, Kubica would identify that there were "some positives" to take away.
"Yesterday I couldn't be happy but it was a complicated day," he said.
"Today was probably even more complicated but from the things I could have control over, I think I did a reasonable good job and I was quite confident that I could do it."
"But overall, I am leaving Australia with definitely more experience, and reasonably happy - although I will never think I would say something like this having this pace and finishing so far behind!"
Kubica joined the F1 circuit in 2006, after winning the Formula Renault 3.5 Series the year before.
He would start as BMW Sauber’s reserve driver but found himself in a race seat after just 12 races, replacing Jacques Villeneuve after the Canadian driver was ruled out on medical grounds.
His debut was a remarkable one as he finished the Hungarian Grand Prix seventh, only to see his entry disqualified for having an underweight car.
However, he would retain the seat for the rest of the season, scoring his first podium in just his third race by finishing third in the Italian Grand Prix.
He would have to wait until the Canadian Grand Prix in 2008 to secure his first and to date only victory, one year after surviving a huge crash on the same track.
He would go on to finish fourth that season in the F1 World Drivers’ Championship, as Lewis Hamilton won his maiden title.
The 2008 season would be his best year in an F1 car. Due to his cars lacking the pace in 2009 and 2010 from his BMW Sauber and Renault respectively to challenge regularly at the front of the grid.
Going into his second season with Renault in the 2011 season, Kubica would be the fastest driver on the last day of Formula 1 pre-season testing.
It started to look like he was living up to the hype of a potential future Formula 1 champion. Even signing a pre-contract agreement to drive for Ferrari in the 2012 season.
Ronde di Andora
Only four days after the last day of Formula 1 pre-season testing, Kubica's career was hanging in the balance.
Along with co-driver, Jakub Gerber, Kubica would choose to enter the Ronde di Andora rally, in the Italian village of Testico.
Modern Formula 1 drivers' contracts usually forbid them from taking part in "high-risk" activities for fear of injury. However, many of the drivers are famed for seeking adrenaline rushes away from the track. Kubica is far from the first driver to put his career, and life, in jeopardy pursuing high-risk hobbies.
Shortly after the start of stage one of the rally, Kubica's Skoda Fabia suffered a high-speed crash into a church wall and then a crash barrier.
The crash barrier speared through the car, trapping Kubica inside the wreckage. for more than an hour, before he could be air-lifted to a local hospital.
We knew the surface was slippery because of the humidity and we were ready," Gerber told Gazzetta dello Sport, at the time. "After skidding, the car leaned against the guard rail and pushed it outwards. Then it crashed against the following guard rail.
"The guard rail pierced through the car and went all the way through it. I immediately saw it was serious, he also had a bad bruise under his eye after hitting the steering wheel. Robert passed out and I exited through the window because the door was stuck.
"The ambulance arrived immediately and then came the firemen. They took over half an hour to pull him out. The first crew didn't have the shears so they had to wait for another crew. Then the helicopter couldn't land in that spot, so Robert had to be moved and more time was lost."
Kubica's injuries where severe, resulting in him needing emergency surgeries.
His first surgery was designed to save his right hand after a partial amputation of his forearm and lasted more than seven hours. Doctors and surgeons also had to deal with compound fractures to his right elbow, shoulder, and leg.
The overall impression given by doctors at the time was that Kubica had been remarkably lucky to survive the crash. The barrier had pierced the footwell of the car and caused the injuries to his right-hand side but avoided his vital organs.
"The reality was the first big moment I was fighting to be alive," Kubica said earlier this year.
“People are concentrating only on my arm because it is the biggest limitation. But the reality is I had fractures from my feet up to my shoulders on the right-hand side.
"I had many fractures and that's why it was so complicated and takes so long to recover. But of course my arm was the most damaged.
"The first two months were tough. I was lucky I was a sportsman and driving F1. That's probably why my arm is still there.”
What was more than Kubica's survival, was his recovery.
“The period straight after the accident was probably the most difficult physically,” he says. Part of the process required him to learn to adapt to his new situation, explaining that he had to relearn how to use his body and discover its new limitations.
“You live in a different situation, so in the end there is a kind of switch and you change your mindset, you have to learn and you have to want to learn. I discovered how powerful the brain can be. The brain adapts very quickly. It is incredible how quickly we can adapt and what progress we can make in a very short time,” explains Kubica, emphasizing that adapting to his new environment mentally was extremely tough.
“The period where you have to adapt mentally, this was even more difficult. Physical things you can solve. But you discover you have not moved forwards but backwards. Dealing with that is a mental task. You have to be strong. I do not have an easy character, definitely, and in those days this character helped me quite a lot.”
Simply, he was not ready to give up on his life-long dream.
“You discover your brain is a powerful tool, something that is so powerful that sometimes you are surprised by the outcomes, how quickly it adapts to situations and how quickly you learn,” Kubica said in an interview.
“You gain nothing from giving up. I knew it would not fix my problems. You have to face reality, you have to adapt and try to move forward. It’s simple, you don’t gain anything by giving up.”
He would go on to spend more than two months in the hospital. Initially setting himself the target of racing again in the 2012 Formula 1 season.
“From a mental point of view, as I’ve had to rebuild my life from zero, it has been crucial I’ve never given up, that I’ve set achievable targets, not things that couldn’t possibly be achieved.”
This goal proved impossible, even more so when he re-broke his right leg after slipping on ice near his house in Italy.
Kubica would manage however manage to return to racing less than 18 months after the crash, taking part and winning the Ronde Gomitolo Di Lana rally.
He would continue to enter in rally races, achieving some success. As he would go on to win the World Rally Championship-2, in 2013.
He would go on to compete in the World Rally Championship in 2014 and 2015. However, he would find limited success, with a sixth-place finish in Argentina in 2014 being his best performance.
While his fractures are healed, the atrophy of his right forearm remains visible. It is a hurdle Kubica has said he has overcome.
“There are some things I cannot do as I did before the accident,” he said. “Trying to do them the same way was impossible, and I was getting frustrated. Then one day I said to myself that I had to relearn those things and do them in a different way and see what was possible, and how it could be achieved. My body has had to learn and rediscover itself.”
For example, his range of movement with his right arm is limited. “So I compensate a lot with my shoulder when I’m turning the steering wheel,” he said.
His performances in WRC did manage to catch the attention of a number of Formula 1 teams, including his old team Renault.
In 2017, Renault would give him the opportunity to return to Formula 1, taking part in two private evaluation tests and a midseason test involving all the teams.
Renault's main concern was the flexibility in his right arm. This was highlighted during a simulator test in 2015, when Kubica was unable to rotate his wrist properly and had to lift his elbow to turn left, a movement impossible in the narrow constraints of a Formula 1 car.
Despite an impressive display on his return to the track, Renault would choose not re-sign him, instead signing the hot prospect Carlos Sainz Jr (@Carlossainz55) instead.
Kubica would go on to say, “Every test I did there were question marks, but I started to have confidence again I could do it."
“Formula One applies stresses to the mind and body that are very extreme. I first had to see how my body would react. I knew it would not be easy, but I had to try to do it.”
However, Kubica’s progress had not gone unnoticed with Williams approaching with a new opportunity. Giving him a number of tests and even adapted the car to his unique needs, adding a few inches of extra room the cockpit on the right-hand side.
The Pole impressed once again, beating current driver Lance Stroll (@lance_stroll), and fellow candidate for Felipe Massa’s vacant seat, Sergey Sirotkin (@sirotkin_sergey) on the time-sheets.
Williams would choose to offer Kubica the role of reserve driver for the 2018 season. However, they would later announce that he would be promoted and would be racing for the team during the F1 season.
Deputy team principal Claire Williams said "It is a great credit to his strength of character and tenacity to return to Formula One. He has a level of determination that is remarkable to see."
Daniel Ricciardo (@danielricciardo) was one of many who paid tribute to Kubica for returning to Formula One after eight years.
The Renault driver saying: "I don't think we all know the extent of what he has been through to get back here.
"It is a testament to his character but it's awesome to see him back."
Before the Australian Grand Prix, Williams expected to be in last place. Due to the Williams' car arriving two and a half days late for the start of pre-season testing.
"We didn't have a perfect start to winter testing," Kubica said. "Let's see. We just have to maximize what we have."
Kubica said "From the human point of view, I understand and see the point that it is a story that probably nobody has believed. Probably the only one who never gave up was myself and the people around me.
"We all knew that it might be something not achievable. This shows that somehow nothing is impossible.
"From the driving point of view, you just have to wait a few months and you will see. If I would not be able to drive competitively enough, I would not be here.
"It is a normal way of thinking that people see my limitations and ask how it is possible I can do it, and I know it is hard to believe.
"But Williams has seen it this year and I have seen it in the last 16 or 18 months since I first drove an F1 car in Valencia last year that I can do it, thanks to work, but also that my limitations are not limiting me as most people are thinking."