Analysis: How a rally crash changed the destiny of F1

Robert Kubica’s promising F1 career was cut short following a vicious rally crash six years ago. But what might have been, asks Charles Bradley?

Analysis: How a rally crash changed the destiny of F1
Robert Kubica, Lotus Renault GP
Race winner Robert Kubica celebrates
Banner for Robert Kubica (POL)
#29 Forch Racing powered by Olimp Porsche 991 GT3 R: Robert Lukas, Robert Kubica
Robert Kubica, Lotus Renault GP, R31 using a moveable rear wing
Robert Kubica, BMW Sauber F1 Team, F1.08
Message For Robert Kubica, Lotus Renault GP
Pole winner Robert Kubica
Lewis Hamilton, McLaren Mercedes with a get well message for Robert Kubica
Robert Kubica, Renault F1 Team
Robert Kubica, Lotus Renault GP
Robert Kubica, ByKolles Racing CLM P1/04 - AER
Robert Kubica, Lotus Renault GP, R31
Robert Kubica, Renault F1 Team
Podium: race winner Robert Kubica celebrates
Robert Kubica, Lotus Renault GP
Robert Kubica, Forch Racing

As with so many things, this idea sparked from some office banter – which in the ‘old’ days would have been across a few desks but now is between Miami, Madrid, Moscow and London, such is our virtual world.

The subject was: Who would replace Pascal Wehrlein should he be unfit to race for Sauber after his nasty Race Of Champions flip. Of course, sensible suggestions were soon cast aside for some fun ones from Sauber old boys…

“Get Felipe Massa out of retirement… oh,” was my opening gambit. We had Nick Heidfeld, Jacques Villeneuve, Jean Alesi – even Norberto Fontana and Pedro Diniz – all proposed, but when you think back to the best driver Sauber ever had in its all-time stable, with all due respect to Kimi Raikkonen, how about Robert Kubica?

This week it was confirmed that Kubica will make a full-time return to racing in the FIA World Endurance Championship with the ByKolles team, after a successful test in Bahrain at the end of last season.

I was there in Montreal when he scored his maiden Formula 1 win for the BMW-branded version of Sauber, and I was certain there’d be many to follow. Alas, not.

The day his world changed

That fearful rally crash in 2011, from which he was fortunate to escape with his life, brutally savaged his right arm and hand.

“In other sports, like football, if you kick the ball wrong, to the side or over the bar, nothing bad happens,” he once mused to me. “In rallies, if you make a small mistake, you can learn a big lesson.”

And how. I went to see him compete in a European Rally Championship round in the Azores, where he’d been rehabilitating himself in the very sphere of the sport that had injured him.

“I have been through a difficult period,” he understated then. “And I’d say it’s an easier period now, I am enjoying myself, but it is still not a totally easy period for me, because I’d definitely prefer to be in F1 driving, 100 per cent fit. The reality is different.”

Getting back on track

Now, six years on from his career-changing crash, the great news is that he’s feeling ready – not only for a full-time race return but to test a Formula 1 car, if the chance arises.

“Three years ago they offered me the chance to test an F1 car, but at that moment I didn't have the confidence to do well," he told Motorsport.com this week.

“I know that often some chances only come one time, but I always wanted to be sure about my condition and what I can do. And if I was not sure, I always said to myself – forget it.

“Today I would answer differently – I would like to try a Formula 1 car.

“It has been a while [since I drove one], so I would have to prove myself – but I think I could do it well.

“I would like to relive the thrill of the Formula 1 experience. I have tried many simulators, and I am convinced that I would drive at 80 percent of the F1 tracks – but not all of them.”

The permanent injuries restrict movement in his right arm, so it’s the dexterity required for somewhere like Monaco or Singapore that make any hopes of a full-time F1 race return sadly a pipedream.

Which, of course, is a huge shame. I was fortunate enough to see a lot of Kubica in F1 from trackside and he seemed one of those rare drivers who could make a car bend to his will, even if it didn’t seem keen on following his demands.

Of course, over time it’s easy to get a distorted view of how good someone was, or what their potential could have been, but Kubica did stand out as being right in the Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Rosberg and Vettel mix.

And having seen Kubica’s determination on track, you can only imagine the lengths he’s gone to in trying to make his rehabilitation process happen as fast as it possibly could.

So what might have been?

The alternative history for Kubica’s career is intriguing to ponder.

With Lotus (aka Team Enstone) on the rise to a race-winning level again, and his stock in the paddock high, would his career have simply followed that of his (effective) replacement, Raikkonen – which led to Ferrari? Team boss of that era, Stefano Domenicali, confirmed the interest, according to our sister title Autosport.

Or might the stars have aligned perfectly for him to jump ship and take a Mercedes seat? Might it have been him, not Lewis Hamilton, replacing Michael Schumacher alongside Nico Rosberg in 2013? There had even been speculation about this move when Michael’s comeback got off to a stuttering start in 2010.

How about unravelling that thread further: with Kubica at Mercedes and with no Raikkonen in the picture, what if Hamilton had teamed up again with Fernando Alonso (a subject very much in vogue at the moment) at a success-hungry Ferrari in 2014?

Might Red Bull have come calling for Kubica as a Mark Webber replacement for ’14? Unlikely, but not totally out of the question if it hadn’t been quite convinced of Daniel Ricciardo’s promise. 

All ifs, buts and maybes. The one certainty is that Kubica’s reputation as one of the very best of his generation – rated by his peers as well as learned pundits – was of the highest order before his rally crash.

Had it not been for one moment’s misjudgement on a tricky stretch of Italian asphalt, recent F1 history could have been so very, very different. 

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