Thursday , October 21 2021

Robert Kubica: How did you return to F1 after a life-changing injury?


Archive: Kubica's remarkable return to Formula 1

This is an updated version of a story that first ran in August 2017

The power of the story and the resilience of the subject are unmissable – Robert Kubica will race in Formula 1 next year eight years after he was nearly killed, and with what can only be described as a disability.

The 33-year-old Pole's withered right arm is a brutal battle battle Kubica has been fought since much of the right side of his body was smashed by a road-side barrier that penetrated his car on a rally in northern Italy in February 2011 .

At the time, he was one of F1's brightest stars, poised to start his second season with Renault, and had already signed to join Ferrari as Alonso's team-mate in 2012.

But when he was torn he lost control of a chilly mountain road, hit that was left fighting for his life, with partially severed right arm and multiple fractures.

That arm and the hand is accidentally to this day – visibly atrophied, held awkwardly, it has clearly limited strength and partial movement.

This is clear from in-car shots of him driving his Williams in practice sessions this year; he cannot bend the fingers on his right hand, so sort of wedges it against the wheel, effectively using not much more than friction to turn on that side.

And yet Kubica has been announced as a Williams driver for the 2019 Formula 1 season.

It is one of the most remarkable comeback stories in the history of sport.

What happened to Kubica?

Kubica suffered life-changing injuries during the high-speed crash short after the start of the Ronde in Andora Rally in Liguria, Italy, in 2011

One can only imagine the difficulties Kubica has faced, the determination and mental fortitude it has taken to get to this point.

When he crashed his car in February 2011 rally, he was in the F1 season and was a talent in the same bracket as world superstar champions Lewis Hamilton and Alonso.

He was driving in the rally because he enjoyed it, but also because he believed it would make him a better driver. But then things went wrong, and the pictures of the accident tell their own story.

It took an hour to get him out of the car. Once in hospital, the first operation – he has since had 17 more – was seven hours long.

"The reality was the first big moment I was fighting to be alive," Kubica said in a BBC Sport interview in 2017.

"People are concentrating only on my arm because it is the biggest limitation. But the reality is I have fractures from my feet up to my shoulders on the right-hand side.

"I had many fractures and it was so difficult to recover. But 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.

"But the other hand there are moments when you have to forget who you are but you are a human being. This is not easy to cope."

Eighteen months after the accident, Kubica was back in a rally car – and he won the first event he took part in.

"People were seeing me and concentrating on getting me as fast as possible back to the car," he said. "In the end, I first decided to have a happy morning, then I could start to be a racing driver.

"It probably took me over two years to get a reasonable level. I had for months, even a full year, pain everywhere depending on the conditions I was in.

"You have to feel good about yourself before doing something that requires a fast or driving car. It is not that I lost my biggest passion – it is still racing.

But also my general life has changed a lot and this was crucial. "

Kubica raced in the WRC Wales Rally Great Britain in 2013 (pictured) but went on to win the inaugural WRC-2 title

The long road back to F1

By 2013, Kubica's arm was sufficiently recovered for him to do some work in the Mercedes F1 simulator, but he did not have the necessary movement for him to drive an F1 car. He was not able to rotate his wrist enough – he could turn left only by lifting his elbow, which is not possible in the F1 cockpit.

Instead, he turned to rallying, and spent three seasons competing in the championship, proving blisteringly fast and brave, but prone to big crashes.

By the end of 2015, the money had run out.

"I didn't know if I would have the chance to return to F1," Kubica said, "after the rally time I had a difficult period. I was weighing 10kg, maybe 15kg, over normal weight. So I started preparing."

Kubica emerged in F1 as Sauber's test driver in 2006, with Jacques Villeneuve (left) and Nick Heidfeld the main drivers

He tried the range of racing cars to see if he could be competitive in them, explored the idea of ​​returns in German touring cars and the World Endurance Championship.

The turning point was around December 2016, when he spent some time in the simulator of the Italian racing car constructor Dallara, and realized F1's return might be a realistic possibility.

"I needed to get back in a proper rhythm of my life and if the chance will come I need to get the maximum out of it," he said. "I was expecting this and that's why I really appreciate the chance that Renault is giving me. But I want to do my best."

The guys at Renault have been kept in touch, and they suggested a one-off test in a 2012 F1 car.

That came in Valencia in June 2017. It was about completing the circle more than anything else, just to give it a chance to try it again after so long. But he was impressed so much – completing more than 100 laps, a quicker than the team's reserve – a second test, this time was more serious, was arranged.

That test came at Paul Ricard in the south of France, after which his comeback was still alive. But then, after a third test in the team's 2017 car at the Hungaroring, Renault cooled – he had not been quick enough.

Williams, though, were interested, and started talks. They contracted to contract in race in 2018, but then another spanner test put in the works.

In Abu Dhabi last year, immediately after the end of the season, Kubica and Williams race driver Lance Stroll and Russian hopeful Sergey Sirotkin.

Once they had stripped out the variable load, the type and car set-up, Williams found that Kubica, while faster than Stroll, was slower than Sirotkin. He has brought to the team, which made the decision easy. Sirotkin it was; Kubica was offered the role as reserve driver.

Kubica drove for Renault at in-season testing in Budapest in 2017

So what has changed a year on?

Kubica has a number of tests for Williams this year, as well as working in the simulator. In the virtual world, the word is he is quicker than Stroll and Sirotkin. This has been less apparent in the real world, but events have turned in Kubica's favor.

Stroll and his money are off to Force India, now run by his father after a mid-season takeover.

Sirotkin, meanwhile, has not been impressive in his debut season – he has out-qualified the Canadian 12 times in 20 races, but his advantage has not been as great as the backers had hoped. As a result, he has less available than last year, and Kubica has been able to find more.

At the same time, Kubica is well-liked within the team, has excellent technical feedback, its promotion has a feel-good factor about it as well as a positive PR effect, and there is a great time in the car. will be able to recover his former abilities.

Alongside him, George Russell hopes to be very high for new signing, a British driver poised to win the Formula Two title this weekend, a Mercedes protege and one of the most highly prospective prospects in the sport.

Why the keenness on Kubica?

Kubica took victory at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2008 finishing 16,495 secs ahead of his BMW Sauber team-mate Nick Heidfeld

Kubica won just one race in his F1 career – the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix. Why, some may wonder, is there such a fuss about his comeback?

On one level, the answer to that is obvious. If a man with this sort of disability, after going through so much, can return to F1 after eight years and be competitive, it is awe-inspiring.

But beyond that, there is the possibility of a mega-talent being back in F1.

"Robert's one of the quickest drivers I've ever raced against," said Hamilton. "He's one of the best drivers I've driven against.

"Just raw, natural talent, which I think is a sport it's a shame we don't have here with us – because there's not a lot that comes through. Not a lot of great, great drivers come through. You have some that are much better than the rest, but still not the greatest, and then you have real special drivers like him. "

Kubica's last season was his finest. In the Renault, it wasn't fully competitive, it was in some stunning performances, the three greatest drivers were circuits on the calendar – Monaco, Spa and Suzuka.

He is a qualified, third and fourth place at those races, where the car has no right to be. You were equally impressive in the grands prix.

Kubica had to stop his TV interview immediately after qualifying in Japan because he found he could not speak. He went to sit for himself for 10 minutes while he contemplated what he had just done.

Renault sporting director Alan Permane, who was instrumental in organizing, says: "Suzuka qualifying in 2010 was a lap like I've never seen from anyone else, ever. He had absolutely white, having scared the life out of himself. "

From a man who has been in F1 for more than 25 years and worked alongside Michael Schumacher and Alonso, that is quite a compliment.

How do his limitations affect him?

In 2007, Kubica escaped with a minor concussion and sprained ankle from a horrific crash at the Canadian GP

Seeing Kubica in the paddock, his right arm is clearly limited in movement, and watching on-board footage from his car, it seems incredible that he can drive close to the absolute pace of F1.

But as he says: "I drive to my body and limitations, leave me to do it. After my accident, I discovered that to do a roundabout in the road car, you don't have to grab the steering wheel, you can use friction to turn.

"F1 is not a road car, but I have been also in school where they gave you a hand and you have to hold it [so] that it doesn't fly away but you can't hold it too much that it gets scared. This is the way you have to hold the steering wheel.

"When I was racing in the past, in Malaysia one of the first weekends I did in 2006 [as BMW test driver], there is footage when you see me driving with three fingers open. The engineers were shocked.

"They said, 'Why?' I said: 'I don't know. Probably you don't need to use all the power you have. You just need to use what is enough.'

"Then, that it looks different than 10 years ago and to the others, I know. But the outcome is probably the same or nearly the same."

As Mark Webber, a former rival, says: "What a warrior he is."

Kubica finished third in the 2010 Monaco Grand Prix behind Mark Webber
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