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

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Robert Kubica: How did he 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 its subject are unmissable – Robert Kubica will race in Formula 1 next year eight long 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 testament to the brutal battle Kubica has 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 Fernando Alonso’s team-mate in 2012.

But that possible future was torn away from him when he lost control on a chilly mountain road, hit that barrier end on and was left fighting for his life, with a partially severed right arm and multiple fractures.

That arm and hand bear the effects of that accident 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 now 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 shortly after the start of the Ronde di 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 rally car in February 2011, he was weeks away from starting his fifth full F1 season and was regarded as a talent in the same bracket as superstar world 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 aftermath 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 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.

“But on the other hand there are moments when you have to forget who you are but you are a human being. This is maybe something where the situation was 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 decided first I have to wake up in the morning happy, then I can start to be a racing driver.

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

“You have to first of all feel good with yourself before doing something which requires being fast or driving a racing 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 it 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 an F1 cockpit.

Instead, he turned to rallying, and spent three seasons competing in the world 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 get the chance to return to F1,” Kubica said, “but after rally time I had a difficult period. I was weighing 10kg, perhaps 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 systematically tried a range of racing cars to see if he could be competitive in them, explored the idea of returns in DTM German touring cars and the World Endurance Championship.

The turning point was around December 2016, when he spent some time in the simulator at the Italian racing car constructor Dallara, and realised an F1 return might now 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. “In most of the cars I was able to achieve what was my target and four months ago nobody could expect this and that’s why I really appreciate the chance Renault are giving me. But I want to do my best.”

The guys at Renault had 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 him a chance to try it again after so long. But he impressed so much – completing more than 100 laps, quicker than the team’s reserve driver – that a second test, this time much more serious, was arranged.

That test came at Paul Ricard in the south of France, after which hopes were still alive of a comeback. 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 got to the verge of him signing a contract to race in 2018, but then another test put a spanner in the works.

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

Once they had stripped out the variables of fuel load, tyre type and car set-up, Williams found that Kubica, while faster than Stroll, was slower than Sirotkin. And the Russian had more than double the amount of sponsorship he could bring 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 done a number of tests for Williams this year, as well as work in the simulator. In the virtual world, the word is he is quicker than Stroll and Sirotkin. This has been less immediately apparent in the real world, but events have turned in Kubica’s favour.

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

Sirotkin, meanwhile, has not been especially 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 team or his backers had hoped. As a result, he has less money 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, his promotion has a feel-good factor about it as well as a positive PR effect, and there is the hope that with more time in the car he will be able to recover his former abilities.

Alongside him, hopes are very high for new signing George Russell, a British driver poised to win the Formula Two title this weekend, a Mercedes protege and one of the most highly rated 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. So 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 as 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, not a fully competitive car, he put in some stunning performances, the best ones at the three greatest drivers’ circuits on the calendar – Monaco, Spa and Suzuka.

He qualified second, third and fourth at those races, places the car had no right to be. And was equally impressive in the grands prix.

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

Renault sporting director Alan Permane, who was instrumental in organising Kubica’s tests for the team in 2017, says: “Suzuka qualifying in 2010 was a lap like I’ve never seen from anyone else, ever. He came in 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 a sprained ankle from a horrific crash at the Canadian GP

Seeing Kubica in the paddock, his right arm 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 like my body and my 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 give you a bird in the hand and you have to hold it [so] that it doesn’t fly away but you cannot 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 on one of the first weekends I did in 2006 [as BMW test driver], there was footage when you see me driving with three fingers open. And 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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