Robert Kubica had the Formula 1 world at his feet a decade ago. Already a grand prix winner and heading into the 2011 season with Renault, the Pole had a Ferrari agreement in place for 2012 and was recognised as one of the best. Then he crashed while competing in the Ronde di Andora Rally, a fun event between the first and second pre-season F1 tests that he did for the love of it. He paid an enormous price.
He went off and a barrier sliced through the front of his Skoda Fabia, doing serious damage to his right leg and arm on the way through. Given Kubica’s injury, which permanently restricted the use of his right arm and hand, a successful return to the top flight of circuit racing seemed unlikely, even after he resumed competition in rallying and climbed to World Rally Championship level.
Yet not only did Kubica race in F1 with Williams in 2019 and then continue as a reserve driver with Alfa Romeo, but he also recently claimed his first victory in car racing since the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix. That win in the European Le Mans Series (ELMS) season opener at the Circuit de Catalunya, sharing a WRT-run Oreca LMP2 car with Yifei Ye and Louis Delétraz, was followed by another at the Red Bull Ring. And he has achieved this driving, as he puts it, “70% left-handed”.
Kubica doesn’t make a big deal of what he calls “my limitation”, and while he’s perfectly capable, the damage means that he’s no longer the extraordinary driver he once was. But he’s astonishing in a different way, because by coming back to race in F1 even at a diminished (but still effective) level, as well as establishing himself as a force in sports cars, he achieved what had once seemed impossible. Well, impossible to everyone except perhaps himself.
“Getting to F1 already for the first time was a big achievement,” says Kubica. “Getting into F1 for the second time with everything that happened in my life was an even bigger achievement. Not many people have a chance to come back after such a long break, into such a high level of sport. The year with Williams was disappointing, but it was still a big achievement.
“In the beginning, I came back to a lot of pressure about my hand and suggestions that I wouldn’t be able to turn [at the hairpin] in Monaco. Every time I put away doubts, there were new opinions. In the end, people accepted how I am.
“I had to do that first, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. But on the other hand, I showed that my limitations aren’t limiting me from driving an F1 car at a proper level, and sometimes it probably looks easier than it feels. But this is only positive because, in the end, this was my target. This is me, and I have to make the most out of myself, not think how I was 15 years ago or even before my accident.”
Kubica leaves much unsaid. He went through somewhere in the region of 40 operations to get back into a position to physically drive an F1 car and had some dark days, given his raison d’être had been torn away from him. And who knows what painful frustrations may lie hidden in the darker moments when he reflects on what he has lost.
It was some years before he was willing to return to a race circuit for a visit. Even when competing regularly in rallying (where he won the second-tier WRC2 title in 2013), he spoke of attempting to attend a DTM round at the invitation of Mercedes-AMG F1 team boss Toto Wolff but turning back because of the effect that it had on him. Make no mistake, his racing return was a near-incomprehensible feat of determination.
While winning in sports cars and toiling in low-profile F1 roles wasn’t what his future once promised, having once lost everything, he’s simply enjoying being back in his world. The ability and mentality that should have made him an F1 world champion have instead been channelled into this very different – but perhaps even more impressive – achievement.
“My life has changed a lot,” says Kubica. “I never spoke really openly, and I don’t want to share my thoughts, but I’m happy with it. It’s unfortunate that as humans you have to go through a difficult time before you start to appreciate smaller things.