There is a photograph, taken at a kart circuit in the early 2000s, that shows three young racers. On the left stands Lewis Hamilton, now a four-time world champion. On the right is Nico Rosberg, who beat the Briton to the title in 2016.
And at the centre, holding the winner’s trophy, is a grinning teenager named Robert Kubica. The Polish driver’s record pales in comparison to the two men who were once his karting rivals: just one grand prix win, one pole position, and 12 podiums.
But such bare statistics tell only a small part of a much bigger story. Because at the same time that Lewis and Nico were winning grands prix for fun aboard the all-conquering Mercedes cars, Kubica was not around to fight them. Instead, he was recovering from the horrific injuries he suffered aboard a rally car in early 2011.
This goes a long way to explaining why Formula 1 fans were so enthusiastic about the Pole’s much-hyped comeback to the sport. And it also tells us why there is such a sense of deflation now that his return appears to be off for good.
Despite getting behind the wheel for Williams at the post-season test in Abu Dhabi, Kubica has been informed that he is out of the running for the last vacant seat on the grid, with 22-year-old Russian rookie Sergey Sirotkin set to be confirmed in January. The Pole will not be an F1 driver in 2018 and, in all likelihood, won’t ever get a second chance in a sport that he once seemed destined to rule.
F1’S GREAT LOST TALENT
It is now more than seven years since Robert Kubica’s final grand prix, so it is worth emphasising just how good he was before his accident. A podium finisher in just his third F1 race, he became a star for the BMW-Sauber team while still in his early twenties and won what should have been the first of many grands prix, at Canada’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, in 2008.
But it was his performances for Renault in 2010 that convinced the paddock of his world champion credentials. The French team were in a state of turmoil following the Singapore race-fixing scandal of 2008, while star driver Fernando Alonso had departed for Ferrari.
Kubica was so good that Renault did not miss the Spaniard, which is perhaps the highest compliment you can pay a modern grand prix driver. Podium finishes in Australia, Monaco and Belgium highlighted a standout year.
There is a feeling that, had it not been for the accident, Kubica would have at the very least challenged for a world title over the following years. Some consider it a matter of fact that he would have joined Alonso at Ferrari in 2012.
But, instead of driving for F1’s most famous team, Kubica spent that year recovering from a devastating set of injuries.
On 6 February 2011 reports filtered through that Kubica had crashed heavily while contesting a low-key rally in the north of Italy. (It tells you everything you need to know about Kubica that this was how he spent his time off).
It was immediately apparent that he had been hurt – there was concern that he could miss the start of the 2011 season – but the extent of his injuries was not confirmed right away.
The truth was shocking. A section of road-side barrier had pierced the Pole’s car and caused partial amputation of his right forearm, as well as multiple fractures to his right-side. Kubica was lucky to escape with his life, even more fortunate to not lose the limb.
FROM RECOVERY TO RETURN
Given the extent of these injuries, it’s no surprise that the recovery process was slow. 2011 and 2012 ebbed away, and with them went any hope that he might slot back in at his old team (by now renamed Lotus). Doctors used the word “miracle” when asked if Kubica would ever race in F1 again.
Instead he turned to rallying – just a touch macabre given how he had sustained his injuries – competing full-time in the world championship between 2013 and 2015. There were flashes of his incredible raw speed, but all too often his performances were blighted by crashes.
He avoided race circuits throughout this period. Old friends invited him to grands prix, to other events, but Kubica turned them down because just being back in the paddock would have been too painful. There is even a story of him arriving outside a circuit but being unable to go through with the visit, instead turning around and heading home.
The rally programme ended in 2016. Kubica came close to competing in sportscars this year, only for the deal to fall apart before the opening race.
Evidently he had bigger plans. In April he tested a single-seater for the first time in six years, getting behind the wheel of a GP3 car in Italy. In June he was handed a test in a 2012 Renault F1 car, then drove the French marque’s 2017 machine at the mid-season test in Hungary. The comeback was on.
Renault eventually signed Carlos Sainz Jr. and ended Kubica’s hopes of returning to his old stomping ground, but an opportunity at Williams provided fresh hope. With old karting rival Rosberg working on his behalf, as well as a pot of sponsorship money from his native Poland, there was now serious momentum behind Kubica. He even attended the Italian Grand Prix as a guest of Pirelli, something that would have been unthinkable just a few months earlier.
By the end of the season the Pole had become favourite for the Williams seat, with the incumbent Felipe Massa retiring and the likes of Pascal Wehrlein and Daniil Kvyat seen as outside bets.
But Williams left that post-season test in Abu Dhabi with unanswered questions about the Pole. Meanwhile the well-funded Sergey Sirotkin had been a late addition for the test and his performance compared favourably with Kubica’s.
Still, it came as a shock last week when it emerged that Kubica was out of the running for the drive. His camp are still making positive noises, and you can never rule out a last-minute reprieve, but Sirotkin has become the odds-on favourite for the Williams seat.
THE END OF THE ROAD?
It is difficult to see this development as anything other than the end for Kubica’s hopes of returning to F1.
Two teams have tested him and then passed him over for a drive, despite his history, natural talent and some financial incentives. Realistically, there is nowhere left to turn.
Even if a drive opened up mid-way through next season, Kubica would not be a viable candidate. Given his limitations a team would want to have tested the Pole extensively before letting him loose in a grand prix. If you were looking for someone to parachute into a seat at short notice, the likes of Wehrlein or Kvyat make more sense.
The question thus becomes whether he wants to compete elsewhere. There is no question that Kubica is a genuine racer at heart. That was as much the case before his accident as it is now and is part of why fans love him.
But can he bring himself to race elsewhere? This isn’t like Rosberg, who could walk away from F1 having achieved his ambitions. Or Jenson Button, who can now race GT cars in Japan without any regrets.
Kubica’s potential was never realised, his talents never truly rewarded. You get the feeling that the time he has spent in the wilderness has left him with an even stronger desire to prove himself at the very highest level, to remind the world that Robert Kubica is a uniquely gifted racing driver.
The problem is, there aren’t a great deal of events outside F1 that will allow Kubica to do this. A push for outright victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours – perhaps up against his old F1 rival Alonso – would be one of the few that did.
Might Formula E be a good landing spot? You have to ask whether his arm is up to racing exclusively on tight street circuits, but Formula E cars are considerably slower than F1 machines. Winning the electric category would be a major statement.
But where else can Kubica earn the plaudits he deserves? Outside a few iconic sportscar races, there’s very little that offers the same appeal.
A BLESSING IN DISGUISE?
There has been a sense of anger among some F1 fans that Kubica is to be passed over for the Williams seat in favour of a well-funded but little-known youngster.
This ignores two things. Firstly, that Sirotkin is a talented driver who has won at every level below F1. And secondly that Kubica was Williams’ first choice, only for the Abu Dhabi test to leave them unconvinced about signing him. There was a time when Kubica would have blown Sirotkin away, but he is no longer the same driver.
This is no surprise. It bears repeating that his arm was partially severed in the 2011 rally accident. Almost seven years on the limb is visibly affected and it is a minor miracle that Kubica can even drive a Formula 1 car in anger. He deserves huge respect for simply getting this far.
But while his comeback was a feel-good story, it may have quickly lost its lustre. Kubica was a talent on the Hamilton-Alonso-Vettel end of the scale. You don’t lose that kind of innate ability, but seven years away and the limitations of his arm mean he could not have driven at the same level in 2018. The feel-good factor would not have lasted long if he was struggling to compete with Lance Stroll next season.
And so we are left to wonder just what might have been for Robert Kubica in Formula 1. But at least he is still around to forge a new career. While the great lost talent of this generation may have to accept that his chance at F1 has gone, those from the sport’s brutal past were not always so fortunate.