It should have been the most incredible comeback story. Nearly seven years after his life-threatening and life-changing accident, 2008 Canadian Grand Prix winner Robert Kubica appeared set to return to Formula 1 this year with Williams, which would have been his first full-time seat outside of rallying since he raced for Renault in 2010. However, Kubica lost out to Renault reserve driver Sergey Sirotkin. An underwhelming choice, considering they let a perfectly competent driver leave on his own terms.
Sirotkin has been in the F1 frame for a fair while now, ever since his controversial affiliation with Sauber back in 2013. Now at 22, he finds himself with a full-time race seat alongside Lance Stroll. The potential and the speed is there, but he never really showed it quite as much as he perhaps should have on his path to the top echelon of racing.
He struggled (admittedly against a very strong field) in Formula Renault 3.5 in 2014, taking a sole win in that category. Then came the switch to GP2 and a solid campaign with Rapax was rewarded with third in the championship, someway behind current F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne and IndyCar talent Alexander Rossi.
So when Sirotkin replaced Vandoorne at ART, the expectation was that it was to be his championship year in 2016. That turned out to not be the case, as many points were somewhat carelessly thrown away. Of the three poles Sirotkin had that year, just one was converted into victory (or even a points finish) and 11 non-scores from 22 starts meant that a championship slipped through his fingers to newcomers Prema and its driver Pierre Gasly (also now in F1). This is not the strongest junior record to go on, so would Kubica have been a better choice?
It would be daft to question how great 32-year old Kubica was prior to his accident. He fought for the 2008 world championship until the penultimate round of the season despite having half-developed BMW machinery compared to McLaren and Ferrari (and later Renault). That was only in his second full season at the top bracket of racing.
In that 2010 season, the Renault was not on the same level as the likes of Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari (and to a degree Mercedes) but Kubica still managed to extract three podiums and some spellbinding qualifying performances out of it. His lap at Monaco for example, good enough for second on the grid, was one of the finest laps ever around the principality. The likes of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton were very complimentary of Kubica’s performances, and rumours were that he was set for a Ferrari drive in the future.
But it wasn’t to be, and on that fateful day in February in 2011, Kubica’s arm was permanently damaged. Now, it is an obvious disadvantage to him, but clearly not one which has prevented him from racing for good. Fitness obviously remains a point for debate, but it was not that which resulted in him losing out on the drive.
Kubica was as good as the likes of Hamilton, Alonso and Sebastian Vettel in 2010, if not better. But even if Kubica is at the standard he was then, there’s no questioning that the others who were the benchmark back then are even better now. The 2017 season has been arguably Hamilton’s finest. It has certainly been the strongest of his four championship-winning years. Vettel arguably had his finest season in 2015, whereas he was still comparatively raw back when he secured his first world championship in what remains Kubica’s final season.
On top of the established names from 2010, others have come in and asserted themselves as potential future champions. Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz Jr and Max Verstappen are all already at very high standards, arguably at a higher one than Kubica was in 2010. Would he have been able to beat these drivers in equal machinery let alone inferior equipment (as is to be expected at Williams in 2018)? It’s questionable.
Even some of the drivers expected to be in the midfield next year will be very competitive. Sainz as mentioned is already making waves at Renault. Nico Hulkenberg has been stellar in 2017, and Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon both scored an unbelievable amount of points with Force India last year.
The major unanswered question about Kubica is just how well he would be able to race. Aside from rallying (where he had a tendency to crash the car frequently), he has started just a pair of pro-am races in the now-defunct Renault Sport Trophy and a 12-hour race at Mugello, again at pro-am level. This is not exactly a huge amount to shout about over the past seven years. Kubica would almost certainly be very, very race-rusty.
When Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen returned to F1 after three and two years away respectively, both required a significant amount of time to re-adjust and to adjust to what had changed from what they knew before. Kubica, having been away for much longer than both of those hugely successful world champions combined, would have surely struggled to be able to hold his own had he returned. How long would he need to return to the form he was at before 2011? Could he actually return to that form at all? Again, there are a lot of questions and without answers.
Also adding to the adapting factor will be the fact that the current generation of cars are a completely different type of car to the 2010 ones which Kubica last raced. Different cars and the challenges of the cars suit different drivers, and despite testing current cars, there is no way to guarantee that the current formula is one that suits Kubica’s style of driving. Pirelli tyres, turbocharged V6 engines and wider cars are all things which would be new to Kubica in a race.
Speaking of testing, that is all that Kubica has done. He has only tested. Testing does not always paint the most relevant picture, as Luca Badoer showed following 10 years out of racing in 2009. He was woefully off the pace in the two races he did for Ferrari before getting dropped in favour of Giancarlo Fisichella. Testing performances do not at all reflect how well a driver will perform under pressure in a qualifying or race situation. While testing is useful for a driver, especially a young driver, it is generally race performances which is considered when taking older drivers.
No driver in F1 history has had a period away from the series as long as Kubica has had and has returned with significant success. There is nothing to say that Kubica would change that. Many very good drivers, such as Alex Zanardi and Alex Wurz had long periods away, and simply were not up to scratch when they re-entered.
Only one driver has ever made a majorly successful comeback after a long period away – Niki Lauda after two seasons away in the early-1980s. In Lauda’s case, he was not as strong as the likes of Alain Prost when he returned, despite Lauda securing his third world championship by out-smarting the man later dubbed as “The Professor” in 1984.
On this basis, I think it’s fair to assume Kubica probably was not the best choice. Sirotkin remains a fairly unknown quantity to many, especially in terms of racecraft. So, why was a rookie taken over a much more experienced driver?
Sirotkin and Kubica were both evaluated by Williams at the post-season test at Abu Dhabi. It is understood that while Kubica’s race pace was very good, Sirotkin’s was simply better over a qualifying lap. In a series where qualifying well is so important, it is just far too risky to take someone who cannot qualify well. Kubica’s lack of knowledge of Pirelli tyres compared to Sirotkin may have shown there, as could any speed Kubica lost as a result of his fearsome accident. It will be hard to digest for his legions of fans, but the fact is that Sirotkin was simply the younger, faster and wealthier option for Williams.
It is not all lost for Kubica, however. He has been signed as a development driver and will participate in several free practice sessions this year. Williams gets its experienced driver (and one over the age of 25) while Kubica’s dream of returning to F1 remains alive, albeit just. Regardless, neither Sirotkin or Kubica were the best option available for Williams, and it let its best option slip through its fingers.
It is clear that having experience alongside Stroll is a very important factor. Outgoing Williams driver Felipe Massa – who has had a strong 2017 and has been a very useful asset to the team over the past four seasons, will be a major loss to the F1 grid. The uncertainty over his future and Williams’ reluctance to confirm things before what has turned out to be his final home grand prix has prompted the 2008 championship runner-up to take his future into his own hands.
Of the available drivers, Massa was clearly the best option around for Williams in the short-term. But internal politics, even more pay driver money and the so-called ‘fairy-tale’ story of Kubica making a comeback fuelled by rose-tinted nostalgia was just too attractive for the once-great team.
The pay driver part of this story is a very important one. One alluring aspect of running Kubica would have been the fact that he does bring backing. Williams is a team which is reliant on backing of drivers in this current era and the signing of Stroll for 2017 showed that.
Massa was not a driver who brought a substantial amount of money with him to Williams. Kubica and Sirotkin (the latter apparently with a bit more backing) certainly do bring money – money the team needs without a cash injection from Mercedes and a loss of income from two consecutive seasons languishing in fifth in the world constructors’ championship standings.
While Pascal Wehrlein would have brought some Mercedes backing with him, the amount the Silver Arrow would offer would be dwarfed by that or Sirotkin’s budget and Wehrlein doesn’t come with a massive amount of experience either. Daniil Kvyat, who has recently been announced as a new Ferrari development driver, is definitely without backing, but does have about as much F1 experience as Kubica behind him, as well as a lot of speed which was shown during his (rather brief) stint at Red Bull.
So on the face of it, Williams required two pay drivers bringing huge amounts to the team. It doesn’t bode too well. However, the further potential places lost in the world constructors’ championship and thus precious prize money at the end of the year may well result in the pay driver money being utterly worthless. It’s a pretty big risk to take. That’s not to say running two drivers with backing at a team is always a bad idea, because Force India well and truly punched above its weight with the smallest budget on the grid and with two drivers who bring backing, but the line-up Williams will field in 2018 is quite simply weak. There isn’t a way to really soften the blow on that.