On Sunday afternoon in Abu Dhabi Robert Kubica will pull down the visor for the last time as a Formula 1 driver.
Nine years ago at the same race he finished an impressive fifth and entered the winter break looking forward to the new season with the rebranded Lotus Renault GP. Little did he know the journey he would go on before he would ever compete in a Formula 1 race again.
In preparation for the 2011 season he tested the team’s new car, the Renault R31, for the first time in Valencia on the 2nd of February setting the fastest time of the session on the final day of testing on the 6th of February. Just five days later Kubica’s life would be forever changed.
The career of one of the most promising young Formula One drivers would hang in the balance after a horrific crash in a low key rallying event.
Kubica was injured in a crash on the first stage of the Ronde di Andora rally. He was driving a Super 2000-specification Škoda Fabia in Testico when his car left the road at high speed and hit a crash barrier.
The 26 year old Pole was trapped in the car for more than an hour before rescue workers were able to extricate him. He was flown by helicopter to Santa Corona Hospital in Pietra Ligure where it was confirmed that he had suffered partial amputation of his forearm, compound fractures to his right elbow, shoulder and leg, as well as significant loss of blood.
The severity of his injuries was the result of the crash barrier penetrating the car’s cockpit, and hitting Kubica, while leaving his co-driver unscathed. Kubica underwent a seven-hour operation by seven doctors split into two teams, without complications.
Two more lengthy operations to repair fractures to his leg, shoulder and arm were performed successfully a few days later. The condition of his hand was not clear for some time and as a result he missed the 2011 season.
The main area of concern was his right hand which was severely damaged. It is the same arm that was badly injured in a road accident in 2003 and left him with titanium bolts to support the shattered bones.
Kubica’s manager, Daniele Morelli, said at the time: “The surgeons are trying to restore the functionality of the right hand. They must now think about the muscle function, but Robert has a very strong temper and will succeed.”
Kubica was undoubtedly out of Formula 1 for the foreseeable future and for many his career in motorsport looked finished.
His road to recovery got off to a less than ideal start when he re-broke his right leg in January 2012 slipping on ice outside his home in Italy. In September of that year he returned to compete in the Ronde Gomitolo Di Lana in a WRC car. He won the rally, finishing one minute ahead of the second placed driver.
In 2013, Kubica continued his return, focusing on rallying. He drove for Citroën in the European and World Rally-2 Championships. He conducted a number of simulator tests with the Mercedes Formula 1 team which showed promise, but limitations in the range of motion of his injured arm would prevent him from driving in twisty circuits like Monaco due to the tight confines of an F1 cockpit. Kubica said his dream of a return to F1 was “nearly impossible”.
Yet merely accepting his fate without a fight was never an option. “You gain nothing from giving up,” he says. “I knew it would not fix my problems. You have to face reality, you have to adapt and try to move forward. It’s simple, you don’t gain anything by giving up.”
2014 and 2015 saw Kubica continue his recovery as he competed in various rallying events but he longed for a return to single seater racing. 2016 saw him move up a grade driving a GT3 Mercedes in the Mugello 12 Hours and at an endurance race in Spa, Belgium.
2017 however would see Kubica return to the sport he loves. On 5 June, it was announced that Kubica would be driving in a Renault-organised test of their 2012 car, the Lotus E20, at Circuit Ricardo Tormo, his first Formula One event since his accident in 2011.
Renault organised a further test, with Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul stating that ‘he was still quick, still consistent and more importantly he still has the enthusiasm he always carried to the team’. He added that there were ‘no obvious roadblocks’ to an F1 return, and told NBC Sports that Kubica could be an option for 2018.
On 24 July, it was announced that Kubica would participate in the test for Renault, which would be held after the conclusion of the Hungarian Grand Prix. Abiteboul, said the test will allow the team to fully assess Kubica’s current capabilities, and how likely he might be to “return to competition in the upcoming years”.
He completed 142 laps of the Hungaroring on his return, finishing fourth-fastest nearly 1.5 seconds behind Sebastian Vettel.
His former team would however not be offering him a race seat. Undeterred he set his sights on Williams.
After Felipe Massa announced his retirement from the sport for the second time, Kubica became one of the top contenders to take his seat at Williams. He tested for the team after the 2017 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix completing 128 laps over two days.
In January 2018 it was announced that Kubica would become the reserve driver of Williams for the 2018 season. He took part in his first Grand Prix weekend since the final round of the 2010 campaign, in Friday’s first practice session at the Spanish Grand Prix, outperforming teammate Lance Stroll.
Kubica had proven he had the ability to drive the most sophisticated cars in the world despite his injuries and his determination was rewarded with a race seat at Williams for the 2019 season.
His return to the sport is perhaps one of the greatest sporting comebacks ever, but Kubica is not happy to have just simply returned he wants to compete. Unfortunately Williams have been the back-markers for the season. A brief high came at the German Grand Prix where a 12th place finish became a 10th place finish thanks to the demotion of the two Alfa Romeo’s. To date they are the only points the team and Kubica have scored this season.
Kubica admits that he has to drive “70%” left-handed, a feat that might be impossible for other racing drivers.
During rehabilitation, he worked at Formula Medicine in Tuscany with Dr Riccardo Ceccarelli, a specialist in sports medicine who has worked with more than 70 F1 drivers. Ceccarelli has asserted that Kubica was almost unique in being able to come back from such severe injuries both mentally and physically. “Even if he’s in a difficult situation, he’s able to cut himself off from outside stress and allow the brain to focus on the driving,” said Ceccarelli. “This is why he consumes very low energy. This is why he’s the only driver able to drive an F1 car with a physical limitation that he has. It’s because he’s so natural in driving, so economic, he can positively compensate.”
What could he have achieved were it not for his accident? He revealed last year that he had signed a Ferrari contract for 2012 and that the near-fatal rally would have been his last. In no world would Ferrari let him continue and risk any kind of injury. Could he have been F1 world champion? Maybe. A contender? Definitely.
Although he now drives with an adapted steering wheel – shifting gear with his left hand only and using his right hand more as a lever – heading into this season there were questions about whether his disability would affect his racing ability at some of the tougher circuits. Knowing his issues better than anybody else, he dismissed them.
“I heard many stories that in Turn 1, I would not be able to react to situations – and probably the opening lap is one of the things which I managed well this season.
“I heard rumours that I would not be able to race in Monaco, and probably Monaco was one of my best drives during this year, although I was still far behind. But feeling-wise, it was positive.
“I’m leaving this season, of course not happy with the general performance, but pretty happy with how my body, my mind and my brain reacted to the difficult challenge I had this year.”
Kubica leaves Formula 1 with one win, Canada 2008, and 12 podium finishes but he also leaves with the respect of the entire paddock.
To fight back to the pinnacle of motorsport with such a severe injury personifies perseverance and will rightly see the 34 year old Pole go down as one of the true greats to have ever competed in the sport regardless of his final season.