In the build up to the 2016 Formula One season we're inducting six grand prix stars into The Cult. Today it's Robert Kubica, a might-have-been champion whose career was cut short by a rally accident. You can read past entries here.
Cult Grade: The Second Chance
Formula One drivers used to get up to all sorts of extra circular racing. Two-time world champion Jim Clark was winning Formula Two races alongside his grand prix commitments. A rising star of F1 in the mid-80s, Stefan Bellof was also a full-time sportscar driver who won the 1984 World Championship. And Bruce McLaren, founder of one of the greatest teams in world motorsport, could be found campaigning Can-Am and sportscar machinery when not competing at the front of the F1 grid.
But these were dangerous times: Clark was dead at 32, killed in an F2 race at Hockenheim; Bellof at 27, losing his life at the 1000km of Spa; and McLaren aged 32, perishing aboard his Can-Am car in a testing crash at Goodwood. All immensely talented, all successful in F1, all killed competing outside the grand prix arena.
These days – and you probably won't be too shocked by this – drivers aren't allowed quite so much freedom. Nico Hulkenberg contested and won the Le Mans 24 Hours last year, but F1 has coincidentally scheduled a grand prix to clash with the French classic this June, so there will be no repeat.
The most recent example of it going wrong came in January 2011, when Robert Kubica crashed a Skoda Fabia on a largely unheard of rally. Kubica's injuries were horrific: partial amputation of his forearm, fractures to his elbow, shoulder and leg, and, as a result, considerable blood loss.
But, unlike the greats of the past, Kubica survived the accident. Much more, in fact: once fit again, he actually took up rallying full-time (they're not like us) and is now making a return to circuit racing. He'll never race F1 again – he lacks the movement in his wrist to handle tracks like Monaco and Singapore – but he lives a normal, high-functioning life in which he can still pursue his passion professionally.
In some ways, Kubica is a throwback: he's a purebred racer who only cares about driving a car (any car) very, very fast. That's how he ended up in a low-level rally event that Lewis Hamilton would be loath to fly his private jet over.
He's low maintenance in and out of the car, too; there's no bullshit from the Pole. In F1 he'd spend hours chatting to his mechanics, not because he wanted to endear himself to them, but because he enjoyed talking about the car in minute detail. And I genuinely can't imagine him wearing anything other than race overalls or team gear; he'd probably show up at a wedding in his old BMW-Sauber shirt and a Renault raincoat.
As an F1 driver fans liked him, not because he was ebullient and chatty – he is definitely neither of those things – but because he was honest and brave and hyper competitive.
And so sometimes it's said that Kubica would have fitted better in a bygone era. Not in the achingly corporate 2000s, but around the same '60s period as Clark and McLaren, or with Bellof in the '80s.
But while there is a tendency to romanticise F1's past – I know I'm endlessly fascinated by it – it feels wrong to apply this tag to Kubica. Because 20 years ago he would not have escaped his rally accident: he'd most likely have perished, certainly never have raced again. And so rather than link him to the past, it's better to celebrate his future. He's fortunate to have one.
Point of Entry: Medium
By the age of 21, Kubica was a full-time F1 driver at the BMW works team. He looked vaguely interested in this, though I'm sure his emotionless demeanour was simply part of the psychological makeup that allowed him to be so bloody quick.
And so chilled. He'd replaced former world champion Jacques Villeneuve at the team, but this seemed to be no big deal to him. I don't think he lacked respect; it's more that he saw everyone as equal on the track and was thus total unfazed by reputations. In only his third race he stood on the podium, comfortably eclipsing anything Jacques had achieved that season. In 2008 he was runner-up at Monaco and then, at the following round in Canada, took his first F1 win. He was 23 and, most people were now certain, destined to win a world title.
2009 was a blip in a very underwhelming car, but for 2010 he moved to Renault and was on the up again, scoring another podium at Monaco and getting back on the path to superstardom. Some believe that season – against a pack of world champions, and in a lesser car – was Kubica's finest in F1.
It was also his last. Shortly after launching the 2011 car he suffered his rally accident. Not even an important rally – just a small affair that Kubica was contesting because he loved competing; it was like a young and gifted footballer suffering a career-ending injury during a kickabout in the park.
Much has since been said of where Kubica could have ended up. There is consensus that Ferrari were keen (he is fluent in Italian), that he might have slotted in next to his mate Fernando Alonso at the Scuderia for 2012.
But perhaps it's more instructive to look back at what we know than forward at what could have been. Wind back around 15 years to a photo of three kids wearing karting overalls. On the left, a teenage Lewis Hamilton; on the right, Nico Rosberg. Those two have finished first and second in the past two F1 world championships, of course. Stood at the centre, clutching the winner's trophy, is Kubica.
Less than 10 years later, the cover of Autosport magazine proclaimed the next generation of stars: from right to left, Kubica, Hamilton, Rosberg. And then Heikki Kovalainen (because no one can get them all right).
So you get the idea that Robert was more than simply tipped for glory – he was set for it. He was one of those drivers who you knew after just a handful of races would be a grand prix winner at least, perhaps a world champion. Schumacher, Senna, Hakkinen, Hamilton – it's there instantly. So too with Kubica.
But we're playing 'what if' again. There was also that sense of future potential with Jules Bianchi, who is no longer with us. So let's return to the fact that Kubica is here. That he was fortunate enough to get a second chance.
The Moment: Qualifying, 2010 Monaco Grand Prix
The 2010 Renault was, at best, the fourth fastest car on the grid, maybe even the fifth. So, for Kubica to qualify second at Monaco required him beating drivers like Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton, Button, Schumacher and Rosberg in inferior machinery. It's something that would have been looked back on with awe had he eventually won the world title, but is instead fading into history.
Kubica had been fast throughout practice, and battled Mark Webber for pole in qualifying. Then, in the final segment, the Australian dug deep and pulled out a brilliant lap, leaving Kubica to settle for second. But that Red Bull was a class act. Compare Kubica's showing on the streets with his teammate, Vitaly Petrov: the Russian dropped out in Q2, a second slower than Kubica and 12 places back on the grid.
Had Robert taken pole he could well have won the race, but slipped to third on Sunday. It is sad to think that he consoled himself that day with the knowledge that there would be plenty more Monaco Grands Prix to come in the future. But I don't believe he did – for Kubica, it was always about what could be achieved right now.
"Do I think about F1? Yes and no. You have to live for what is next, not from memories. I could go to F1 races and have more contact with friends and people I knew in F1. But I decided to avoid it. Not because I am not friendly but because it reminds me. I am honest. Watching an F1 race is not easy." –– Robert Kubica