Former F1 rising start Robert Kubica is on the brink of an unlikely Formula One return more than six years after almost losing his life in a rally crash.
At 32 years old, Kubica, F1’s first and only Polish driver, has successfully completed a series of tests conducted by the Renault Formula One team to assess his ability to return to the cockpit after his enforced absence.
Kubica was destined to become one of the sport’s most formidable talents when a 2011 Italian rally crash struck down his F1 career.
When his Skoda smashed into the barriers at high speed one of the metal rails pierced the front of his car and entered the cockpit, almost severing his right arm. By the time he could be extricated from the wreckage he had suffered substantial blood loss.
Numerous hours-long surgeries were required to save the limb, and though he has since been able to compete in other forms of motorsport, the nerve damage to his arm has left him without the flexibility required to operate within the confines of the cockpit.
Doctors said it would be impossible for him to resume his Formula One career, but slowly the Pole has charted his path back to the pinnacle of motorsport.
Time in the Mercedes simulator led to tests in a Formula E and GP3 car earlier this year, both of which suggested he had sufficient dexterity to resume single-seater racing.
Renault, the team he had begun racing for in 2010, was then persuaded to give him a testing day with a 2012-specification car alongside test driver Sergey Sirotkin. Kubica not only completed his programme, but he outpaced Sirotkin.
A second test ensued in the same car in July, this time with a more targeted programme to assess the extent of his abilities, and his performance there convinced the team to give up one of its four days of in-season testing to conduct a full evaluation in modern machinery.
The test, conducted in Budapest in the days following the Hungarian Grand Prix, was the first occasion on which Kubica had set foot in a Formula One event in more than six years. Cheered on by legions of Polish fans who had made the trek south to watch, Kubica finally returned to the F1 arena.
Around the twisty and technical Hungaroring in 36-degree heat Kubica completed a mammoth 142 laps, and though testing times are notoriously difficult to read, he was unquestionably impressive.
On comparable tyres he set a best lap just half a second slower than Renault full-time driver Jolyon Palmer’s qualifying time, and his long-run pace was comparable to that set in the race by both Palmer and teammate Nico Hülkenberg.
“It was a fantastic feeling for me to be here today,” he said at the end of the test. “Hungary we know is a difficult track; it’s one of the most physical tracks.
“I have answered many questions to myself.”
The team likewise had many questions answered, but one now remains: what to do next?
Kubica and Renault have remained tight-lipped about their future, but it is no secret that full-time driver Jolyon Palmer, out of contract this year, is a marked man after failing to score even a single point so far this season, materially affecting the team’s ability to secure its targeted fifth place in the championship.
Circling for his seat already is Renault development driver Oliver Rowland, who sits second in the Formula Two championship — but will Renault be able to resist the charms of a man who Lewis Hamilton calls “one of the quickest drivers I have raced against” or who Fernando Alonso identifies as the best of his generation?
And if not, will the team make its move as soon as the next round in Belgium?
Real life rarely delivers fairy tales, but with Renault and Robert Kubica one gets the sense that Formula One might be set to deliver a happy ending.