It began years ago as a pipedream. Before too long it morphed into a fanciful hypothetical. More recently it became a rumour. Today it stands as an achingly reachable reality.
Robert Kubica, Formula One’s first and only Polish driver and a man ranked by Fernando Alonso as the best of his generation, could be on the cusp of making an unlikely Formula One comeback.
Once upon a time the Pole had all before him. His burgeoning reputation, boosted by an ultimately derailed title tilt in just his second full season in F1, was opening doors at the top of the grid. Greatness seemed inevitable.
But a grizzly rally crash on 6 February 2011 robbed Kubica of his bright future when a metal guard rail pierced his car and partially severed his right arm at the Ronde di Andora rally.
A long period of rehabilitation followed, but the loss of strength and dexterity in the affected arm was thought to bar him from entering the confined space of a single-seater cockpit. He took to rallying with mixed success, including the 2013 World Rally Championship-2 title, but quietly he plotted a course back to the pinnacle of motor racing.
Kubica tested his abilities in Formula E and GP3 cars earlier this year reportedly untroubled — bear in mind that GP3 cars have no power steering — but it was an apparently cancelled marketing day that gave him the opportunity to step up to F1 machinery, albeit a 2012 car.
When his 115 laps in the Lotus E20 featured times better than those set by Renault reserve driver Sergey Sirotkin, who was also present, a second test was quietly planned for the media-free shadows of the British Grand Prix.
It too was a rousing success.
“I can still tell you he’s very quick,” Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul reported back at Silverstone after Kubica completed 90 laps. “He’s still very consistent and, more importantly, he still has the energy and drive and enthusiasm he always had and carried to him and to the team.”
Though he acknowledged the incidental positive publicity bonus generated by putting the popular Pole in one of his cars, Abiteboul was keen to downplay expectations — “There is a big reality that it is a Formula One car from 2012 with demo tyres, with V8 engine,” he said — but Kubica himself immediately felt at home in top-tier machinery.
After just the first test he told Auto Express that he ranked his chances of a return at “80 or 90 per cent”, and after the second he told L’Equipe, “Physically there are no problems. My doubts about my capacities have disappeared with these two days of tests”.
The only step missing in the Kubica comeback is a test in modern machinery, in particular 2017’s demanding high-downforce cars. Happily one of the sport’s precious few in-season tests is set for immediately after this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix, and the regulations allow Kubica to take the wheel on one of the two days.
Abiteboul’s refusal to be drawn on the likelihood of Kubica being named as one of Renault’s test drivers for Budapest only heightened anticipation — and with a golden opportunity to reunite the Pole with his lost F1 drive staring management in the face, why wouldn’t it?
The set-up is simple. The 2017 season may be a rebuilding year for Renault, but its lowly eighth place in the constructors standings is nonetheless off target.
Unfortunately for Jolyon Palmer, he must shoulder most of the blame, for had he scored as heaily as teammate Nico Hülkenberg in the opening 10 rounds of the year, Renault would be a clear fifth on the table.
Given Kubica couldn’t score fewer than Palmer’s zero points and given Renault has no championship pressure to consider this early in its reconstruction anyway, a midseason switch between the Pole and the Englishman — providing Kubica were to test successfully in Hungary — is carries no risk as the logical option.
A Kubica substitute offers only two potential outcomes. The first is that he returns to F1 effortlessly and picks up his career where he left off, delivering one of sport’s all-time great comebacks and a beautiful narrative for Formula One.
The second is that Formula One proves beyond Kubica’s injuries, in which case he and Renault can part amicably after nine races knowing they tried but that the comeback ultimately wasn’t to be.
It would be a harsh blow for Palmer, but the Briton, bluntly, has not performed to the standard mandated by a manufacturer team, marking himself superfluous to Renault’s long-term plans.
It all adds up to a simple conclusion: Renault must put Kubica in its car next week in Hungary. It can only be a win-win situation.