F Features

High Risk High Reward

The F1 Community Reacts to the Kubica Incident

The future of Robert Kubica’s F1 career is unclear following his rally accident in February.

Driving an F1 car is a privilege a select few get paid millions of dollars to do, or in some cases pay millions of dollars to do. It can be a dangerous occupation, but what about the perils outside of the cockpit? If somebody is one of the elite group of 24 people in the world who race in F1, how much should he jeopardize his situation – and that of his team that has hundreds of millions invested and hundreds of people working for it – by taking risks doing other things such as extreme sports?

Robert Kubica would be heading into the new Grand Prix season with the Renault team if he hadn’t gone rallying and nearly gotten killed in February.

What do the current F1 drivers think?

“It is completely obvious that we like to take an apparent risk, whatever it is,” Mark Webber tells PRN. “But obviously our level is quite high in terms of when we go and do things. For sure I had my mountain bike crash because I was risking a bit too much at the time.

We have seen F1 drivers in the past, especially in the ‘70s and ‘80s get themselves in a bit of trouble away from the track. So we clearly need to feel alive away from the track. Tom Khristensen had a very nasty foot injury playing badminton with his son. There are some disciplines that are more risky than others. If you look at the particular sport that Robert loves away from F1, we know that there is a risk added to that.

“Clearly Robert was incredibly lucky to survive. When you are an adult you make the decisions. I also accept that you have a big team of people behind and around you, and you as a professional need to represent them as well, which he does.

“So it is never easy to have the balance right. But I have done a lot of mountain biking since my [cycle] crash, and I have never missed a grand prix. You have to do things away from the track.”

The Renault cars will carry a get well message in Kubica’s native Polish this season.What happened to Kubica has not affected Lewis Hamilton’s decision making in what he does outside of F1.

“We are all responsible drivers and have a love for what we do,” Hamilton says. “You have a break and during that you want to sometimes do exciting things. When you go mountain biking or waterskiing or do certain activities it is exciting. I don’t have any plans at the moment to do any rallying. I have incredible respect for the people who do it; it is incredibly insane the speeds they do around those roads. That is probably for another time in my life.”

Michael Schumacher cracked his neck racing motorcycles.

“It is very sad for us,” he says of Kubica’s accident. “But it is one of those stories that may happen in life. It is fate.”

Obviously there has to be limits on the dicey activities that drivers can do when not racing
their F1 cars.

“To a lot of people that limit would not be an issue because they are not adrenalin junkies who love to do crazy stuff,” Jenson Button tells PRN. “For Mark [Webber’s cycling smash] it was part of his training and it was very unlucky. And it is the same for Robert: a horrific incident and you would never expect that to happen. Robert loves rallying and it is close to his heart, so it is difficult to stop a driver from doing that.”

Button’s McLaren contract allows him to do some extreme sports. The same is true for Heikki Kovalainen at Lotus. He wants to go rallying but doesn’t have time.

“There are two sides,” the Finn says. “You get paid and you should be fit to drive a F1 car, but on the other hand you can get injured in many places. And if you start worrying about it too much you can really only sit on the sofa at home doing nothing. And that still might be dangerous, especially if your girlfriend is not happy!”

McLaren’s duo sums it up succinctly.

“You could walk outside and trip over a plant and break your ankle,” Hamilton says. “It is just the way life is. You have to be as careful as you can whilst enjoying things. That is what I try to do it.”

“What are you going to do?” Button adds. “Wrap us up in cotton wool when we are not driving F1 cars? It is a balance that is very difficult to get.”
Team Renault wishes a speedy recovery for Kubica.
Renault team boss Eric Boullier is not angry at Kubica for impeding Renault’s F1 campaign.

“I am a racing guy, and I know Robert for five or six years,” he says.

“He is a racer. He loves go karts, rally, F1. He is like a wild cat. If you put him in a cage, you get him mad. So why do it? Yes it is very unfortunate and sad that he is in hospital, but before he got to this corner [on the rally] he was the happiest man in the world.

“Except he wanted to be world champion.”

Kubica had some massive accidents prior to his rally shunt. His right arm was severely injured in a road car accident, and he also got hurt in a crash racing a Formula 3 car. Then, in 2007, he has that spectacular and frightening crash when his BMW Sauber tagged Jarno Trulli’s Toyota coming into the hairpin at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve during the Canadian Grand Prix. Fortunately, he escaped serious harm. He did have to sit out the next race, however, and that gave a young driver by the name of Sebastian Vettel the chance to make his F1 racing debut. The fairytale bookend to Kubica’s Montreal crash was that he came back one year later and earned his first grand prix victory.

Of course Kubica isn’t the only F1 driver to get hurt chasing thrills.

Marc Surer still bears the scars from a brutal crash he had during a rally in 1986. Patrick Depailler broke one leg falling off a motorcycle in 1972 and both legs while hang gliding in 1979. He lost his life in a F1 crash in 1980. Didier Pironi had to retire from F1 after badly fracturing both legs during a race. He took up powerboat racing and was killed on the water in 1987.

The irony in all of this is that driving a F1 car
is a relatively safe endeavor these days compared to many other more perilous quests.

The Rehab Road

Kubica is paying a very heavy price for his quest to go rallying. And he’s is now on the long and arduous rehabilitation road to get back into an F1 car and back in a rally car.

The injuries Mark Webber sustained in this cycling accident in November 2008 were minor compared to those that Kubica suffered.

“I scratched my finger nail compared to what Robert had,” the Aussie declares.

Still, Webber’s broken shoulder, nasty fracture to his lower right leg and cuts and bruises put him through a lot of pain, misery and boredom as he endured months of healing and rehabilitation. So he knows what Kubica is facing physically and mentally.

Webber acknowledges that F1 drivers are often attracted to risky hobbies.“People can talk as much as they want, but it is between here for Robert,” Webber indicates to his forehead, “that will know if he a] wants to come back and b] if physically he has the chance to come back to have the career again.”

There is more to life than racing, especially when one considers how close Kubica came to losing his life.

“It is sensational that he can recognize his loved ones and make dialogue; this is a beautiful step for all of us to have the same old Robert,” Webber says. “Thank God for that. After that, if he can drive a racing car again, it is a bonus. Let’s see if he can get the grip in his hand.

“For sure the coming months are going to be incredibly challenging for him because he has upper and lower injuries, so operating on crutches will not be easy. So who knows how he gets around, maybe it is a wheel chair to start with. I don’t know the exact situation, but time will tell.”

Kubica is incredibly determined; something the doctors say will really speed up his rehab. Of course he wants to return to the cockpit as soon as possible just as Webber did.

“Sometimes the hurdle is thrown at the toughest guys,” says Webber, “and he is one of those guys. He will tackle it head on, and it will be his decision. As we know, Robert is his own man. I think this will also come and go in his mind in the next few months, how he will feel, and then it will be down to him and nobody else. He will make the decision on what he does in the future.

“You need to be sensible with what is achievable. We have seen that a lot with motorbike racing and
a bit less with our sport. Robert is under the spotlight now about when and how is he going to do, but time is something which we cannot control. So let’s see what exactly his injuries are, and how he is going to cope with dealing with the forces if he races again. Let’s hope and pray that it is a full recovery and that he can drive a F1 car for hours on the limit again.”

The rehabilitation is going to be the hardest part because it gets incredible frustrating.

“It’s the constant boring stuff that is the challenge for any sportsman or woman who is coming back, because normally we are so active so we don’t have these issues,” Webber recalls, “and then when you have to come back to do basic tasks, that is the challenge. But he knows this completely. He knows exactly what is ahead, and mentally he is completely strong enough to get over this.”The injury could end up robbing Kubica of a good season- the R31 was fast in preseason testing.

Athletes thrive on action and want to get back to it as soon as possible after an injury, especially compared to say somebody who works in an office and can take lots of time before returning.

“They are not really challenging themselves,” Webber says, “but people like us, it is maybe why we got to where we are because we are driven, focused, and when we have a setback we want to go again.”

Webber recalls getting frustrated because of the erratic progress in the healing process.

“Sometimes there are two or three day’s progress and then two or three days backwards,” he relates. “It is always building blocks. You put some new bricks in, and then you have to put some more on top, and more on top and more on top.

“This is going to continue for Robert for years. Not months, but for years. But he can still do his job. It is not important if he can run a marathon. But let see what injuries he might have that might affect his career, which is the most important thing.”

The Season Ahead

The new Renault R31 looked quite quick during preseason testing, so Kubica’s crash might have robbed him of a competitive F1 season. On the other hand, his replacement Nick Heidfeld voiced some concerns about the car’s inconsistency when he tested it.

As for the other top teams, Mercedes was slow in testing. The team was depending on a major upgrade before the first race to make the W02 fast. If that does not work they are really in trouble.

Button supported McLaren’s decision to skip the first preseason test.Jenson Button insisted that skipping the first of the four preseason tests so that McLaren could spend more time in the design phase of the MP4-26 was the correct thing to so. But that meant that the team lacked time to find the best chassis set-up because they had fewer test laps.

Ferrari was closest to matching the pace of the Red Bulls in testing, especially over long runs. Ferrari also had very good reliability. All that is good news, but the bad news for the team was that was still one step behind the Red Bulls.

Even though it set quick lap times in testing, reigning champions Red Bull had yet to reveal the true potential of the RB7. This is a very fast car, and it is gentler on its tires than other team’s cars. The other teams should be worried.

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