RACER will be presenting a series of blogs this year from key players in the Lotus Renault GP Formula 1 team. In this first installment, team principal Eric Boullier relates how he and his staff reacted to the serious injuries suffered by lead driver Robert Kubica in a rally crash. -Ed.
I was in London preparing for a meeting with a sponsor when I got the call. It was Sunday morning, around 9 a.m. It was Daniele Morelli, Robert Kubica's manager. Robert had been in an accident in the rally car. That was the first news I had. I asked how bad it was and Daniele was able to tell me Robert had multiple fractures. It was only a couple of hours later that it became clear it had actually been much more serious even than that.
It was a big blow at a crucial stage of the season and completely unexpected. I knew there was a risk to Robert rallying but it was not as great as with some other sports. We had agreed we had no problem with it. It was necessary for his life balance and it was an on-off position: either you allowed it or you didn't and we had agreed to it. The way Robert had developed in 2010 was impressive, the intense way he worked was part of that and rallying was his way of letting off that steam. As a racer, I fully agreed.
I was kept up to date by Morelli and Dr. Ceccarelli, Robert's personal doctor, and it was obvious the day after the first surgery that I was going to need an immediate, and likely mid-term, replacement and at that point I made a couple of preliminary calls to drivers. That sounds maybe cold-hearted and there was a conflict there, because on the one hand you are concerned for Robert but on the other you have a job to do and with your team leader out of action soon before the start of the season, you have to take action.
I spoke to James Allison, our technical director, and asked him to come up with a list of requirements/qualities needed in Robert's replacement. Obviously there were two guys with recent F1 experience – Nick Heidfeld and Tonio Liuzzi – available and already in my mind was Nick. I had met him last year and liked him. But before making any decisions I had to speak with the team's workforce. I went to the factory on the Monday morning following the accident and talked to the factory guys and brought them up to date with exactly what had happened. I then sat down with the engineers and discussed further what we should do. The next day I traveled to Italy to visit Robert in hospital. We talked, I got a sense of how determined he was to come back as soon as possible and we also talked about who might replace him and Robert made the same two suggestions as were in my mind.
Robert is a huge part of the team and apart from his skill and experience, he is a leader too. When I sat down and looked through James' list of requirements, it became more and more obvious that Nick ticked all the boxes. He was in a very difficult position and was very respectful for Robert's plight and this too made it an easy decision for me to invite him to test the car. When he arrived at the test he was very low profile and did not try to make capital from our situation – and when he got in the car and we saw the way he works, then it became even more obvious he was the correct choice. He has his own particular way of working but he knows what he wants and is very hard-working and he fit in immediately with the team spirit.
Nick is now fully in the role that Robert was in, in that he is leading the team, the engineers are taking their direction from him and working to give him what he needs. It is as if he has always been here. As for the car, we have not got as much mileage on it as we would have wished at this stage, but in terms of performance we are where we expected to be, which is good. Vitaly Petrov is showing that he has good speed too. His level of experience does not allow him yet to lead the team in the way of Robert or Nick but when the car is good, his level of performance is good also.
I've since visited Robert in hospital again and the doctors there were jumping on me, telling me they are amazed at his progress, his mentality and the speed of his recovery. They say he has set new benchmarks for them. Knowing Robert as I do, this does not surprise me at all.