The pairing of Ferrari and Robert Kubica is officially off – at least for the next couple of years. They've been eyeing each other like a couple of mutually attracted strangers at a bar for some time now, but their timing is seemingly ill-starred. In this era of Formula 1 where the best drivers are suddenly all in race-winning cars, Kubica's the anomaly. At least he now knows where he stands and no longer needs to torture himself with the choice – whether it was ever real or not – of the dream drive at Maranello or staying put at an ascendant Renault where he is rediscovering the joy of getting under a team's skin and playing a key part in moving things forward.
How good is he? Where do you want to start? With a Renault on the Monaco front row this year perhaps, ahead of at least five cars, maybe more, that it had no business beating? Or what about Melbourne a few races prior – finishing second on merit in a car no faster than a Force India or Williams at the time? Or the same venue last year, fighting for second with Vettel's Red Bull when they took each other out, with the carrot of possible victory dangling in front of a BMW that subsequent races revealed to be a dog? It was improved near the season's end, but enough for it to be chasing and passing Rubens Barrichello's Brawn for second place at Interlagos? Monaco 2008 and a superlative performance, relentless on-the-limit laps and directing tactical calls from the cockpit, getting them unerringly right each time, making not a whiff of an error on a day where just about everyone else did.
The funny-looking Polish guy led the World Championship at the halfway stage of that season after taking his – and BMW's – first win in Montreal. His subsequent ongoing dispute with his team about their apparent lack of interest in maintaining that momentum was one of the motifs of the second half of that season. “I must be mad,” he said in his deep-voiced, Polish accent with hints of Italian. “I'm the only one in the team who thinks we should try to stay in front rather than concentrate on next year.” The comment was delivered with a lopsided ironic grin.
He was right, of course. Far from following what they believed was their pre-destined course from race winners in 2008 to potential World Champions in '09, BMW tripped over itself last year with a car so bad it made the decision to pull out of F1 at the end of the year a lot easier. It was the sort of trajectory that Kubica had feared. Not that it surprised him much; he's of a cynical disposition and has a certainty that he's right in all matters racing – and that's borne of having been enmeshed in the fabric of the sport perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, right from the start.
He sits in the garage, talks to the mechanics for hours, jokes with them, asks them if they could make a further tweak to his seating position while he's in the middle of regaling them about his latest rally car adventures or doing deadpan impersonations of people in the paddock. It's as if he's still a 13-year-old karter, totally besotted by the sport. Eventually an engineer or team manager will drag him back to the hotel, but it'll invariably be late in the night by then. If he's not driving a racecar, rally car or kart, he's talking about doing so, or pumping the engineers for yet more: Can we make the steering so it feels like this in these corners? How do we get the brake pedal more progressive than that? What combination of disc material, calipers and master cylinder could we use to get that? If we could get this, I could do that. If I could do that, do you think we could change the weight distribution?
Renault team personnel love him for that. Kubica's the engineer's dream driver – open-minded, possessed of an incredible work ethic and fast as hell. After a couple of seasons seeing how a disinterested Fernando Alonso wasn't quite the same animal as the hungry young guy who had won world titles with them in 2005 and '06, he's a breath a fresh air at Renault.
The Swiss-German BMW Sauber team didn't know what to make of him. He was disdainful of their hierarchy, critical of their obsessively data-driven analysis. But they knew they didn't want to be without him, had realized as much ever since as a Friday test driver he was measurably a whole chunk faster than either of their experienced aces Jacques Villeneuve and Nick Heidfeld. So they became uneasily co-dependent. But it wasn't a marriage made in heaven. ‘Thank you for your input, you can go now,' isn't how you get the best from Kubica. A corporately structured Germanic manufacturer team wasn't the ideal setting for this fiery oddball; he had so much more to give than their employer-employee relationship allowed.
Renault's not like that, and never has been. Even when the team was wholly owned by the French car manufacturer, it was run as the same independent entity it had been when it was Benetton. It didn't have long drawn out strategy meetings, nor dozens of analysts back at the factory playing a part in deciding tactical calls. It had relevant experts in each field, with one guy – Pat Symonds – of great intuition and racing experience calling the shots. It was and remains no place for passengers or wallflowers; it's an aggressive, focused little team of exceptional pedigree. It's a place where a great driver is appreciated and valued; the perfect place for Kubica.
The Singapore '08 scandal – where team principal Flavio Briatore and Symonds conspired to have one of its drivers deliberately crash, so as to win the race for the other one – led to a management and ownership change. Renault remained in the sport, but as minority stakeholders, with Genii Capital acquiring the majority and placing its young but race-savvy man Eric Boullier as team principal. Beneath this layer, the core of the team is as before – and there's a renewed sense of purpose about it. Kubica is seen very much as part of that as technical director James Allison explains.
“Robert is just brilliantly committed to making this team and relationship a success,” he says, “and helping us to drag ourselves back to where we need to be. So he's constantly pushing. That way we know that if the car isn't going well, it's not because it's Robert. It's because the car's not right. Having a really top-flight driver like that gives you a fantastic baseline to work from. In that regard, he's similar to Fernando but the area he's different is that he's more intense about it, seems more fully immersed in racing and wanting to be a champion.
“He's demanding of us but he's prepared to put in his side of the effort, too. Genii has bought this team to be successful in F1. They bought a team that was at low ebb, coming off a really dreadful underperformance and an appalling scandal that we're all deeply ashamed of. And they bought a group of people who, for a number of years, had the sword of Damocles hanging over them. Renault had always been open that they were in F1 to be competitive and not to make up the numbers and the implied threat was that they would leave if we weren't successful. Now the pressure is positive and it's given this team a renewed vigor.”
Renault's R30 is way better than last year's car but still 0.5sec off the ultimate pace. Allison puts the reasons for the underperformance of the last few years down to key personnel losses in the aero department who have now been recovered. Major investment in CFD and wind tunnel facilities is beginning to bear fruit, too. And Kubica is ideal for this team's set of circumstances. With the distraction of Ferrari now gone, Kubica's best option of getting into the F1 car his talent warrants is to help steer this team toward that car.
He will, however, have some very specific demands of that car. More than any other top liner save perhaps Jenson Button, he's extremely sensitive to a car's handling traits. “If I've got oversteer, I'm dead,” Kubica says in summary of an extreme style that aggressively loads the front of the car. He needs rear end stability on corner entry and can then take outrageous momentum into a turn. Give him aggressive braking and a high-grip shallow understeer balance, and he performs at a level few ever attain – without error. He doesn't make mistakes and that is probably just another facet of his simplified, binary take on things.
The way Kubica excels when the car is as he needs it but can struggle if it's not shows obvious parallels to his personality and how there is so much in there if the ambience is right. BMW occasionally gave him a car with which to excel but didn't harness his potential.
Renault, by contrast, can't help but get the best from Kubica in terms of his working environment; it's his dream team in that regard. But for 2011 it needs to deliver a car not only aerodynamically on a par with the best, but with traits that dovetail with his demands.
Given the way the team personnel hang on his every word – and on how many words he has to say about it all, the chances of that must be pretty high.
Life as Kubica's teammate
Vitaly Petrov is a Russian rookie from a wealthy family, contributing toward the Renault team's running costs. While that statement is true, it's also misleading. He's quite quick and inordinately brave, won races in GP2 and was last year's runner-up in that F1 steppingstone category.
A mediocre car with arguably the best driver in F1 as a teammate is, in many ways, the ultimate nightmare for a rookie. Think son of a wealthy man and you get a certain image of an over-protected, over-indulged, immature kid. Think son of a wealthy Russian man and the picture is very different – because of the way Russia works. He's a tough nut who arrived in F1 confident that he was as fast as Kubica. It took only a couple of tests for him to be disabused of that notion. His average qualifying deficit to Kubica in all sessions up to the Canadian Grand Prix is just over 0.6sec, the second-biggest margin between any current team pairing. But that's to be expected at this stage.
How he is going about trying to correct that is impressive. For much of the season he'd look at Kubica's telemetry and say: ‘OK, I'll do that.' Then he'd discover, of course, that he couldn't; you need to feel what's behind those startling traces before you can actually do it. So he was ballsy but messy and accident-prone.
In Turkey, after strong words from team manager Eric Boullier, Petrov set his own agenda and was impressive. He graduated to Q3 for the first time and ran a solid eighth, soaking up race-long pressure from Fernando Alonso's Ferrari. Even when the ex-World Champion resorted to aggressively chopping across his nose, Petrov refused to back out of it.
He suffered a puncture as a result, but the message he gave out – don't mess with me – was more important than the couple of points he lost.