Kubica, Schumacher and Hamilton: Why they are ‘the ones who got away’

Robert Kubica, Nick Heidfeld, Montreal, BMW, 2008, 2, 470150

Robert Kubica scored his maiden Grand Prix win for BMW this weekend. But if someone at Renault had been paying better attention four years ago he could have been driving for them instead.

He’s not the only top driver to have slipped through the fingers of a top team early in his career. For a long time Michael Schumacher looked destined to go to Mercedes. And earlier this year it emerged that Williams had courted Lewis Hamilton…

Robert Kubica and Renault

Robert Kubica, Renault, 2005

Renault have longed used their World Series category, featuring single seaters with near-GP2 performance levels, to usher young drivers into their F1 team.

Heikki Kovalainen and former test driver Franck Montagny won the category in 2004 and 2003 respectively, when it was called the World Series by Nissan (Renault and Nissan having been in co-operation since 2000).

But when Robert Kubica stormed to the championship in 2005, winning four races, Renault took little notice. He duly took part in the Renault F1 test given to every winner of the championship, but Mario Theissen was paying closer attention to the driver than Renault were.

Theissen got Kubica’s name on a contract and made him BMW’s third driver. He was fastest on his first appearance at an F1 weekend in practice at Melbourne in 2006, and halfway through the season Theissen elbowed Jacques Villeneuve aside to get Kubica in the car. Within three races, he was on the podium.

Read more about Robert Kubica: Robert Kubica biography

Michael Schumacher and Mercedes

Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, Monza, 2006, 470313

Think ‘Schumacher’ and you think ‘Ferrari’. But if Mercedes had been quicker on the uptake it might have been rather different.

Before Mercedes returned to F1 with Sauber in 1994 the two ran a sports car team together, including a driver programme for young talent. Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger were all products of that programme, but Schumacher got an F1 break with Jordan at short notice in 1991.

He was famously snapped up by Benetton immediately after that but over the following years rumours persisted that Mercedes were going to return to F1 and, when they did, would take Schumacher back.

It never happened. Mercedes’ return in 1994 with Sauber saw the team run Frentzen and Wendlinger. The following year Mercedes paired up with McLaren and although there were talks between the parties (one of which was captured on video – see here) the two never agreed terms.

It was said that Dennis would not accept Schumacher’s demand that he be given number one status within the team, and Schumacher did not like Dennis’s attitude…

Read more about Michael Schumacher: Michael Schumacher biography

Lewis Hamilton and Williams

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes, Melbourne, 2008, 470313

Hamilton and McLaren go together like, well, Schumacher and Ferrari. But although the relationship between Hamilton’s family and McLaren dates back to 1998 it wasn;t always plain sailing.

In 2003 Hamilton became frustrated at spending a second year in Formula Renault when he wanted to move up into Formula Three. According to Williams’ Patrick Head the relationship had become so fractious that Anthony Hamilton called him and said: “Ron Dennis has dropped us.”

Head continues the story:

We were with BMW at the time and I think Frank [Williams] rang Mario Theissen and said ‘look, this guy looks as if he could be pretty good and whatever and he has come to us saying can we help him’.

And I think Mario said they weren’t prepared to provide any support and we weren’t in a position financially where we could finance his racing.

Theissen later played down Head’s version of events:

There was no serious opportunity. We had loose talks, but it was always clear that he was a McLaren protege. So I never followed it any further.

Read more about Lewis Hamilton: Lewis Hamilton biography

It’s fun to play ‘what if’ and imagine how things might have turned out differently. And probably most of the F1 teams have had a Decca Records* moment, but we’ll probably never hear about quite a few of them.

(Decca Records infamously turned down chance to sign The Beatles before they were successful, telling them, “guitar groups are on their way out.”)

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21 comments on Kubica, Schumacher and Hamilton: Why they are ‘the ones who got away’

  1. Tim said on 11th June 2008, 11:42

    Another “Decca” moment would be Jean Alesi opting for a Ferrari seat over a Williams-Renault contract for 1991. Ferrari’s form then nosedived and Williams became the dominant force in F1 until 1998.

  2. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 11th June 2008, 11:45

    That’s an interesting example although it was the other way around (driver spurning team). To be honest I would have rather seen him drive the Honda-powered Tyrrell in 1991.

  3. George said on 11th June 2008, 11:49

    Yes, what could Alesi have achieved in the rather more competitive and straightforward surroundings of Team Willy in the early 90s, as opposed to in the technically failing, politically charged circus that was Ferrari in those days.

  4. Terry Fabulous said on 11th June 2008, 12:16

    Williams and McLaren tested Ayrton Senna in 1983 after he won the British Formula 3 championship.

    I’m sure Williams in particular regret passing on him.

  5. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 11th June 2008, 12:29

    Terry – They didn’t actually pass on him as such – Williams and McLaren offered him a testing deal for 1984 but he wanted to race so he went with Toleman. He also tested for Brabham but they passed on him becauase Nelson Piquet didn’t want him in the team.

  6. Steven Roy said on 11th June 2008, 12:38

    History is littered with examples of teams failing to recognise talent. McLaren (pre-Ron) gave F1 debuts to both Gilles Villeneuve and Alain Prost but failed to sign either. Frank Williams gave Senna an F1 test as a favour but said ‘we don’t sign inexperienced drivers’. Then spent the rest of Senna’s life trying to get him to sign for his team.

    I have often wondered if the people who make the decisions on which driver their F1 teams sign have any clue as to what they are doing. Bernie has told the story of Schumacher’s move to Benetton. At that time Tom Walkinshaw was responsible for driver choice and he wanted nothing to do with Schumacher. He wanted Brundle whom he had run in saloon cars early in Martin’s career and had run in the Jaguar sports car team winning the world sportscar championship. According to Bernie, Schumacher was not particularly enamoured with Benetton and in the end Bernie told him to shu his mouth and go to bed and in the morning he would be a Benetton driver.

    I have always believed that the reason some bad drivers get F1 seats and some deserving drivers don’t is down to little more than a whim of these people.

    F1 drivers, even successful F1 drivers in the past have struggled to assess driver ability. James Hunt spent years ravng about Stefano Modena even when it was quite clear he was nothing special. Mansell though Jean-Marc Gounon was the greatest thing since sliced bread despite the fact no-one else did.

    I am currently working on an article looking at the records of drivers before they became F1 drivers and I have been left stunned by how badly some highly rated drivers have done in formulae where all the cars are basically equal. It is equally amazing how many drivers who have dominated junior categories have failed to attract any attention from the F1 decision makers. There are drivers out there who deserve a serious crack at F1 and will probably never get as much as a test.

    Some drivers slip through the fingers of top teams but some never even get that close.

  7. Kubica was also supported by Red Bull from the late 1990s until his early car career when they dropped him, and another team (at least one) approached Hamilton.

  8. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 11th June 2008, 12:44

    Steven – good point about Villeneuve, they let him go after one race. But didn’t Prost do the ’80 season with them? He left because the suspension kept breaking, as I recall…

  9. I posted at the same time as Steven so I want to add more…

    I’m looking forward to Steven’s article and I hope he looks at drivers’ karting history as well as car racing, as there’s plenty of evidence that it has as big an influence, maybe more.

    Witness drivers like Sato and Piquet Jr – they were very very good in single-seaters and were not very good (Piquet) in karts or didn’t have any meaningful time in them (Sato).

    On the other hand you have Schumacher, Raikkonen, Alonso, Kubica and Hamilton who were incredibly good kart racers but there were better drivers in junior formulae single seaters.

    Possible reasons for karting to have a big influence on quality of F1 drivers?
    - sticky tyres
    - power-to-weight ratio
    - handling
    - vehicle development experience (you don’t get that when the cars are all the same…)
    - higher pressure events

  10. Jean said on 11th June 2008, 13:09

    As far as Schumacher goes , I am a great fan , but have only one regret , is that he did not switch from Ferrari to another team after they had won say 3 years in a row. That would have made it 2003 . I think Frank Williams would have given up his wheelchair and more (no disrespect intended at all)to have Schumacher drive his car . It would have also rewarded Sir Frank , who I respect and believe is one of the few true racers at heart amongst the team bosses of today. By 2005 , the Williams would have been a winning car , and would have taken it in 2006 as well. MS would still end with 7 WDC’s , but with 3 different teams instead. But as you say above , Keith , “what if’s” are just dreams. As much as I would love it , I can’t see Williams getting back to winning the way things are done now.

  11. Steven Roy said on 11th June 2008, 13:53

    I think you are right about Prost Keith. That was a different situation for a number of reasons. First they signed him on a multi-year contract which he asked to be let out of because McLaren really wasn’t a top team at that time and he had a few accidents and some injuries. He also went to Renault who were close to being a top team.

    I really should think occasionally before I dive in and spout off.

    To answer Mary-Ann’s point. I will be looking at karting where the information is available but because I don’t want the article to turn into an epic like the one I wrote on Gilles Villeneuve I think karting will have to be dealt with very quickly. I am still mulling over exactly how to structure it but I have been reading up on GP2/F3000 and Euro F3 which have become the two championships which feed into F1 and it is amazing how many drivers with excellent results in these championships never appear on the F1 radar. The example I have been quoting recently is Paul di Resta. A lot of people believe Sebastian Vettel is a future superstar but Paul beat him to the Euro F3 championship in 2006 as his team mate. We keep hearing that you have to beat your team mate but Paul despite being Dario Franchiti’s cousin cannot raise a GP2 budget so is racing (successfully) in the DTM. What a waste of talent. This is a clear case of the people in F1 who choose drivers and run junior driver programs not having a clue what they are doing. Imagine what someone with his ability could do with a Red Bull budget or a testing contract.

  12. Arun said on 11th June 2008, 15:24

    Steven, can you give us a link to your blog/website?Looking forward to the article.

  13. Steven Roy said on 11th June 2008, 16:18

    It is not my site. In fact the current lead article is by someone called Keith Collantine whose stuff is worth reading.

    http://www.f1-pitlane.com/

  14. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 11th June 2008, 16:26

    Thanks Steven :-)

    Of course you’re more than welcome to contribute to F1 Fanatic should you ever want to: Writing a guest post

  15. Sassan said on 11th June 2008, 18:04

    Remember Senna when he tested for williams and brabham in 1983. They let him slip through their fingers. I would of thought Williams would have learnt their lesson by now. Their have been drivers though you don’t want to waste your money on and put lots of faith in then it all goes to waste for example Modena, Serra ETC

    What do you think Keith?

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