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

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

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.”)