Robert Kubica’s return to the wheel of a current specification Formula One car was something many people never thought would happen.
The graveness of the injuries he suffered in his 2011 crash on the Ronda di Andora rally made a return to racing at the top flight unthinkable for a long time.
Kubica’s path back to an F1 cockpit has taken him through rallying, GT racing and back into single-seaters. Finally, six and a half years on from his last F1 test, Kubica completed more than two race distances in a single day at the wheel of a current-specification Renault RS17.
“After this test, we will carefully analyse the collected information to determine in what conditions it would be possible for Robert to return to competition in the upcoming years,” said Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul before Kubica took to the track. And the motor sport world waits to see if the incredible is going to happen.
The affection for Kubica among his rivals, the F1 community and the fans – thousands of which sat at a baking hot Hungaroring to watch his return – is obvious. But it’s equally clear that with a gruelling 21 races scheduled on the 2018 F1 calendar, there is a clear downside to putting him back in a grand prix car if he isn’t ready.
Can he still drive competitively? Can he still drive as well as he did at his peak? Could he be an even better driver – a possibility Kubica has hinted at.
If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then Renault represents an excellent opportunity for Kubica to make it happen. The team’s second driver Jolyon Palmer has endured a dreadful second season so far. Nico Hulkenberg has out-qualified him at every race, usually by more than seven-tenths of a second, and has scored all of the team’s points.
Abiteboul has insisted Palmer will still be in the car in the next race at Spa. But if Kubica is considered a viable option for 2018, the temptation to get him in the car before the end of the season will be strong, even if it means buying Palmer out of his contract.
Without knowing what Renault made of Kubica’s test it’s impossible to judge how realistic a comeback is. The fact he got to drive one of the team’s very few 2017 car test days is a persuasive sign that he’s a serious contender.
If not Kubica, then who?
A return may yet prove impossible, however. Alternatively, a comeback-ready Kubica would be of interest to more than just Renault. All the other teams had the ability to monitor his progress at the Hungaroring and could come knocking if they believe he’s up to a comeback. If Ferrari are looking for a replacement for Kimi Raikkonen who’s already a proven race-winner, Kubica could be just the ticket.
Renault have a long list of potential alternatives to Kubica and would be an attractive move for almost any midfield driver. They have manufacturer backing and have made the most progress of any team so far this year.
Unsurprisingly Fernando Alonso’s management team has been in touch about a potential return. This could leave Renault with a very tough choice between the fiercely competitive two-times champion and a driver of Kubica’s ability.
Other options include Carlos Sainz Jnr, who has made a strong case for himself at Toro Rosso. Red Bull’s Christian Horner may have been quick to point out Sainz has a Toro Rosso contract for next season, but soon afterwards he conceded that could change hands for the right price.
Sergio Perez might even like the idea of rejoining his old team mate as his new one, Esteban Ocon, has already started to become a bit of a handful at Force India. It could be wise for Perez to move now before his Ocon’s rising stock begins to diminish his.
Renault has expanded its junior programme since its return to F1 but they haven’t shown serious commitment towards any of their top names. The value of the Russian market to Renault would make Sergey Sirotkin an obvious candidate, but he doesn’t have a regular race drive this year and has only done three practice sessions in the RS17.
Oliver Rowland, who won the last Formula Renault 3.5 championship before Renault pulled its backing, hasn’t had a test for them in a current car yet. Nicolas Latifi has, but Rowland has consistently out-performed his DAMS team mate in the junior categories.
Unless an opening appears at one of the top three teams, which seems unlikely, Renault’s second seat will be one of the most coveted for 2018. They won’t have a shortage of options if Kubica isn’t able to fill it.
View the current list of 2018 F1 drivers and teams
2017 F1 season
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- FIA revises and expands F1 superlicence points system for 2018
- Leclerc’s Sauber practice schedule announced
- Analysis: Raikkonen set to become Vettel’s number two after Malaysia
- Top ten pictures from the 2017 Singapore Grand Prix