Kubica’s F1 return is one of sport's greatest ever comebacks

Matt Jones 22/11/2018
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Kubica after finishing third at Spa in 2010.

Robert Kubica’s rightly celebrated return to the Formula One circuit next season should not only go down as one of motorsport’s greatest comebacks – but in sports history, period.

The Pole fittingly confirmed his return to the sport for 2019 with Williams ahead of this weekend’s season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Yas Marina Circuit in November 2010 was the scene of Kubica’s last flutter with F1.

He finished fifth in the UAE capital that day to claim eighth overall in the driver’s standings in his debut campaign with Renault and was due to return with them for the 2011 season when disaster struck while competing in the following February at the Ronde di Andora rally in northern Italy.

His car left the road at high speed and hit a crash barrier. Kubica was trapped in the car for more than an hour before rescue workers were able to free him. In the hospital, it was later confirmed part of his right arm had to be amputated, while he also suffered compound fractures to his right elbow, shoulder and leg, as well as significant loss of blood.

The severity of his injuries were the result of the crash barrier penetrating the car’s cockpit, and striking Kubica, though his co-driver was left unscathed.

It’s been a long road back for Kubica – hindered further by the fact he re-broke his right leg after slipping on ice near his home in Italy in January 2012.

Robert Kubica announced his return to F1 in Abu Dhabi ahead of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit this weekend.

Robert Kubica announced his return to F1 in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

Yet he won the first race he entered after 20 months of being in and out of hospital, triumphing at the Ronde Gomitolo Di Lana in a World Rally Championship car on September 9 that year.

He has been competing ever since, largely in rally events, including the WRC, before returning to F1 as a test driver with Renault last summer. That sparked suggestions he could make an amazing comeback to motorsport’s pinnacle.

His dream return to a sport he was tipped for stardom in eight years ago is testament to the 33-year-old’s bravery and resilience, but it also forms part of the indefatigable and indomitable spirit of motoracing drivers.

Juan Manuel Fangio – whom Lewis Hamilton moved alongside this year on five F1 world titles – lifted four in a row from 1954-1957, and that was after he broke his neck driving at Monza in 1952. A year after his crash the Argentine finished second – a mere six-and-a-half points behind champion Alberto Ascari.

AJ Foyt’s brakes failed during a 1965 race at Riverside International Speedway, and he left the track at over 100 mph. His car flipped so violently the track doctor pronounced him dead at the scene.

Cheating death would have been a comeback in itself but that wasn’t enough for the American who recovered from his broken back, ankle, and chest injuries to win both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500 in the same year.

Williams have missed the experience and ingenuity of Felipe Massa this season.

Williams have missed the experience and ingenuity of Felipe Massa this season.

Niki Lauda still carries the day of his horror crash with him. The Austrian’s Ferrari burst into flames following a crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix.

Unable to escape, he suffered severe burns and inhaled toxic fumes that damaged his lungs and poisoned his blood. Lauda went into a coma but recovered, with reconstructive surgery enabling him to use his eyes again.

A lucky escape and one which you might have expected him to walk away from the sport for. But he missed just two races, returning to F1 the same season. Not only that, he maintained his lead in the championship standings until the final race, where he was forced to withdraw because of his damaged eyes, handing the title to James Hunt by a single point.

Outside of racing, Kubica’s return evokes memories of Monica Seles, at the peak of her powers when she was stabbed by a spectator midway through a match in 1993.

After two years away, she returned, going on to win her fourth Australian Open title in 1996.

Manchester fighter Anthony Crolla’s initial bid for the WBA lightweight title had to be scrapped in January 2015 when he suffered a fractured skull trying to fend off burglars in his home.

Six months later he was back in the ring to earn a split decision draw with Darleys Perez and, in a November rematch, knocked out Perez to take the title.

Right-handed Kubica – who has since adapted his driving style to lead with his left – has been with Williams throughout 2018 as the team’s test driver, acting as back-up to youngsters Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin. But both will now be jettisoned with the Pole to be paired alongside another new face for next year, 20-year-old Briton George Russell.

Williams will hope the mix of experience and youth will provide a spark to drag the famous marque out of the doldrums following an utterly dire 2018 – during which just seven championship points have been scored. Last year they amassed 83.

The Oxfordshire-based team will endure their worst season in five years and the third worst since they first entered the sport in 1977.

Kubica nearly made a heartwarming return to the top a year ago when he drove for Williams at last year’s post-season test in Abu Dhabi, but the British team opted to take on Russian rookie Sirotkin instead.

They weren’t about to make the same mistake 12 months on, with Kubica announced by the team as their other driver for 2019 at Yas Marina on Thursday, the Pole describing his return to F1 as “one of the greatest achievements” of his life.

He finished sixth and then fourth with BMW Sauber in 2007 and 2008 and Williams must feel the talent still courses through Kubica – who stands seventh on the list of youngest drivers to score a podium in F1 (he was 21 and 278 days old when finishing third at the 2006 Italian Grand Prix).

From 2017’s fifth-place finish in the constructor’s championship, with 19 top 10 finishes recorded out of a possible 40, Stroll and Sirotkin have tasted just three top 10 finishes between them this year.

Williams have clearly missed the influence of Brazilian legend Felipe Massa who retired in 2017, and will hope Kubica’s never-say-die attitude, ability and experience will marry with Russell’s raw talent.

The Norfolk native won the 2017 GP3 Series and this year’s FIA Formula 2 Championship, while test driving for Mercedes.

Williams enjoyed back to back finishes of third in the constructors’ championship in 2014 and 2015 – their best work since successive second places with Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher in 2002 and 2003.

They were fifth in 2016 and 2017 before nosediving this term. It’s easy to come to this conclusion now, but pairing a 23-year-old Sorotkin with 20-year-old Stroll always appeared a gamble.

They have hit rock bottom, with 2018 a complete failure. The good news is they cannot plummet any lower and with Kubica spearheading the charge next year, they possess a driver who just doesn’t know how to fail.

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Robert Kubica's F1 comeback among sport's finest, alongside Petr Cech and Monica Seles

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Kubica severed part of his arm in a rally crash in 2011.

Robert Kubica will make his return to Formula One with Williams just eight years after a crash which almost cost him his right hand.

The 33-year-old suffered serious injuries in an accident in the Ronde di Andorra in 2011, but has since adapted his driving style to lead with his left.

Here, we take a look at five more sports stars who returned from serious illness or injury to reach the top.

LANCE ARMSTRONG

He did not exactly go on to cover himself in glory. But the disgraced American cyclist staged a remarkable recovery from advanced testicular cancer. Diagnosed in 1996, he was disease-free and fourth at the Vuelta a Espana two years later. The rest is unfortunate history.

ANTHONY CROLLA

The Manchester fighter’s initial bid for the WBA lightweight title had to be scrapped in January 2015 when he suffered a fractured skull trying to fend off burglars. Six months later he was back in the ring to earn a split decision draw with Darleys Perez and, in a November rematch, Crolla knocked out Perez to take the title.

Petr Cech still carries the scars of his horror clash with Stephen Hunt.

Petr Cech still carries the scars of his horror clash with Stephen Hunt.

PETR CECH

The then-Chelsea goalkeeper suffered serious head injuries in a clash with Reading’s Stephen Hunt in a Premier League game at Stamford Bridge in October 2006. Although doctors said the injury almost cost Cech his life, he was back in goal three months later, and continues to wear a protective cap to this day.

HERMANN MEIER

Austria’s skiing superstar almost lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in 2001 and his sporting career seemed certain to be over. But he marked his return to competition in January 2003 with victory in a super-G race at Kitzbuhel – and one year later he went on to reclaim his overall world title.

MONICA SELES

Seles was at the peak of her career when she was stabbed by a spectator midway through a match in 1993. After two years away from the sport, Seles made a welcome and highly successful comeback, going on to win her fourth Australian Open title in Melbourne in 1996.

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Robert Kubica returns to Formula One with Williams after eight-year absence

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Robert Kubica announced his return to F1 in Abu Dhabi ahead of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit this weekend.

Robert Kubica has completed his remarkable return to Formula One racing after being announced as a Williams driver for next season.

Kubica, who has not taken part in a grand prix for eight years following the horrific rally crash which left him seriously injured, joins Englishman George Russell at the British team in 2019.

The 33-year-old Polish driver has competed in a series of practice sessions for Williams this year and his promotion to their race team for next season was announced in Abu Dhabi, the venue of his last race back in 2010, on Thursday.

Kubica, whose right arm was partially severed in the rally crash in Italy in February 2011, hailed his return to F1 as “one of the greatest achievements” of his life, admitting the road back to the pinnacle of the sport had seemed “almost impossible”.

He said: “Firstly, I would like to thank everyone who has helped me during what was a difficult period of my life over these last few years.

Kubica severed part of his arm in a rally crash in 2011.

Kubica severed part of his arm in a rally crash in 2011.

“It has been a challenging journey to make it back to the Formula One grid, but what seemed almost impossible is now beginning to feel possible, as I am excited to be able to say that I will be on the Formula One grid in 2019.

“For sure, it has been a long road to get to this point, but as that challenge now comes to an end with this announcement, a new challenge begins working with Williams on track.

“It will not be easy, but, with hard work and dedication, both George and myself will work together to try and help the team get in better shape to move further up the grid. This year has been tough, but I have learnt a lot, and I’d like to thank (team principal) Sir Frank (Williams) and (deputy team principal) Claire (Williams) for this opportunity.

“Being back on the F1 grid next season will be one of the greatest achievements of my life and I’m sure with hard work and commitment we will be able to help motivate the team to achieve good things together. Thank you again to everyone who has supported me and believed in me.

“I will finally be back on the grid behind the wheel of an F1 car and I cannot wait to get back racing.”

Claire Williams said the team had been “immensely impressed” with Kubica and praised his “strength of character and tenacity to return”.

“During this season his commitment to the team and the work he has put in behind the scenes has been unwavering and he has become an established and much respected member of the Williams team,” she added.

“He has a level of determination that is remarkable to see and he truly embodies the Williams fighting spirit.”

Kubica’s injuries brought a dramatic halt to an F1 career that had already yielded one grand prix victory and seen him hailed as one of the finest talents on the grid.

His slow journey back to F1 began when he returned to rallying before he took part in a series of tests for his former team, Renault, last year.

Kubica then drove for Williams at last year’s post-season test in Abu Dhabi, but the British team opted to take on the Russian rookie Sergey Sirotkin ahead of the Pole.

Kubica was, however, signed to the team as a reserve driver and has been an ever-present at the races this year.

He now replaces Sirotkin and will bring much-needed experience to a team rooted to the foot of the constructors’ championship after one of the worst seasons in their history.

He is also believed to be bringing a substantial boost to Williams’ financial muscle via PKN Orlon, a major Polish oil refiner.

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