On the back of a difficult season in 2007, few could have expected Robert Kubica, Poland’s first ever Formula 1 driver, to bounce back with such success in 2008.
A national hero and arguably Poland’s most popular sportsman, Kubica has come a long way in a short time since stepping up to the plate and joining the big boys in Formula 1 racing in 2006. And thanks to a showing of unmatched consistency this year, he is undoubtedly living up to his billing as a future world champion.
After a 2008 campaign that entailed a maiden race win, seven podium finishes and the first ever pole position for the BMW Sauber team, it comes as no surprise that the rising star is eying another, more serious title challenge in 2009.
From a modest upbringing in Krakow, Kubica has transformed Formula One’s standing in Poland. His progress is followed intently by the Polish public, with millions tuning in every fortnight to watch his races. This comes in a country where prior to the pre-Kubica era, there was an evident absence of a significant motorsport tradition, with Formula One rarely screened on television.
For a while this season, it even seemed like the 24-year-old might achieve the impossible. Following the first three races of the 2008 campaign, BMW sat atop the Constructors’ Championship. Four races later, following a 1-2 finish with teammate Nick Heidfeld in Canada, Kubica became the unexpected leader of the Drivers’ Championship. What was more impressive was that this breakthrough Formula One victory came at the circuit where he suffered a horrific crash in 2007 from which, extraordinarily, he emerged with only a sprained ankle.
As the year progressed, the Pole stubbornly, yet effectively, competed for the championship against the more favoured Kimmi Raikonnen, Felipe Massa and eventual world champion, Lewis Hamilton.
Thanks to an impressively low error count on the track, both Kubica and Heidfeld were able to challenge for podium finishes at nearly every round during the 18-race season. Kubica was widely regarded as the most consistent driver in 2008, a point justified by the fact that coming into the penultimate race of the season in China he had scored points in more races than Hamilton and Massa. He also won the respect of fans and commentators alike, with former world champion Jacques Villeneuve claiming the Pole would have been the most worthy winner of the 2008 championship due to his steady showings throughout the year.
Yet, avoiding mistakes proved not enough as BMW fell off the pace towards the later stages of a fascinating Formula One season, with the team unable to match the speed of Ferrari and McLaren. Kubica thus saw his title aspirations wane before eventually dropping out of the running in China.
To add insult to injury, he eventually lost out in his bid to knock Kimmi Raikonnen off the podium in the Drivers’ Championship after a disastrous finale in Brazil. A gamble to use dry tyres saw the Pole finish out of the points and surrender his overall third place to the 2007 world champion.
BMW’s inability to match the pace of Ferrari and McLaren was an obvious source of friction between Kubica and his team, and Kubica didn’t hesitate to publicly voice his frustration over BMW’s failure to match the other teams’ development rate in the second half of the year.
Following the Brazilian Grand Prix, BMW boss Mario Theissen admitted that the team’s working relationship with their star driver was sometimes strained due to Kubica’s determination to stay in the championship hunt, and the team’s inability to match the progress of Ferrari and McLaren.
Yet, despite speculation about both of their futures, Kubica and Heidfeld have been retained for 2009, with the team publicly voicing their aspirations to give them a championship challenging car and help them battle for the title.
The Pole has already cut into his winter break to test elements of a 2009 car that holds new technical specifications as part of sweeping changes in Formula 1 next year. And few would doubt that if Kubica can find the answers to fix the mistakes of 2008, he’ll push McLaren and Ferrari even harder in 2009.