Formula One: the return of Robert Kubica

If you had any doubt Lewis Hamilton is on the verge of ending his lifelong relationship with McLaren, you only needed to look at the pictures of the team’s post race celebrations after Hamilton’s mighty win in Monza.

Notice anyone missing? Yeah, the winner, Lewis Hamilton.

There’s been talk about Lewis moving to Mercedes all season long. Look back in the Sunday Afternoon Club archive if you don’t believe we got the jump on Eddie Jordan on this story. So let’s move on. The story now is who will replace Lewis in what might still be the championship-winning McLaren.

There are three truly great drivers in F1; Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis. All three can be guaranteed to find more than a few tenths a lap, every lap. The kind of advantage it would otherwise cost a team millions of dollars to find in design and engineering, That’s why the three of them get the big bucks. For a team manager it is a relatively easy cost to justify.

McLaren then have a problem. We love Jenson Button here, of course we do. But he’s just not quite as quick as Lewis. And with Alonso and Vettel tied to Ferrari and Red Bull, McLaren is a top team faced with the possibility of starting next season without a top driver. Whether they opt for Paul Di Resta, or Nico Hulkenberg or possibly even swap for Nico Rosberg, re-unite with Kimi Raikkonen or make a pitch for Sergio Perez, it’s not a good place to be. Remarkably, it seems McLaren did not see this coming; “There is no Plan B,” admitted Martin Whitmarsh.

There are three top teams in F1 and Mercedes, which believes it now has everything in place to become a top team, except maybe a driver. Four teams, three great drivers; F1 needs another hero. Which is why we are all deeply excited about Robert Kubica’s return to competition last weekend and again this coming weekend.

Kubica’s story is familiar, sadly, to us all. A born racer, he could not resist the urge to throw a Skoda Fabia Super 2000 rally car down the first stage of the Ronde di Andorra just days before the start of the 2011 season. The injuries he suffered when the car swallowed a section of Armco beggared belief. He is lucky to be alive, truly, and he celebrated his luck by getting back in a rally car last weekend, an Impreza this time. He didn’t disappoint. It was hardly WRC stuff, but Kubica has at least proved there are no psychological wounds. He dominated, winning every stage of the Ronde di Gomitolo di Lana, coming home over a minute ahead of everyone. He goes in another local event in Italy this weekend, the Rallye San Martino di Castrozza.

But physically, has he got what it takes to get back in to F1 and reclaim his position as the fourth truly great driver? Kubica himself is saying ‘not yet, maybe 2014…’ but he wants to give it a go. Will he make it?

F1 seems largely to have given up on Kubica. At first, after the accident his team (Renault, now Lotus) made it clear there was a car ready and warmed-up for him anytime he wanted it. But then it became apparent that Kubica’s management wanted him to return in a Ferrari and the warm relationship with Renault/Lotus went extremely frosty indeed. Ferrari too has stopped talking about Kubica. Is it just the Pole’s pushy management, or do the teams know more about the likely extent of Kubica’s recovery than they are saying?

Ferrari of course doesn’t need another great driver. It will replace Massa with any of the drivers McLaren is talking to now. But F1 does. And though deep down we think we are praying for something that just can’t happen, the Sunday Afternoon Club hopes it will be Robert Kubica.

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