Robert Kubica suffered multiple injuries in a high-speed crash today while competing in a rally event in Italy. Only three days after having completed his testing duties for the Renault F1 team in Valencia, Spain, Kubica was driving a Super 2000 Skoda Fabia in the Ronde di Andora rally, near the village of Testico in Italy when the incident occurred.
According to a statement released by Kubica’s Renault F1 team, the Polish driver sustained “multiple fractures to his right arm, leg and hand.” Apparently, Kubica was trapped in the wrecked car for nearly an hour, while special equipment was being brought to the crash site to extract him from the vehicle. Kubica’s co-driver Jakub Gerber walked away from the accident unscathed.
Kubica was air-lifted to the Santa Corona Hospital in Pietra Ligure, where he later underwent surgery. Surgeons apparently gave special attention to Kubica’s hand, in an effort to maintain blood supply integrity. Although, initially, there were unsubstantiated reports that Kubica was in danger of losing the hand, this was apparently an exaggeration. What is not known yet, however, is how quickly and how well the hand will recover.
The Formula 1 season proper begins on March 11, with the first free practice sessions in Bahrain. It looks almost certain that Kubica will be forced to sit out that race weekend, not to mention the remainder of the pre-season tests leading up to that venue. This places Renault in a bind. Their current driver line-up, in addition to Kubica, includes two relatively inexperienced drivers, Vitaly Petrov (the team’s number two), and Bruno Senna (the reserve driver).
Each of these drivers has only a single rookie season under his belt. This means that Renault will be forced to rely solely on their technical input in the testing leading up to Bahrain, as well as their racing skills once the red lights go out for the first time this year on Sunday, March 13.
Clearly, this is not how Renault had hoped to begin their new season. This year’s car looks to be a significant step over last year’s, and the team will want an experienced development driver, such as Kubica, to help sort out the glitches leading up to the season opener. Neither Petrov nor Senna could be expected to fill the gap, nor has either one of these drivers been a stand-out under race conditions.
Of course, Kubica’s health and well-being take precedence over mere sporting issues. That said, however, the team must consider what their best options are for the opening races of the season. If Kubica’s hand has been badly fractured, as well as his arm and leg, it could be months before he’s completely fit. In fact, depending on the rate and extent of his recovery, he might be sidelined for much of the year.
Should that be the case, the team would almost certainly be forced to hire another driver, at least on an interim basis, rather than relying on the respective talents of Petrov and Senna. If not, the team would be saddled with, essentially, a pair of middling number two drivers, who very likely would not be able to extract 100% of the car’s potential on a regular basis. Kubica’s former team mate, Nick Heidfeld, who was who was essentially used as a temp driver last year by Sauber, would be a likely choice for a stand-in. He is currently unemployed. Another option might be Tonio Liuzzi, who was recently dumped by Force India.
My own favorite choice would be Nico Hulkenberg. I thought he might have been a good choice to replace Petrov on a full-time basis, actually. The Hulk, however, has been retained by Force India as their current reserve pilot (which means that he’ll be on the payroll for the next 12 months to do nothing), so that would be highly unlikely. And realistically speaking, the Hulk has the same level of F1 race experience as Petrov and Senna, so swapping one relative newbie for another wouldn’t necessarily make much sense on paper.
The whole episode does call into question Renault’s current driver strategy, however. When Michael Schumacher broke his leg in a crash in 1999, Ferrari at least had an experienced number two to fall back on: Eddie Irvine. The colorful Irishman was able to win races that year, and eventually was runner up in the title chase.
It must also be said that Ferrari, rather than use their primary tester Luca Badoer to fill in for Schumi, hired another experienced pilot, Mika Salo, as a fill in. Salo validated the Scuderia’s strategy by being immediately quick. He would have won at Monza that year, had the team not instructed him to move over for Irvine.
In fact, this incident is really a good illustration of how useless the reserve driver position is in the first place. When in-season testing was allowed, test drivers served a definite function: testing the car. If they were good enough, they might be asked to step in on a reserve basis, as well. If not, the team could hire a different driver on a temp basis, as Ferrari did with Salo.
A reserve driver, on the other hand, serves only one purpose: to step in for primary driver who’s been sidelined with injury or illness. But what sort of a driver is willing to be kept inactive for the entire season, just waiting to be called up for duty? Is it the sort of driver who might be good enough to fill in for a number one driver, when needed?
Two examples come to mind: First, Nico Hulkenberg, who has taken a reserve slot at Force India because he has no better options. He’s a known quantity, and if the team’s new number two, Paul di Resta, doesn’t pan out, the team could easily draft the Hulk to replace him. In a good car, he would be competitive. He held his own against Rubens Barrichello during the latter half of 2010, and even won a pole.
The other example is Giancarlo Fisichella. Fisico had pretty much reached the sunset of his active career when he was at Force India in 2009. However, he jumped at the chance to fill in for an injured Felipe Massa at Ferrari that year. He remained with the team in the reserve slot in 2010, but apparently no longer has that status this year. He did appear at the team’s annual holiday ski event, wearing a Ferrari ski jacket, but that hardly seems like a positive career development. In a sense, Fisico is the ideal reservist: not good enough to warrant a regular ride, but experienced enough to fill in on short notice. But would he be competitive? In 2009, the answer was…not exactly.
Of course, another problem with the current system is that without in-season testing, the reserve drivers aren’t able to keep in practice, on both physical and technical levels. Perhaps Renault’s dilemma this year will bring a new focus to this problem.
Another issue that is likely to be raised is driver moonlighting. Some teams strictly forbid their drivers from taking part in any extracurricular activities that involve a checkered flag. McLaren is fairly rigid about this, which is apparently one of the reasons that Kimi Raikkonen left that team. (The Kimster, like Robert Kubica, is a rally enthusiast, and is continuing with his WRC venture this season.)
An example of a driver skirting the rules laid out by the Woking squad’s lawyers: Former McLaren pilot Juan Pablo Montoya injured his shoulder in 2005, which caused him to miss two races that year. Montoya maintained that he’d injured it playing tennis, but insiders insisted he’d hurt himself in a motorcycle accident. There likely would have been repercussions with the the top brass at Woking if a motorcycle mishap had been given out as the real cause, so apparently Montoya suggested that he’d been hit by a tennis ball that was traveling at 200 mph, which sent him flying into a tennis court crash barrier…or something like that. The flies on the wall at Woking must’ve been amused.
It’s safe to assume that Montoya’s contract didn’t prohibit him from playing tennis, although the McLaren legal team might have given that a second thought when it came time to renegotiate. Sadly, that time never came, as Montoya was fired by the team towards the end of 2006.