Paddock gossips recently inaugurated this year’s silly season by launching rumors that Renault’s Robert Kubica had inked a deal to replace seven-time champ Michael Schumacher at Mercedes next year. Mercedes denied the allegation, and Kubica was coy on the matter, so the stories gained some traction. After all, in Formula 1 rumors are generally credible until proven otherwise — never mind the fact that they’re usually proven otherwise.
But today it was announced that Kubica has in fact extended his commitment with Renault for the next two years. Kubica joined Renault this year, in effect, on a provisional basis. His previous team, BMW, had folded and its future was not yet assured by the acquisition by the team’s original founder, Peter Sauber. Renault looked to be the only reasonable game in town.
But one always had the feeling that it was up to the team to prove itself worthy to Kubica, and not the other way round. They had gone from miserable to worse during the previous two seasons, and there was little evidence up front to indicate that things might improve, especially since Renault had sold an 80% stake in the team to a private venture capital firm.
Another consideration was the departure of the Renault brain trust, i.e. Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, who received a temporary ban from the sport as a result of the Crashgate scandal. But the new management that was brought in to replace Briatore and Symonds seems to have, if anything, turned the team around. The new car is certainly quicker than last year’s iteration, and the team seems quite happy to have installed Kubica as the focal point of their 2010 development.
Kubica has admitted that he feels at home at the team, which is only natural since he’s been appointed as the team’s de facto number one, with team mate Vitaly Petrov having to settle for pay-to-play status.
Kubica’s decision makes sense. The team is acquiring new sponsors, and seems reasonably well funded. The car is getting better. And as long as the team supports Kubica’s number one status, he’ll have the kind of favored status that number two drivers in the sport have complaining about for years. One of the chief benefits of this is that the team’s engineers and designers will tend to mold the cars in development around the preferences of the number one. Certainly Michael Schumacher was a beneficiary of this at Ferrari for more than a decade.
That said, there has also been talk recently that Renault might be on the hunt for 2007 world champ Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen, it will be remembered, was ousted by Ferrari to make room for Fernando Alonso, which seemed to be a good move for all concerned, including Raikkonen, since the Finn seemed very keen to try his hand at rallying. But Kimi is known for a short attention span, and if the wins don’t come, it might well be that he’ll grow bored motoring tin tops across dusty donkey paths, and will decide that a return to Formula 1 might be irresistible.
Should Kubica be worried at this prospect? It’s hard to say which of the two would be dominant. Kimi has a natural gift that makes him as quick as anyone — when he’s motivated. But he’s not a hard worker, and when he’s away from the track he likes to play. Kubica, on the other hand, is said to live and breathe the sport, to the extent of letting it dominate all his free time. He has said in the past that he has no hobbies — or rather, that his only real hobby is Formula 1.
On a lap for lap basis, Kimi might find the edge over Kubica on occasion, but over the long stretch I suspect that the Pole would have it over the Finn hands down.