The 2018 F1 driver market: Renault’s Kubica question

2018 F1 season

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Robert Kubica’s return to the wheel of a current specification Formula One car was something many people never thought would happen.

The graveness of the injuries he suffered in his 2011 crash on the Ronda di Andora rally made a return to racing at the top flight unthinkable for a long time.

Kubica’s path back to an F1 cockpit has taken him through rallying, GT racing and back into single-seaters. Finally, six and a half years on from his last F1 test, Kubica completed more than two race distances in a single day at the wheel of a current-specification Renault RS17.

“After this test, we will carefully analyse the collected information to determine in what conditions it would be possible for Robert to return to competition in the upcoming years,” said Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul before Kubica took to the track. And the motor sport world waits to see if the incredible is going to happen.

The affection for Kubica among his rivals, the F1 community and the fans – thousands of which sat at a baking hot Hungaroring to watch his return – is obvious. But it’s equally clear that with a gruelling 21 races scheduled on the 2018 F1 calendar, there is a clear downside to putting him back in a grand prix car if he isn’t ready.

Can he still drive competitively? Can he still drive as well as he did at his peak? Could he be an even better driver – a possibility Kubica has hinted at.

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then Renault represents an excellent opportunity for Kubica to make it happen. The team’s second driver Jolyon Palmer has endured a dreadful second season so far. Nico Hulkenberg has out-qualified him at every race, usually by more than seven-tenths of a second, and has scored all of the team’s points.

Abiteboul has insisted Palmer will still be in the car in the next race at Spa. But if Kubica is considered a viable option for 2018, the temptation to get him in the car before the end of the season will be strong, even if it means buying Palmer out of his contract.

Without knowing what Renault made of Kubica’s test it’s impossible to judge how realistic a comeback is. The fact he got to drive one of the team’s very few 2017 car test days is a persuasive sign that he’s a serious contender.

If not Kubica, then who?

Kubica replaced Alonso at Renault at the end of 2009
A return may yet prove impossible, however. Alternatively, a comeback-ready Kubica would be of interest to more than just Renault. All the other teams had the ability to monitor his progress at the Hungaroring and could come knocking if they believe he’s up to a comeback. If Ferrari are looking for a replacement for Kimi Raikkonen who’s already a proven race-winner, Kubica could be just the ticket.

Renault have a long list of potential alternatives to Kubica and would be an attractive move for almost any midfield driver. They have manufacturer backing and have made the most progress of any team so far this year.

Unsurprisingly Fernando Alonso’s management team has been in touch about a potential return. This could leave Renault with a very tough choice between the fiercely competitive two-times champion and a driver of Kubica’s ability.

Other options include Carlos Sainz Jnr, who has made a strong case for himself at Toro Rosso. Red Bull’s Christian Horner may have been quick to point out Sainz has a Toro Rosso contract for next season, but soon afterwards he conceded that could change hands for the right price.

Sergio Perez might even like the idea of rejoining his old team mate as his new one, Esteban Ocon, has already started to become a bit of a handful at Force India. It could be wise for Perez to move now before his Ocon’s rising stock begins to diminish his.

Renault has expanded its junior programme since its return to F1 but they haven’t shown serious commitment towards any of their top names. The value of the Russian market to Renault would make Sergey Sirotkin an obvious candidate, but he doesn’t have a regular race drive this year and has only done three practice sessions in the RS17.

Oliver Rowland, who won the last Formula Renault 3.5 championship before Renault pulled its backing, hasn’t had a test for them in a current car yet. Nicolas Latifi has, but Rowland has consistently out-performed his DAMS team mate in the junior categories.

Unless an opening appears at one of the top three teams, which seems unlikely, Renault’s second seat will be one of the most coveted for 2018. They won’t have a shortage of options if Kubica isn’t able to fill it.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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45 comments on “The 2018 F1 driver market: Renault’s Kubica question”

  1. Kubica needs to do some FP1 sessions in place of Palmer first. I reckon logically, they should pick Sainz, as he will get points, although he is less consistent than Alonso, but he has age on his side, and no one that impressive is coming through Renault’s young driver programme.

  2. Not sure of Kubica return to F1!

  3. I’m a fan of Kubica however to beat the same drum that many others have already, I would like to see new young’uns coming through the ranks. These young drives come with no big rep on the F1 circuit to keep and in my view add that element of surprise and healthy competition. Take Verstappen when he came into the forefront, the media and drivers kept and still keep “complaining” about his driving style and whilst this is on the edge at times it means the rest of the pack are up’ing their game in terms of awareness and race craft and thus making the viewing for fans more exciting.

    Just my opinion. :-)

    1. They also specialize in crashing which can be very exciting. Especially for the team owners.

  4. I think Kubica will get a couple fp1 outings soon (hopefully Spa and Monza). Renault have come with him this far….
    first time out in 6.5 years, Kubica impressively did a very consistent 1min 21 second run for 15 laps in a row in the hungary test.. great consistent race pace. Renault will know he is quick but it seems they are will to let Palmer run his full course of his contract.
    Kubica will cost nothing to the team in contract terms, which is a negative compared to the 6 million Palmer brings, but cheaper than Alonso or Sainz, and likely just as fast, the points at the end of the championship bought in by Kubica next to Hulkenburg will outweigh Palmer’s money in prize money.
    I think Kubica is a better pick than a young driver.. in the same way Hamilton and Alonso are. look at the current young drivers next to their old teammates like Massa, Alonso, Hulkenburg. Kubica has a good 5-6 years in him still if we only go by age.

    1. Renault will have performance expectations in their contract with Palmer. If they are saying he will race at Spa then that may be because that will be his last chance to have met those performance expectations. If he doesn’t “have a trick up his sleeve” and Renault do decide there is “greener pasture on the other side of the fence” then really their Reserve driver, Sergey Sirotkin, is the one who should be given first chance to prove he is a worthy replacement.
      I have to admit the Reserve drivers that have run this year haven’t done even an “average job”. Only one of them completed a race, so one can’t be surprised that a driver who isn’t sitting on the Reserve bench can get a foot in the door.

      1. Playing devil’s advocate here, perhaps the performance clause is on Renault’s side? Palmer is a customer of Renault by virtue of buying the drive. He certainly didn’t get his money’s worth in his home race. It may be tricky as Renault can’t fire him for under-performance, just maybe invite him to leave with more cash than he started with.

  5. Let teams have a 3rd car, with it being purely optional as it won’t qualify for Constructors Championship Points. Could potentially be a great way of bringing in drivers from other motorsport championships, much like Alonso at the Indy 500.

    1. There aren’t many outside of F1 who could run in a third car though, isn’t the list of eligible super-license drivers fairly short and guessing not many of them bring enough sponsor eyes/cash to provide that seat time.

    2. It would cost too much money for the majority of teams, and the teams that can afford it will still be able to get valuable information from a 3rd car, resulting in them pulling even further away from the rest of the field.

      1. 3rd car would mean the whole formula would have to change to make it cost effective down to the midfield..F1 has to be the best cars and best drivers in motorsport..hope it doesnt happen

    3. I don’t like the idea of a driver and the team that supports him in the garage not being rewarded for their work. If some teams do want to run a third car then I’d much prefer teams use the average of the points their drivers get as the means to determining the outcome of the Constructors’ Championship than to have a car that is influencing the outcome of a race not recognised in the results. For example, say Raikkonen was the third Ferrari driver who’s place in the race wasn’t mentioned in the results, then the result of the Hungarian GP would show Vettel, Bottas, Hamilton. Raikkonen’s contribution, which was hindering both Bottas’ and Hamilton’s attempts to overtake Vettel driving a car with a supposedly out of spec steering system, would be overlooked when people look only at the race results without reading a summary of the race. They’d not realise a driver had finished ahead of Bottas and Hamilton, and had influenced the outcome of the race. Only by including that driver’s name in the race results are people able to appreciate that Ferrari got a One – Two finish.
      One serious flaw with this approach is one of the three drivers would inevitable drag a team’s results down compared to a team that only runs two cars.

  6. Something about this entire Renault manufacturer outfit fails to inspire confidence. I mean look at how Mercedes came back in to the sport, Schumacher, Rosberg, Lauda, Brawn big names, big aspirations. They looked and acted like a constructor champion years before they became one.

    I think it’s flakey characters like Abiteboul and Palmer and silly statements to the press like ‘We may not be able to give Alonso wins’ or ‘We may retain Palmer’ – someone like Prost should be somewhere in the team management as a figurehead and 2 strong drivers will go a long way to attracting sponsors and talent in my opinion.

    1. And I know Prost is involved with Renault in Formula E, probably because his son is there but they would do well to leverage that affiliation in F1, the sport that made his legend!

      1. @offdutyrockstar, Prost did try turning his hand to managing a team in the past with Prost Grand Prix, which wasn’t a great success – so I wouldn’t necessarily say that it would be a good thing for him to get involved in the management of the team.

    2. I agree – they’re certainly not filling me with confidence that they’ll be up with the big boys any time soon.

      Re: Mercedes, they re-appeared in 2010 having just won the title as Brawn GP, so they were bound to have a certain amount of “swagger” about them. But I take your point… bringing in Schumacher and Lauda etc. was a big signal of intent. Renault on the other hand have the ex-boss of the failed Caterham team and a lead driver yet to stand on a Formula One podium.

    3. Well said. I don’t what is Renault’s goal but it looks they are pretty happy to stay at the bottom as long as there is no problem with cash flow.

  7. I won’t believe that Kubica will return until he does. My heart would love for him to return, but my head says otherwise.

    Realistically, will he be the same driver as before? I’d guess not. Are there better options available than an 80-90% Robert Kubica? Yes, unfortunately I think there are (Sainz/Perez to name but two).

    I’m sure he could do a solid (maybe even excellent) job, but if I was in charge of Renault, I’d see the only way to give him a 2018 contract would be to try him out ASAP in 2017 (sorry Jolyon Palmer…).

    Picture the scene; Kubica is confirmed for 2018, but mid-February breaks his arm again. Horrible, but not altogether unlikely? All the very best drivers are signed up, leaving Renault to field a ‘best of the rest’ option for the year…

    While I hate to say it; to me, the risk still out-weighs the reward.

    Either try him out in a race now, or don’t sign him.

    1. @ben-n my turn to agree with you and spot on. Initially I was very excited by the news but seeing the pictures of his arm I think the risk of injury is unfortunately a hell of a gamble.

      I think it would be great to see Vergne in the car, i’ve always felt a bit sorry for how he was overlooked in favour of Ricciardo when both were actually very evenly matched at Torro Rosso.

    2. I think there is no question about his fitness. Whether he is the same driver as in 2011 still remains to be seen.

    3. Kubica says he is a better driver than 6 years ago and i believe in him, he is the only one that knows and said he would only return to f1 if he is 100% able to do the job, he is a man of his word, he rejected testing offers in f1 over last few years because he knew he couldnt do the job at 100% previous. Now he is ready.

  8. I don’t get people clamouring for Robert to do “FP 1”. What would be the advantage for the team and Robert? I don’t understand how that would change or improve his situation in the slightest. He’s already proven he can drive a race distance, so are you saying that driving around for an hour on a Friday is somehow beneficial to him, or is the hate for Jolyon that strong you want to see him out of the car at every opportunity?

    1. @baron I agree, FP1 is no different to the test days he’s just done, except the car would probably break down like it has done for Sirotkin on several occasions. If they want to do a proper test of his race readiness then they have to put him in the car for a whole weekend.

    2. @baron I can’t speak for all the people but personally I would like to be able to compare Kubica’s and Hulk’s FP time..

      1. Yeah on the one hand sure he has put on quite the mileage in testing last week, but a FP1 for example would allow observation in terms of advancing the car throughout a session with all the other cars there and the other Renault for comparison purposes in a ‘real world’ if you will, setting. Not that I think his capabilities are in doubt, and all car time for him can only help, if indeed he is being looked at for a return.

  9. Peppermint-Lemon (@)
    14th August 2017, 17:14

    I don’t get the negativity surrounding Kubica returning from a minority.

    He is already showing saigns of being a better prospect than the current drivers – going by long run pace compared to current race team drivers laptimes rom the race

    If his arm was to prove troublesome or dangerous dont you think that Robert/The Team would have identified this way before he completed two race distances in one day duering the test?!

    As for other younger drivers coming through…until the ecnonomics within the sport are corrected…then forget many non-paying younger drivers coming through any time soon.

    By comparison…Robert is being considered out of sheer raw ability/speed…he has no budget!

  10. Sirotkin is out of the question.
    Russia is under sanctions. Liberty media is breaking EU & US law by having a race in Russia.

    1. Michael Brown (@)
      14th August 2017, 18:08

      How so? And why is Kyvat in F1?

    2. Wee Jock Poo-Pong McPlop
      14th August 2017, 23:37

      I think you should educate yourself on what “sanctions” means, and what it doesn’t mean.

    3. As far as I know F1 cars aren’t included in any embargo from the EU to Russia. Can you be more specific?

  11. Gentlemen, it’s really nice that you care so much for Robert and Renault, expressing your doubts about his arm, fitness level, bloating a risk Renault takes on their shoulders and so on.
    Neither him nor Renault say that it’s all easy but they are pretty open that there’s a very good chance that he can make a comeback. Nick Chester from Renault has said Kubica already passed all fitness tests (press conference prior Hungarian GP) and there were many of them, Abiteboul sees no obvious roadblocks, Permane has never doubted that he has a speed. Rosberg’s physio says that some younger drivers had more problems with fitness in Hungary than him. Kubica himself judged his chances 80-90% (back then after first Valencia test). Are we pretend that we are wiser than these who are close to Robert?

    Regarding his abilities, persons like Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel has long time ago given his opinion about him. Again, are we wiser than them?
    Regarding results – he has 12 F1 podium finishes under his belt, scored for two different teams, neither of them had winning-chamionship potential car (especially Lotus-Renault 2010 and BMW 2009). With all respect, how many podiums has Hulk, Perez, Grosjean? The other ‘better scorers’ including drivers of current top three teams + MAS, ALO have had opprtunity to drive a car with winning-championship potential. Let’s be factual.

    Yes, we can state it openly – from point of view of us mere mortals Robert Kubica is a physically-disabled person. He could have rested on his laurels six years ago after accident, watching races from his couch, taking benefits and cursing his fate. Instead he has always remained professional racer, keeping on his game by taking part in variuos racing series, and always having F1-level mentality as we can see from his press conference after Hungary test.

    Isn’t it like this, that we have a difficulty to accept that some man with only one fully operational hand has never lost hope and preservance and is about to climb back the very high mountain, whereas we, with two fully functional hands have never even had a courage to give it a try? Food for thought.

    1. Very well said. To be honest I personally am sure that we will see Robert with a drive for 2018. It will probably be a one year contract that will determine whether he is capable of reproducing some of those high performance drives from his F1 past in a current generation car. Kubica to Ferrari that would be HUGE and sensational news!- but Roberts return is already happening. The only question is how much of a shock news will it be for us? Will it be a lead driver role in a top team? Midfield? or he will be involved in some more testing?

    2. karban, the thing is, most of those flattering comments are based on how Kubica was performing seven or eight years ago, if not more. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that some of Alonso’s comments did exaggerate Kubica’s performance (such as claiming he was more successful in junior series than was actually the case) – I would therefore take the comments that those drivers have made about Kubica with caution.

    3. I think the problem is the the percentages between a top driver and a good driver are really small. What the equates to is if Kubica lost even 1-2% of his speed that is enough to take him out the “top” group – and we will only ever know once he has been through a few Quali/Races. How many driver have come back without losing that “edge”?

  12. “even if it means buying Palmer out of his contract”

    It would be surprising if Renault signed Palmer without any “performance-related clauses” bearing in mind that he was offered a contract only after Kevin Magnussen turned down an offer to stay with with the team. Also, it’s hard to imagine that what Palmer has achieved this season would fulfill any such clause, hence I am not so sure it would cost Renault anything to terminate his contract, poor sod.

  13. Does Kubica have a special designed steering wheel or how will he handle all buttons, settings etc.?
    Pushing buttons in specific orders to change settings during a race seems hard to do with 2 hands, must be impossible with just his left hand.

    1. No is no special steering wheel for Kubica. All changes are part of standard driver’s preference, although, because of his limitations there is no other driver with such a specific arrangement of controls.

    2. He has TWO hands. For gods sake people are thinking of kubica as a one handed driver, bu his right hand works, just less than left hand! In hungary, the only steering wheel change for him was to paddle shift up and down gears with left hand. Kubica can infact up shift with right hand (he used the handbrake in wrc with right hand) but the paddle change is a simple and legal change to help compensate. He has stated there is no problem with operating an f1 car, but i guess some race fans will only believe it after he does a complete f1 race weekend.

  14. However much I want Kubica at Renault, Perez is a better choice all round for them, but is likely still waiting for the (probable IMO) Ferrari call for 2019.

    But it makes no sense for the team to save or go with pay drivers. It was a huge mistake both in the championship and for the brand.

    Experience for solid points scoring (yeah I know Ocon has been great here but how many of him), so Kubica looks the obvious choice. There’s even talk he’ll drive for free in 2018, so it’s really a no-brainer IMO.

  15. If Palmer continues to underperform i’d like to see Kubica get a 5 race trial to close out the season. Especially if Palmer is still scoreless…what would Renault have to lose?

    We’d get the feel good story we all want. He’d have a quality teammate to match up with. RK would race at 3 tracks he’s been to (JPN/BRZ/ABU) and 2 he hasn’t (US/MEX). Plus it would greatly help Renault (and RK) figure out their 2018 plans depending on how he does.

    I think everyone (RK, Renault, the fans) wins…well, everyone but Palmer…

    1. Probably a few million…..

  16. I hope they give him a solid chance. We need good F1 drivers not good bumper car drivers. I think you call them dodgems?

  17. Kubica is a living legend. If not for his accident, he would be on his way to championships sooner than later. He has come a long way back and prove with recent tests that he’s still to be reckoned with. His comeback is not just a benefit to given team, but to F1 sport as a whole. If Renault will not take a chance at Kubica, don’t be surprised if Ferrari or another team does!!!

    1. Kenny Bräck is on par with that as well.äck

      Made his comeback 2 years later and took pole in qualifying. He retired in the race and that was also the end of his career, guess he wanted to prove himself that he still got it.

  18. If Ferrari are looking for a replacement for Kimi Raikkonen who’s already a proven race-winner, Kubica could be just the ticket.

    – oooooooooohw, this makes the options for next season oh so tantilisingly intersting. and what if Kyvat gets his Toro Roso seat taken off him (like he should) – young drivers, stay tuned ;)

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