Monday, October 09, 2006

A Pole in a very promising position

I've talked in the past about how, from time to time, a driver comes along who makes even the most jaded and cynical of Formula 1 fans sit up and take notice. Sometimes these drivers live up to their initial promise, and sometimes they don't. Earlier this year, Nico Rosberg caught the attention of many with his impressive performance in his first Grand Prix at Bahrain, and a similarly promising qualifying drive at the far more challenging Sepang circuit a fortnight later. Since then though, while he hasn't exactly disgraced himself in the second Williams, he's not generally had anything like the kind of pace and consistency as his team mate Mark Webber. Formula One being a place of short attention spans, its not taken long for his reputation as the sport's hottest new property to be stolen from him.

I have to confess that when I heard that Jacques Villeneuve was to be replaced mid-season by Polish test driver Robert Kubica, I was more than a little baffled by Mario Thiessen's thinking. Villeneuve had enjoyed something of a renaissance in form over the course of the season and to show him the door while BMW were engaged in a battle with Toyota for 5th in the constructors championship seemed a little odd. Even if they thought that Kubica would be a good bet for the race seat in 2007, surely it would be better to let him continue in the Friday driver role until the end of the season. After all, its not difficult to make an impression during Friday free practice when the big boys are simply running systems checks and keeping one eye on preserving their engines. Anthony Davidson has looked consistently quick in Friday practice, but his one race appearance, at Malaysia in 2005, was something of a letdown.

And Kubica's pre-F1 credentials were a little hard to read. Sure, he had won the Renault World Series last year, but it seemed that the real talent was racing in its big-brother series, GP2. After all, in the grand scheme of things, who were Adrian Valles, Markus Winkelhock and Tristan Gommendy, when set alongside GP2 runners up Heikki Kovalainen, Scott Speed and Alexandre Premat? And what had Kubica really achieved before that? 5th in the F3 Euroseries? Not really the mark of a future champion. On the other hand, after a year out of F3, he looked mightily impressive at Macau at the end of last year, only narrowly missing out on the win despite driving one of the less fancied Mugen-engined cars.

All my doubts of course, merely being evidence that I wouldn't make a very good F1 team boss. There's not been quite as much fuss about Kubica as there had been about Rosberg earlier in the year, but this perhaps has more to do with F1 fans' attention being diverted by the Alonso/Schumacher title fight, rather than being any kind of judgment on Kubica himself.

In his first race, he raised a few eyebrows by not only making the top-10 shootout, but also by bumping his experienced team mate, Nick Heidfeld out in the process. He made a couple of mistakes in the tricky conditions come race day and was nowhere near equalling Heidfeld's podium, after having to stop to change a nose. Nonetheless, he would have been in the points on his debut had he not subsequently been disqualified when his car was found to be marginally underweight.

The Turkish Grand Prix was a messy and inconclusive affair for both BMW Sauber drivers, though Kubica again made the top 10 in qualifying. The Italian Grand Prix, though chiefly memorable for the announcement of Michael Schumacher's retirement, may later come to be thought of as the moment Robert Kubica really came to the world's attention. His qualifying position - 6th - intially appeared good rather than exceptional, but come the race, it mattered little, as he jumped his own team mate, among others, to run 3rd by the end of the first lap. That opening lap was no flash in the pan either - and this is where Kubica's qualifying performance began to look rather more impressive than it had first appeared - Kubica was fuelled longer than anyone else in the field bar Fisichella (who was a long way behind) and led what was only his third Grand Prix after race leaders Schumacher and Raikkonen pitted for tyres. One began to wonder what kind of times Kubica might have been capable of had the car been fuelled normally. Either way, he brought it home onto the podium, and while he may have been helped by the fact that the BMW was clearly well suited to the long drags of Monza, it was still a remarkable achievement for the newcomer.

The flyaway Far Eastern races may not have been quite so impressive in terms of results. Nonetheless, there have still been enough flashes of raw pace to suggest that if the BMW money starts to make a real difference down at Hinwil next year, then Kubica will be in a prime position to capitalise. Consider how much faster he was than Heidfeld at the end of the Japanese Grand Prix, or how far up the field he was able to get in China before a premature switch to dry tyres on a still-wet track ruined his race.

Its beginning to look as though, while we were all concentrating on the fierce battle for the GP2 championship last year, the real star might just have been in the Renault World Series all along. Unless Heikki can demonstrate otherwise, of course......

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