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Formula 1

‘Always behind schedule’: Kubica’s sudden F1 return in detail

by Edd Straw
9 min read

Robert Kubica was a late arrival to Zandvoort, having been on sponsor duty with Orlen in Warsaw in the build-up to the Dutch Grand Prix. So when he was woken up by a ringing phone on what he expected to be a “quite boring Saturday”, his first reflex was not to assume he was about to be plunged into his first Formula 1 qualifying session since 2019 that afternoon. Instead, he feared he had tested positive for COVID-19.

But Kubica, who missed that call to his hotel room phone in his drowsy state, soon learned that it was Alfa Romeo race driver Kimi Raikkonen who had tested positive. At that point, as he put it, his day became “quite hectic”.

His busy Saturday climaxed in Q1, putting an Alfa Romeo C41 that he had only completed 66 laps in prior to today in FP1 outings in Spain, Styria and Hungary, 18th on the grid. While that was 1.251s slower than team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi, considering Kubica had missed Friday’s running and lacked the vast experience of the 2021 cars of his 19 races, he performed well after taking what he described as a safe approach.

Robert Kubica Alfa Romeo George Russell Williams F1

“You are prepared because it’s written in your contract and you know very well your position,” said Kubica after qualifying. “But it’s difficult to say you are prepared when you are jumping in the car every three or four months.

“Especially this year, I struggled more with the car. Last year, I had much more confidence, I was able to not drive for three months, jump in and within a couple of laps I was on the pace – even surprisingly well on the pace. But this year a combination of tyres [and] the car [makes it harder]. It’s also quite windy so you have to learn the track, the grip was coming and going. It is not an easy track.

“If it would be in Bahrain, everything would be much more simple. But we are in Zandvoort and I am quite happy. The reality is that for the third time I’m back on the F1 grid.”


Robert Kubica Alfa Romeo F1 Dutch GP Zandvoort

Unsurprisingly, Kubica was the first to head out at the start of FP3, queuing at the pit exit for around 40 seconds to wait for the green flag. After his first two push laps to acclimatise on his soft-compound Pirellis, setting a 1m15.217s lap on the second of those, he initially attempted a third consecutive push lap before aborting out of Turn 3.

At that point, he was told that more speed in the Turn 7/8 and the final banked corner was the key, which he improved with his next pair of push laps, shaving a fraction off his laptime.

He then had one more cooldown lap before having another push lap and despite carrying a little too much speed into the banked Turn 3 left-hander and being slightly hindered by traffic at Turn 7, he improved his time to 1m15.007s.

After a fast inlap, he returned to the pits. This proved to be an extended stay given practice was interrupted by a red flag for Carlos Sainz’s Turn 3 shunt, but given Kubica was between runs it was less disruptive than it might have been.

Kubica then had a quick five-lap run with two push laps on the same set of softs, making big improvements and setting a 1m13.633s lap on his second of them.

Robert Kubica Alfa Romeo F1 Dutch GP Zandvoort

With 18 minutes remaining, he headed out on fresh softs but having set his personal best first-sector time (he did improve on this later) had to back off because of a yellow flag caused by Lando Norris. Given he was well into the lap, he opted to use not just the rest of the lap but the next one to recharge the battery, meaning he was able to dive into the pits in between them for a “mini-launch” practice start from his pit box.

He then took more than a second off his best time on his first completed flier on that set of tyres, then found another four tenths on his second to set his best lap of 1m12.162s on his 20th lap of the session.

This lap impressed the team as aside from losing time under braking for Turn 1, a corner where if he attacked the braking zone too much and struggled to get the nose in, and having a low minimum speed in Turn 3, race engineer Julien Simon-Chautemps said the “rest of the lap is flat to Antonio [Giovinazzi]”.

Robert Kubica Alfa Romeo F1 Dutch GP Zandvoort

Although he attempted one more push lap, he ran wide at Turn 1 and was four-tenths off his best. He then made his way back to the pits (rapidly, because time was running out) to be loaded up with fuel.

Kubica was able to complete two laps on high fuel, which were almost two seconds slower than his best, before heading to the grid for his practice start. This went very well, avoiding either bogging down or wheelspin.

In the final reckoning, the split times confirmed where Kubica was struggling. He gave away 0.466s to Giovinazzi in the first sector thanks to his Turn 1 struggles and the difficulty in carrying the speed into Turn 3 and getting the car rotated, something that did improve as the session progressed. In sector two, he was within a tenth of Giovinazzi, and sector three only two-tenths off.


It was obvious that this was Kubica’s first F1 qualifying session since the 2019 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Less obvious was that it was his “real qualifying” session of any kind since the DTM finale last November.

Le Mans 24 Hours WRT

While he’s raced in the European Le Mans Series for the WRT team, and came agonisingly close to LMP2 victory at Le Mans before a last-lap throttle sensor problem, he’s always been charged with the setup and race-run work.

So that fresh-tyre bite and the need for a single, precise lap on the limit is not a familiar feeling for the Pole in 2021.

Given reaching Q2 was desperately unlikely (he was 0.812s off 15th in Q1), Kubica and Alfa committed to cramming in three runs, each with a set of fresh softs.

Robert Kubica Alfa Romeo F1 Dutch GP Zandvoort

His first lap was just over half-a-second slower than his best FP3 time, with a dash of rear instability mid-corner in Turn 1 meaning he was always behind the eight-ball. It was effectively a sighter lap.

He was called to the weighbridge after that run and after a struggle to get the car fired up again using the MGU-K, he was back to the pits and happy to head back out without any change to the front wing flap angle.

His second lap was much stronger, a 1m11.555s. This temporarily elevated him from the dropzone, although this was largely as he was out of phase with most of those around him and already on his second set of rubber. Over the radio, he was told that not keeping the minimum speed high enough in Turn 3 was costing him a couple of tenths. But this was after Kubica switched a wider line on the first part of the corner, rounding it off. He used that technique to good effect on his final run.

Having asked to go “one step up” on front wing for the final run, he did struggle a little with traffic on the outlap, which had an impact on tyre temperature. This led to him snatching the inside-front in the Turn 13 left-hander, which is effectively the final corner given the flat-out blast through the Turn 14 banking.

That lack of tyre temperature meant that he struggled in the first sector, which was 0.130s off that of his second run. Although he improved to 1m11.301s to secure a creditable 18th place, he was disappointed. Had he hooked it up, a high-1m10s lap seemed eminently possible.

Robert Kubica Alfa Romeo F1 Dutch GP Zandvoort

“The last run was a real shame because I really felt that I could improve a lot and was looking forward,” said Kubica when asked by The Race about his performance. “But then I had a lot of traffic on the outlap at a very slow pace.

“I arrived at the last corner [Turn 13] opening the lap, I locked the fronts and then I had snap oversteer on exit. Then I said, “OK, now I don’t know what will happen into the first corner’, so I took it safe. The grip was not there but if you try to force the car, you switch the tyres on faster but if you stay on the defensive, it takes four or five corners. I didn’t know how quickly they would work.

“I was always running behind schedule, to be honest. These things you cannot learn from the book, or find them at the supermarket otherwise this morning I would buy quite a lot of knowledge!

“But it’s part of the game. I think all in all – wind, track, the conditions we have been in and the safe approach – it has been a smooth Saturday, which in my position is probably the most important thing.”

It certainly was smooth, as on a day when three drivers hit the wall, Kubica kept it on the island and made good progress.

Nicholas Latifi Williams F1 crash Dutch GP Zandvoort

Turns 1-3 were the main weakness, but even there he made good gains. And as Kubica himself pointed out, given the regular race drivers took time to get on top of the Turn 3 banking, with his lack of experience it was an even bigger challenge. And this on a day when he only had 14 push laps (plus a push inlap) to learn.

“Turn 1, I was quite impressed with because there is a lot of headwind and in the last lap of my free practice I really braked well – like Antonio – but even though I was thinking I was braking late I was braking too early,” said Kubica when asked by The Race about the early corners. “Then, in qualifying when you have to nail the first corner when you don’t know the grip and also with the brakes, you don’t want to put it into the gravel.

“Turn 3 was always a big challenge in the morning. Mainly, I lost laptime in the morning there, but in qualifying I did improve a bit.

“It’s not often you have the opportunity to drive on such a banked corner and when you know how the car is handling, this is a new thing – even Kimi was struggling in Turns 2 and 3.

“For me, the approach was a correct one. Of course, I could do much better, but with the risks you have to take in qualifying with those cars, some drivers make mistakes.

“I’m not stupid and know where my place is – and that’s where it is.”

Robert Kubica Alfa Romeo F1 Dutch GP Zandvoort

Kubica’s place for tomorrow will be 18th on the grid as a result of his efforts. Considering the forces against him, it was an accomplished performance that hinted it could have been even better had he had the tyre temperature right on the last lap.

When Kubica made his first F1 comeback in 2019, he complained that he never really raced given how poor the car was. So what chances of him having a genuine race in F1, perhaps for the first time since 2010, on Sunday?

“Let’s see,” he said. “It will not be easy but let’s see.”

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