All about the passion
FEBRUARY 9, 2011
It took no longer than an hour, maybe less. Once the terrible news of Robert Kubica's accident had been digested, Twitter began to ask why Renault should allow their Number 1 driver to go rallying just as the F1 season is about to start. It's true that critical voices were in the minority but they did highlight the predicament created by Kubica's crash during a small event in northern Italy.
The extreme ends of the argument are these: Kubica is a free spirit who adores driving fast and should be allowed to follow his passion for rallying (rare among F1 drivers) since this helps make him what he is; Renault are totally committed to building their team and car around Kubica and it was self-centred and irresponsible of him to face unnecessary risks.
Personally, I take the former view. It is, I admit, a selfish one. Apart from finding rallying addictive to the point where I co-drive as often as possible, I much admire the fact that drivers - in any branch of the sport - relish running their lives at the edge. That's why they do what they do and that's why I enjoy watching and writing about it.
The question of risk immediately brings to mind Patrick Depailler, a thoroughly engaging Frenchman who, when questioned by his manager about finally getting his chaotic finances into shape, shrugged his shoulders, lit another Gitanes (untipped, of course) and said: "No, no. The future is for other people."
The impression that Patrick had a death wish could not be further from the truth. He loved life but could accept the inevitably that things can sometimes go wrong. Depailler made his F1 debut during a one-off drive in a third Tyrrell (you could do that sort of thing in 1972) in the French Grand Prix. Ken Tyrrell was impressed enough to offer the same for the final two races of 1973 in Canada and the United States. Ten days before this chance of a life-time, Depailler fell off his trials bike and broke a leg. Despite such a massive opportunity, there was no way Patrick was going to spend the preceding days sitting at home reading a book.
Same thing happened in 1979, when he switched from Tyrrell to Ligier. By the end of May, having scored podiums and won the Spanish Grand Prix, Depailler was equal third in the championship. Then he went and broke both his legs when his hang-glider smashed into a cliff-face.
The final irony came just over a year later when the suspension broke on his Alfa Romeo F1 car and pitched him into the barrier at Hockenheim's flat-out Ostkurve. It was a test session and the catch-fencing, due to be in position for the forth-coming German Grand Prix, was neatly rolled up - behind the barrier. Patrick didn't stand a chance.
Like Depailler, Kubica adores being a racing driver. I got to witness this at first hand in 2008 when he took me for a lap of Hockenheim in a hot BMW M3. Slightest curve in the road and we were sideways, often at 130mph plus. For Robert this was fun; a diversion from the serious stuff that lay ahead that weekend.
I was recording - or attempting to - a running commentary for BBC Radio but I could barely get the words out fast enough as I tried to relay the total thrill of being with someone completely at one with the car. In the end he was chuckling as much as I was grinning inanely. The only thing we had in common was a love of speed. I could see straight away why he would enjoy the unique challenge of rallying.
By mentioning Depailler, I'm running the risk of being branded old-fashioned and out of touch with the hard-nosed and cynical commercial imperatives of sport today. But that is to miss the point completely.
Driving on the limit is what Kubica does and, we fervently hope, will continue to do when his lengthy recovery is complete. Make no mistake; he will recover. When he badly broke an arm as a passenger in a road car accident in early 2003, he trained between five and six hours each day simply to get back in cockpit. On his return, with a plastic brace and 18 titanium bolts in his arm, Kubica won first time out in a F3 car. He had thought of nothing else.
But time moves on and circumstances have changed massively for Kubica. So, should he have been driving a rally car last weekend? I'll leave the answer to Renault's team principal, Eric Boullier, a man who clearly understands a racer's mentality and the fundamentals of his sport.
When asked by France's 'L'Equipe' newspaper if he had ever thought of stopping Kubica rallying, Boullier said: "Not for one second. He could just as easily have been knocked over by a bus. Robert is a racer, he loves cars and he lives for nothing but racing. Competing is his essence. At 14 he slept in a kart factory because he loved racing. From the outset it was agreed among us that Robert would do rallies as well as F1. It was vital for him. His strength comes from that passion. I never thought about the risk. Motor sport is dangerous, but he loves it."
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.